Gay Photographer Takes You Inside The NYC Homes Of Grindr Profiles

by Lawrence Ferber

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Saturday November 13, 2021

Home of a Grindr user in Flatbush, Brooklyn.
Home of a Grindr user in Flatbush, Brooklyn.  (Source:Hsiang-Hsi Lu)

The obsession with real estate and living spaces in New York bleeds into even Grindr hookups: "How much do you pay for your apartment?" is asked almost as frequently as "Are you on PrEP?," "How long do we have?," and "Got poppers?"

Yet gay photographer Hsiang-Hsi Lu took this fixation even further and deeper with his "Grindr Profiles" project, an interactive online map featuring the home interiors, blurred faces, and profile text of 195 people he met via the app during over a year.

Explaining his motivation and purpose in an accompanying, lengthy essay on the website, Lu wrote:

"The idea for this project was borne out of checking Grindr during my regular commuting between Manhattan and Brooklyn for the George Floyd protests in the early summer of 2020. From the thumbnail display, I noticed that each neighborhood had its own spatially bounded ecology. There was a group of fit, nearly identical men in their early 30s aggregated in Williamsburg, gatekeeping their circle; mismatched individuals with varied lifestyles juxtaposed in West Harlem; young creatives with "they/them" pronouns and Telfar bags on racks huddled in Bushwick. Social divides on Grindr were not solely based on racial demographics, but include a hybrid of fashion trends, physical appearance, word choice, home interiors, and the neighborhood a user resided in. I began thinking about how dating app users might reflect or even reshape spatial identity in a condensed, diverse city like New York."

Hsiang-Hsi Lu
Hsiang-Hsi Lu  (Source: Hsiang-Hsi Lu)

"I tried to keep it very analytical and just let people discover how complicated everyone is," Lu adds. "You can see the demographics in each neighborhood."

Participants from 38 neighborhoods in all five New York City boroughs — Manhattan, The Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island — ranged from a 19-year-old Columbia University student to a 75-year-old Tribeca resident, a handful of transgender participants, and numerous ethnic groups and class backgrounds. "Some put a lot of effort into their apartments," he adds. "I got a lot of inspiration from their homes."

Lu says the people who agreed to participate largely proved welcoming (a Canadian expat offered him a tasty marijuana cookie Lu later consumed at home), great conversationalists (a Harlemite "told me about the gay migration over the decades from the West Village to Harlem"), and genuinely invested in his project, although a few proved shocking (a hoarder) or unexpectedly solicitous, including a borderline #MeToo incident.

"I went to the Bronx near Fordham University and a guy told me to take off my pants," he recalls. "I said, 'No,' but he literally put his hand on my butt and grabbed it. It was scary and disturbing, but I'm still alive. And I got the photos!"

Hailing from Taoyuan, Taiwan, Lu moved to New York City in 2018 and earned an MPS degree in Fashion Photography at the School of Visual Arts. During the pandemic he grew bored, spending a lot of time online, where he discovered Chaturbate and other webcam sites. Yet, he was far more fascinated with people's living spaces, and would screenshot the empty rooms when their users would leave. The resulting project, "Cam Rooms," served as a gateway for "Grindr Profiles," which saw Lu raise the stakes and actually enter people's homes.

The home of a Grindr user in Astoria, Queens.
The home of a Grindr user in Astoria, Queens.  (Source: Hsiang-Hsi Lu)

To solicit participants, Lu's Grindr bio explicitly laid out his intentions, which read:

"I'm doing a photo project about ppl's lifestyles. No nudity, no identifiable face pic will be involved. Your real ID is confidential! Lmk if interested."

Later, he added incentives of coffee, a pack of cigarettes, a photoshoot, and a hug, but "surprisingly, not many people asked for incentives. And if people asked for money, they usually asked for hundreds, and I would ignore the request."

Based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, at the time, Lu started taking the subway to different neighborhoods where he would target and message locals. Besides rejections from those who declined to take part, he faced typical Grindr hazards of being ghosted ("I got ghosted a lot in Bushwick early on, but I also got a lot of apartments in Bushwick.") and meets falling through at the last minute. In one case, a subject's husband thought better of it and put the kibosh on Lu coming over.

The home of a Grindr user in Tribeca, Manhattan.
The home of a Grindr user in Tribeca, Manhattan.  (Source: Hsiang-Hsi Lu)

Lu did find a few surprisingly high-profile, established individuals happy to lend their blurred faces and spaces to the project, including a designer whose beauteous home was routinely hired out for professional photoshoots. "And there was a guy whose Instagram had a blue checkmark," Lu recalls. "I think he's a podcast host or something, so I'm not sure he's as well-known as a Kardashian. He has a lot of followers."

Yet some entire neighborhoods proved difficult, if not impossible, to find willing subjects in, including Manhattan's West Village, Brooklyn's trendy Bedford Avenue section of Williamsburg, and Bay Ridge.

"I tried to get more participants in the outskirts," he says, "but I guess people there live more privately with their families in housing complexes, so it's difficult to reach out to them. They would say, 'Hell no.' But I think I became more empathetic and more patient thanks to this project, because I got to see homes of people who live in radically different financial situations and standards of living. People had different habits and troubles, so I learned to be more understanding."

Although "Grindr Profiles" is complete for now (an update to chart the evolution of those neighborhoods down the line is possible, however), Lu concedes that his curiosity about how people live remains unsatiated.

"I live in the Lower East Side now, and sometimes I wander in the streets and stare inside people's windows," he admits. "I still get fascinated."

Grindr user, Staten Island, New York.
Grindr user, Staten Island, New York.  (Source: Hsiang-Hsi Lu)

Staten Island, New York.
Staten Island, New York.  (Source: Hsiang-Hsi Lu)

Grindr user in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Grindr user in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  (Source: Hsiang-Hsi Lu)

Home of Grindr user in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.
Home of Grindr user in Greenpoint, Brooklyn.  (Source: Hsiang-Hsi Lu)

Grinder user, Upper East Side, Manhattan.
Grinder user, Upper East Side, Manhattan.  (Source: Hsiang-Hsi Lu)

Home of Grindr user, Upper East Side, Manhattan.
Home of Grindr user, Upper East Side, Manhattan.  (Source: Hsiang-Hsi Lu)

Lawrence Ferber's travel and arts journalism has appeared in Passport Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, New York Post, Fodors.com and other publications. Based in NYC, he is also co-writer of the 2010 gay romcom BearCity and authored its 2013 novelization.