The Room Where it Happens

How pandemic sex-cam browsing led one photographer to the homes of Grindr guys

A couple of blocks east from Manhattan’s Empire State Building in the neighborhood known as Murray Hill, 25-year-old Taiwan-born photographer Hsiang-Hsi Lu fires off a Grindr message.

“He’s Taiwanese!” Lu remarks with a tinge of pleasant surprise about the 20-something recipient, perhaps hopeful that their shared heritage may garner a positive response and invitation to connect. But Lu doesn’t want a date, hookup, LTR or “plug” — he wants to shoot photos of the guy’s apartment.

Photo by Hsiang-Hsi Lu

“Grindr Profiles” is the working title of Lu’s latest art project: photographing the living spaces of people — mostly cisgender male, but all gender identities are game — he meets through Grindr and accompanying the image with the occupant’s blurred face photo and respective profile text. (Lu’s own reads: “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.”) A sampling of his 80-plus entries to date are viewable on his Instagram account, although he ultimately plans to create an online interactive map of NYC and its boroughs including Queens, Brooklyn, The Bronx and Staten Island, with subjects and interiors from each neighborhood.

“I still haven’t been to most of the neighborhoods, so it will take at least a half year to finish this project,” he says. “I’m generally a curious person, so I’m trying to understand humans through the digital world, and that’s why I document people and collect data from Grindr and turn it into an index. So we can see the slight differences.”

Self photo by Hsiang-Hsi Lu

Although the openly gay Lu admits to more traditional sorts of experience with Grindr during his college years, it was during the COVID-19 lockdown last year that he got bored and redownloaded the app. Also during this time, Lu tumbled down the rabbit hole of live webcam shows on Chaturbate, which inspired an antecedent to “Grindr Profiles” titled “Cam Rooms.” “I found their living environments very fascinating,” he confesses, “so I started screenshotting when they went out of the room. It helped me develop my current project. But “Grindr Profiles” has more weight, is more independent and fully controlled.”

Raised in Taoyuan, Taiwan (just outside Taipei), Lu moved to New York in 2018 and earned an MPS degree in fashion photography at the School of Visual Arts. Inspired by the work of artist Hans Haacke and early Dan Graham, and disenchanted with fashion photography, Lu launched “Grindr Profiles” in August 2020.

Based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, he started fishing for subjects locally, messaging people in adjacent neighborhoods and scoring sessions in Bedstuy, Crown Heights and Bushwick. Spending around 30 minutes on each photo shoot (longer if the subject is chatty), he later traveled to different parts of NY, planting himself in a public park, store or subway station to message and respond, targeting a wide variety of demographics.

He admits it’s been challenging finding willing subjects in certain neighborhoods, notably the posh West Village, trendy Bedford Street section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and Chinatowns of lower Manhattan, Brooklyn and Flushing Queens (yes, NY boasts three distinct Chinatowns). “They’re a little more conservative,” he muses. “I didn’t meet any in person for now, so I don’t know their situations, but I assume probably because of their family situations.”

Photo by Hsiang-Hsi Lu

Although some Grindr users are incredulous at first — “people say, ‘Why are you asking me this question?’ and some ask for money, but I’ll generally say I can offer you lunch or something” — Lu has also dealt with the typical Grindr trappings of receiving unsolicited dick pics (which he ignores), an encounter with a horny subject who didn’t really care about the project (“he worked in the medical field and just wanted to have sex, but we ended up just chatting, so it’s fine”), and realizing he entered a home that he wanted to flee almost immediately.

“Yes, in Staten Island,” Lu recalls. “He was like a hoarder and his room was packed with unnecessary stuff and his dog slept in a pile of trash. It was very smelly, and he used foil to block his windows to prevent people from seeing in. That was very intense. He was an OK person, but his lifestyle was kind of horrible!”

Photo by Hsiang-Hsi Lu
Photo by Hsiang-Hsi Lu

Conversely, Lu has also been welcomed into a few exemplary, literally fashion spread-worthy spaces by well-known designers and artists, including the Ft. Greene, Brooklyn house of an interior designer that is routinely rented out for photoshoots. “But I’m trying to keep it balanced,” Lu emphasizes, “because that’s not how most people live. I try to get people from the top to bottom, so you can see their actual worlds.”

Winding things up in Murray Hill, Lu’s Grindr lights up with a response from the 20-something, and they exchange another message.

Well? A Murray Hill success?

“He said no,” Lu replies. “That’s common. I don’t take it personally.”

Photo by Hsiang-Hsi Lu
NY-raised entertainment and travel journalist Lawrence Ferber has contributed to publications including Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine, National Geographic Traveler, The Advocate, NewNowNext, The NY Post and TripSavvy. He also co-wrote/co-created the 2010 gay romcom "BearCity" and authored its 2013 novelization.