“It presents a worldwide contemporary issue relevant in all nations and cultures; it is an image that insists on showing love in spite of hate and offers a way of storytelling that believes intimacy is the key for our audience to really care. If that’s my contribution, I’m content.” PMH speaks to Mads Nissen about the image that won World Press Photo of the Year 2014.
The World Press Photo of the Year 2014 was awarded to Danish staff photographer Mads Nissen for his intimate depiction of gay couple Jonathan Jacques Louis, 21, and Alexander Semyonov, 25, in St. Petersburg, Russia.
In 2013, the Russian government passed a law criminalizing the dissemination of what it termed “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationships” to minors. Sexual minorities now face legal and social discrimination, harassment, and even violent hate-crime attacks from conservative religious and nationalistic groups. This photograph sends out a powerful message that love can triumph over adversity, not just in relation to issues about homosexuality, but all issues that affect minority communities: it has worldwide resonance. Here, Mads Nissen discusses the importance of the award in a global context.
From the series Homophobia in Russia by Mads Nissen
How was the series
constructed? How did you immerse yourself in the lives of the people
I was at a gay-pride event in St. Petersburg when I witnessed a young homosexual man being attacked just because he was gay. Seeing that really upset me, and I decided to dig deeper into this issue of homophobia in modern Russia. That incident changed something inside of me – from then on the story became personal to me. Even though I’m not Russian or gay, I felt a solidarity and empathy. I’m absolutely sure that the people in the LGBT community could sense that I was serious, and as my work was published and I kept going back to investigate deeper into the story, new doors opened and I was inspired to make new images.
What has life been like for Russia’s sexual minorities since the introduction of the anti-gay law banning propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations in 2013? What everyday hardships do they live with?
It’s a huge step backwards for human rights. Not only can you get arrested for speaking publicly about LGBT-rights or basic sexual education, but LGBT’s also risk losing their jobs, being bullied at school, kicked out of their family, harassed on the streets, condemned in church or the mass media, or violently attacked by militant-anti-gay-groups. It’s really not easy.
However, I have noticed a new generation of LGBT’s in Russia: a generation who knows about the rest of the world, and who are tired of bowing their heads and hiding. A generation who are willing to take the fight.
Before this award, how was the series received in Russia? Was it given much exposure?
I’ve experienced a huge interest in the story worldwide, only not from Russian mass media. I wish that wasn’t the case.
What impact do you hope the recognition of this photo, and more broadly your series Homophobia in Russia, will have on the outlook of Russian people, and indeed the wider world, towards the issue of LGBT rights?
To me this image is not just about homophobia in Russia. It’s an opportunity for all of us to look at ourselves, and ask if we are tolerant enough. I became a photographer to be able to tell important stories to the rest of the world. This is happening right now. From Russia, to Amsterdam, to Shanghai, to Johannesburg, this image is creating debate about the rights of the LGBTs. That makes me humble and proud.
How important is it that the winning image in a series about LGBT issues was a depiction of love rather than a depiction of hate?
It’s a very strong message that the jury sends out, not just to the photography community, but to the whole world. Personally, I would have definitely preferred this image to win rather than the more violent and oppressive pictures from the story. I was standing in Amsterdam looking at a wall with all the previous winners – from Vietnam and Tiananmen, to the many from wars in the Arab world. The award has a very strong and influential history – a visual history of mankind. I thought about my image in this context. It presents a worldwide contemporary issue relevant in all nations and cultures; it is an image that insists on showing love in spite of hate and offers a way of storytelling that believes intimacy is the key for our audience to really care. If that’s my contribution, I’m content.
Where are Jon and Alex now? How have they responded to being the subjects in the World Press Photo of the Year?
One of the first things I did after getting the phone call was to reach out to them – share the good news, but also prepare them that there might be some negative reactions. We are regularly in contact and so far all is good.
How do you respond to winning World Press Photo of the Year? What are your immediate, and future, plans?
This prize comes with a responsibility. It’s a once in a life time opportunity for me to share this issue with the rest of the world. Then there will be openings, workshops, talks and other events. Next year I can get back to work. I have one important assignment coming up – two Russian friends are coming to get married in Denmark this spring – and I’ve promised to be their wedding photographer.
To learn more about Mads Nissen visit his profile.