15 July 2015

Mads Nissen

15 July 2015 - Written by Simon Hall

“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 seriesconstructed? How did you immerse yourself in the lives of the peopleyou photographed

I was at a gay-prideevent in St. Petersburg when I witnessed a young homosexual man beingattacked just because he was gay. Seeing that really upset me, and Idecided to dig deeper into this issue of homophobia in modern Russia.That incident changed something inside of me – from then on thestory became personal to me. Even though I’m not Russian or gay, Ifelt a solidarity and empathy. I’m absolutely sure that the peoplein the LGBT community could sense that I was serious, and as my workwas published and I kept going back to investigate deeper into thestory, new doors opened and I was inspired to make new images.

What has life beenlike for Russia’s sexual minorities since the introduction of theanti-gay law banning propaganda of non-traditional sexual relationsin 2013? What everyday hardships do they live with?

It’s a huge stepbackwards for human rights. Not only can you get arrested forspeaking publicly about LGBT-rights or basic sexual education, butLGBT’s also risk losing their jobs, being bullied at school, kickedout of their family, harassed on the streets, condemned in church orthe mass media, or violently attacked by militant-anti-gay-groups.It’s really not easy.

However, I have noticed anew generation of LGBT’s in Russia: a generation who knows aboutthe rest of the world, and who are tired of bowing their heads andhiding. 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 ahuge interest in the story worldwide, only not from Russian massmedia. I wish that wasn’t the case.

What impact do youhope the recognition of this photo, and more broadly your seriesHomophobia in Russia, will have on the outlook of Russian people, andindeed the wider world, towards the issue of LGBT rights?

To me this image is not just abouthomophobia in Russia. It’s an opportunity for all of us to look atourselves, and ask if we are tolerant enough. I became a photographerto be able to tell important stories to the rest of the world. Thisis happening right now. From Russia, to Amsterdam, to Shanghai, toJohannesburg, this image is creating debate about the rights of theLGBTs. That makes me humble and proud.

How important is it that thewinning image in a series about LGBT issues was a depiction of loverather than a depiction of hate?

It’s a very strong message thatthe jury sends out, not just to the photography community, but to thewhole world. Personally, I would have definitely preferred this imageto win rather than the more violent and oppressive pictures from thestory. I was standing in Amsterdam looking at a wall with all theprevious winners – from Vietnam and Tiananmen, to the many fromwars in the Arab world. The award has a very strong and influentialhistory – a visual history of mankind. I thought about my image inthis context. It presents a worldwide contemporary issue relevant inall nations and cultures; it is an image that insists on showing lovein spite of hate and offers a way of storytelling that believesintimacy is the key for our audience to really care. If that’s mycontribution, I’m content.

Where are Jon and Alex now? Howhave they responded to being the subjects in the World Press Photoof the Year?

One of the first things I didafter getting the phone call was to reach out to them – share thegood news, but also prepare them that there might be some negativereactions. We are regularly in contact and so far all is good.

How do you respond to winningWorld Press Photo of the Year? What are your immediate, and future,plans?

This prize comes with a responsibility. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to share this issue with the rest of theworld. Then there will be openings, workshops, talks and otherevents. Next year I can get back to work. I have one importantassignment coming up – two Russian friends are coming to getmarried in Denmark this spring – and I’ve promised to be theirwedding photographer.

To learn more about Mads Nissen visit his profile.

Written by

Simon Hall

Reading time

5 minutes