LILIAN is providing background information on Mads Nissen's first prize picture and is commenting on the brutality the LGBT community has to face in Russia.
Who would give a law to lovers? Love is unto itself a higher law. Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
“It is an historic time for the image… the winning image needs to be aesthetic, to have impact, and to have the potential to become iconic. This photo is aesthetically powerful, and it has humanity.” ~ Michelle McNally, part of the World Press Award jury
What is it like to live with forbidden love in Russia?
In June 2013, an anti-gay law was adopted which bans the spreading of “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations” among minors as well as media organisations. This law makes it illegal to hold any gay pride events, speak in defense of gay rights, or voice that gay relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships. Parents can’t even tell their own children that it’s alright to be gay. Lesbians, gays, bisexuals or trangenders (LGBTs) are facing legal and social discrimination. Around 88 percent of Russia’s population has an anti-gay view and supports the anti-gay law according to an estimation made in June 2014 by the VTsIOM poll. LGBTs are attacked by a violent “hate crime” coming from religious and national conservative groups. This law leads to a sharp inscrease in anti-gay violence.
Mads Nissen has seen violent attacks from homophobic groups while being in Russia. The extent of these violent attacks is extreme : gays are being kidnapped and tortured for hours while being filmed. The material is afterwards released on social media. These assailants are often young ultra-nationalists, very religious or authoritarian with national socialistic views. They even use social media and dating websites to identify gay teenagers. Mads Nissen witnessed in Saint Peterburg an attack on Pavel Lebedev, a 23 year old man with homosexual orientation. It was just after the anti-gay law was released in June 2013. Pavel was asked aggressively if he was homosexual. After he disclosed his orientation, he was beaten up and insulted. Seeing such an act of hate and violence extremely shocked and horrified Mads Nissen and marked a turning point in his life. Being the witness, Mads Nissen felt his own human rights violated and felt the urge to respond. He then decided to make an in-depth investigation about homophobia in Russia.
Mads Nissen has documented the violence of the anti-gay attacks, the culprits hatred and the homosexuals oppression (see the joined photographs), but he felt that there was something missing. In an interwiev he said: “I realized my work is not about politics or religion, nor this new anti-gay law. It's just about two humans who are in love with each other. Two humans who are attracted to each other regardless of gender.”
Then he met Jon and Alex in Saint Petersburg and got invited to their home, where this picture was taken. Mads Nissen is a documentary photographer for the Danish daily newspaper Politiken born on the 17th of November 1979. He graduated in 2007 with a degree in photojournalism from The Danish School of journalism. He won the World Press Photo competition for the year 2014 in the category Contemporary Issues with his photograph of Jon and Alex. After he got the prize, he immediately called the couple to warn them to be precautious about negative reactions. Jon and Alex’s photograph is beating a huge amount of competition: 97,912 images were submitted to the World Press Picture by 5,692 press photographers, photojournalists, and documentary photographers from 131 countries. Mads Nissen’s subjectivity is shown in his pictures; it is clear that he supports the LGTBs rights and wants to achieve a counterforce to the oppression.
Power and Freedom of the press as a crucial part of democracy
Russia’s freedom of press is restricted due to the law introduced in June 2013. Most of Russian media won’t print this image. Alex and Jon’s photograph will be shown in Russia and St. Petersburg as part of the traveling World Press Photo exhibition, but visitors under 18 aren’t allowed.
From Russia, to Amsterdam, to Shanghai, to Johannesburg, this image is creating a debate about the rights of the LGBTs. This highlights the importance and the power of this photograph. Jon and Alex’s picture has won the World Press Award, but they have also received a prize of greater importance: the chance that their picture might have an impact in the world and in their country. The photograph encourages gay rights activists and gives them hope that someday they might not have to be burdened by oppression anymore. It has also become an iconic photo. The World Press Pictures all have the one main goal to affect visitor’s emotions and to raise their awareness about some world issues or events. I felt touched by the exhibition and I think that the photographers have really mastered their work. It felt like most of them spoke to us and told us their own story. This definitely shows the power of photography.
Why did I choose this picture?
The photograph has already won the first prize in the category Contemporary issues. I nevertheless decided to choose it as my world press picture award, because of the love it shows. During the exhibition, I saw pictures representing a great variety of themes. They showed sickness, fear, happiness, athletes’ success, pollution in China, death… as well as many other feelings and moments of deep meaning. This picture of Alex and Jon struck out by their love. Being the observer you are able to be part of it in a certain way. Mads Nissen has created a unique atmosphere by playing with the lights and shadows. The scene seems to be lit by candlelight and behind the drawn curtains lays Saint Petersburg. Mads Nissen masters the art of photography with the picture’s setting: its artistic style reminds the Baroque movement and brings the couple’s intimacy across. Alex and Jon’s bodies are in shadows, while one rests his hands on the other’s chest and stares at him lovingly, it is unclear where their embrace starts and ends. The two persons’ love is becoming one. I also chose this picture because it is a statement against the discrimination of homosexuals in Russia and all over the world. I believe that everybody has the right to love and to be loved no matter their sexual orientation. Therefore there is no law or organization that could possibly stop people from expressing their love for each other. There will be always people standing up for themselves, for their personality and their opinions in spite of the consequences it might bear with them. I think this photograph also reminds people that the liberty of expression isn’t ensured everywhere in the world and that some people are living in oppression. A law like the one that was established in Russia can only lead to an increase of violence and hate among the population. People tend to forget that we all live together and that love is essential in everyone’s life. While we live we should be kind to one and other and respect each other. I believe that we all are equal and that everyone should be treated the same. I am also shocked that Russia has this radical policy regarding homosexuals, while gay marriage has been legalized in the United States just five months ago. Mads Nissen shows in the joined photographs the violence homosexuals experience in Russia. I have to admit that I wasn’t aware of this brutality.