powerful portraits of lgbti survivors in countries where same-sex love is illegal
The photo and storytelling platform Where Love Is Illegal aims to humanize the fight for LGBTI rights around the world.
On assignment in Nigeria in 2014, Robin Hammond, an award-winning photojournalist who has worked in Africa for over 15 years, met five young gay men who had been imprisoned, flogged, and threatened with the death penalty because of their sexuality. While the charges had been dropped, the men were terrified. Hammond explained to them that, as a photojournalist, he'd like to tell their story. "They met me in a hotel room because they were so were deeply afraid. Hearing their stories about torture and abuse, what struck me was that those physical scars would heal but what really hurt them was that they were completely ostracized by their families."
The men explained the danger a photograph could pose in exposing them to further persecution. "So I really had to let them tell their story on their own terms," Hammond says. "And their terms were that I not show their faces in the photographs or use their names." Those images became the first portraits in the photo and story-sharing platform Where Love Is Illegal, a project that aims to change the narrative surrounding LGBTI rights by encouraging survivors of discrimination to speak out and be seen. The website now includes stories and images of people in Malaysia, Cameroon, Israel, America, China, Uganda, and India — survivors of discrimination everywhere.
"Statistics about gay rights for people around the world are shocking," says Hammond. More than 2.8 billion people are living in countries where consensual homosexual sex is considered a crime, he tells me. "But when you hear somebody's personal story and see their picture, you feel an emotional connection — that's what, for me anyway, persuades you to want to try and make a difference."
How did this project come to be?
During my time in Africa, I became aware of the rising homophobia and transphobia in parts of the continent. The more I researched and the more I understood, the more I realized that so much of the conversation about LGBTI rights is centered on the despicable people who make homophobic statements or try to push through homophobic laws. Very rarely did we really hear from the people who are the survivors of the discrimination.
A big part of my work is trying to humanize these human rights issues, which can otherwise seem quite abstract. I wanted to meet the people who I had heard about and find a way to get their voices heard.
I photographed these people and asked them to tell their stories on their own terms. And the more I did it, the more I let go of control of the storytelling process. The making of the photograph became collaborative and we would talk about how they wanted to be represented. I had each person write their story so that the words on the website are from them and not about them. For many of them, it's the first time they get to have control over how they're seen and heard.
How did the project expand to become global?
I had this idea that discrimination really thrives in areas where survivors of bigotry are silenced. The only narrative in this case is that [LGBTI people] are unnatural or immoral. And the saddest part is that many people who are from the LGBTI community in those areas believe that narrative themselves because that's all they've heard. This is a chance to get some of the stories out there, and social media has become a really key way to reach the widest audience possible.
How did you convince people to speak to you in the face of discrimination?
I worked mostly through local non-government organizations. Even in countries where it's very dangerous to be openly gay or transgender, more often than not there are LGBT organizations — even if they can't label themselves as such. It was really important that I had a very close working relationship with these people because these are the people that would allow me access. Plus, I needed guidance myself.
Did some people you spoke with choose not to be involved?
Yes, but more often than not they agreed. Every person had different conditions. Interestingly, in some of the countries that you'd expect to be most difficult, like Uganda, those survivors of discrimination were actually more open — because they're in a country where they've been outed already.
There was a campaign in the newspapers in Uganda to track down younger men, find them on social media, and post their pictures in the newspaper. So a lot of these guys are like, "Actually, no, fuck it. I'm out, I've been forced out, and now's my chance to tell my story my way."
The project also has a fundraising element — where do those funds go?
I've been a photojournalist for 15 years and I'm very frustrated to find that sometimes raising awareness doesn't actually make change happen. So I started an organization on the back of the LGBTI work called Witness Change. There are three organizations — one in Uganda, one in Nigeria, and one in South Africa — that we're trying to raise money for. They're fighting really hard but they just don't have the resources to be as effective as they could be.
What can people do to help?
Just share these stories. It's an incredibly courageous act for someone to open themselves up to the world — they need support. We would also love people to support organizations around the world. The International Lesbian Gay Association is the biggest organization, and if people go onto the ILGA site, they can see that there's probably an organization in their area, or an area they have a relationship with. And if people go on our site and donate, the money goes to the three organizations that we're trying to help out.
What are some of the successes you've witnessed since starting the project?
A few months ago, we had an urgent call from one of the groups we're supporting saying that four young men had been arrested in Nigeria, and that they couldn't afford bail. I knew what was going on in prison for them, that they would be tortured and beaten, so we made a quick post on Instagram and people gave their support. Within 24 hours we managed to raise money for bail, and the court case was dismissed. It wasn't a large amount of money, but the fact that people from around the world saw that there was an urgent need and were able to help was really gratifying. We'd like to do that more often.
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Robin Hammond