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Where Love Is Illegal

July 04, 2016
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#LGBT, #LGBTIQ, #New Zealand, #Nigeria, #photography, #Robin Hammond, #Uganda
located:Nigeria, Uganda
by:Vanessa Ellingham
Robin Hammond is a World Press Photo prize-winning photographer from New Zealand. His latest body of work, Where Love Is Illegal, documents LGBT people living in countries where their sexuality is a crime.

The project has also become an online platform where LGBT people around the world can submit their stories of identity and survival. The mix of Hammond’s professional polaroids tucked in between selfies and personal stories from all over the globe make a powerful case for LGBT rights.

How did Where Love Is Illegal begin?

The vast majority of my work focuses on human rights issues and over the last 10 years a lot of that work has been in Africa. In that time I’ve seen what I think is a rising level of transphobia on the continent and I think that’s a reaction towards a rising visibility of LGBT rights in the world. So in conservative countries, people have reacted towards that, and in some cases built up hate for the LGBT communities within their own countries.

I really feel that a big part of my work is about trying to make abstract human rights issues relatable and humanise them through personal stories. So when I saw that in Africa we hardly ever saw stories from survivors themselves, I thought that was a way I could contribute.

I was in Lagos, Nigeria, and I heard about five young men who were arrested in the north of the country. They were in jail, awaiting trial, and they were facing the death penalty because they had committed gay acts. So I wanted to go and see them. By the time I got there, fortunately they had been released from prison and their case had been dismissed – they had been in prison for 40 days, they were tortured in jail, they were lashed.

As they were leaving the court, the community gathered around the court because they were dissatisfied with the case being dismissed. They gathered with rocks intending to stone the men to death. So the men had to hide in the jail where they had just been tortured, because their place of torture was now a sanctuary for them, until the crowd dispersed and they were able to sneak out. But when they went to go home, their families kicked them out and ostracised them.

I was really moved by their stories, and I thought, of course I knew about homophobia and transphobia, and I was aware of this gaining strength, but it became real for me when I heard their stories.

That’s where it began. I thought: I’m so moved by these stories, I’m sure other people will be too.

So you created this platform where not only are you telling people’s stories but you’re also enabling them to tell their own stories. Why is that important?

I think that for many of these people they’ve never had the opportunity to be able to control how they’re seen or heard. I really wanted these stories to be coming from them and not just be about them.

Sometimes I question our right in the media to speak for other people. I thought, why not give them the opportunity to speak for themselves? Why not just provide the platform. Be a middleman, to give them the opportunity to amplify their voices.

So they write their own stories, but what we – myself and the volunteers – also wanted to do was have the platform be open so anyone can share their story. So we have lots of people from around the world sharing their stories on the platform as well.

My images are identifiable on there because they have this polaroid border, but my pictures are mixed with other people’s selfies.

When you are the photographer, how are you convincing people that their stories should be heard? Especially when they know they’re going to face discrimination from their society or even from their own family.

It was really important that we went through a process of making sure that they were very clear about where these photos might appear. I had to explain that despite the fact that initially the photos would mostly appear in Western media, because of the Internet, they could possibly make it back to their own country.

I said if you feel that this is going to put you in danger, either don’t participate, or let’s do it in a way so that people can’t identify you. And a lot chose to. The only way it was going to be possible was if I handed over the control to them. I was happy for it to be on their terms. So many people covered their faces. Some of them, like Bujay in one image, covering his face. Bujay isn’t his real name. And then you have B, and D&O, and D&Q, and all these people who use their initial or change their name. And often we say a country as opposed to a city or a region.

When people actually wanted their faces shown, I think it was because they felt that it was an act that would defy those people who persecuted them. For some of them it was like their first bit of activism.

Some people would say that publishing these photos and sharing people’s stories is already doing quite a lot to raise awareness and promote change. What made you want to go a step further and investigate fundraising?

I’ve been a photographer and photojournalist for 15 years and I always wanted my work to have an impact. For a long time I thought that raising awareness was a form of making change happen. But then there were a lot of stories that I covered where I would raise awareness and then nothing would happen. I became kind of obsessed about how can we find measurable impact. Raising money, a dollar amount, is measurable.

When I went to many of these countries, there were these very small, grassroots LGBT organisations and many of them do good work and try really hard but they don’t have the resources to be as effective as they could be. So I thought ok, here’s a goal. Why don’t we use these stories to raise money for those groups who are doing this good work?

We raised a bunch of money for a group in South Africa that helps with LGBT refugees, a group in Uganda that is fighting homophobic attitudes and a small group of two people in northern Nigeria – nothing else like it exists there – who are trying to start a nongovernmental organisation to help gay men.

The group in northern Nigeria contacted us to say that there were these four young guys in prison awaiting trial but they don’t have enough money for bail. I knew what would be going on in prison for those guys. I knew that they would be being tortured and beaten on a daily basis.

So we put a call out on Instagram, where we now have 130,000 followers. We said we need to raise some money to free these guys. And then within 24 hours we had the money, we were able to send it and get them our of prison and then hire some lawyers. And then they got their case dismissed.

I spent many years very frustrated with what I thought was going to be change-making work not making any change. So it was very satisfying to see very concrete action and to be making a difference.

But I hope just raising these people’s voices is a useful contribution, because while there are 780 million people living in countries where same-sex relationships are legal, there are 2.8 billion people living in countries where consensual, same-sex acts are a crime. So that’s like half the world.

We live in these relatively liberal bubbles and many of us think equality or equal rights is marching in a positive direction. But in the vast majority of the world it’s not like that at all. And in some parts it’s getting worse.

In those parts of the world there’s this prevailing narrative that to be LGBT is somehow unholy, unnatural or immoral. And in those environments, those who are discriminated against don’t have a voice. The only narrative is that LGBT is an attack on society, or is against God or some sort of evil act. So we want to be able to create a narrative that is an alternative to that.

Vanessa Ellingham interviewed Robin Hammond at the Jarvis Dooney gallery in Berlin, where the exhibition is showing until July 16. The gallery donated the space for free, with all proceeds going back into the project.

This interview has been condensed.

Article written by:
Vanessa Ellingham
Nigeria Uganda
One of Robin Hammond\'s photographs from the series Where Love Is Illegal.
One of Robin Hammond's photographs from the series Where Love Is Illegal.
The project has also become an online platform where LGBT people around the world can submit their stories of identity and survival.
There are 2.8 billion people living in countries where consensual, same-sex acts are a crime. So that’s like half the world.
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