Awards, Documentary, News

Mads Nissen – in his own words

From the series Homophobia in Russia © Mads Nissen, courtesy Scanpix / Panos Pictures / World Press Photo

"We ended up back at Alex’s apartment, they did their thing, and I was a witness." Mads Nissen recounts how the Best News Photo of the year was created

I met a gay guy. He was a gentle, soft young man in his early twenties. We met in a bar and we talked about his life. Suddenly, another young guy very aggressively got into his face and asked him if he was a faggot. And my friend just very gently answered him: “Yes, I’m a homosexual.” So the guy just jumps right in and starts punching him.

I was speechless. You read about it, you talk about it. But seeing homophobia right in front of you, and seeing a modern country openly attacking someone for being gay… I didn’t know whether to cry or get into the fight.

I started to document the different aspects of homophobia in Russia. I met men who pretend to seduce gay men, capture them and torture them on video before putting it online – and there’s more than a hundred of these videos. I photographed a young lesbian couple who have three children and are facing up to losing them, just because they’re gay. I photographed the leaders of the church. I’ve photographed a young guy who had lost his eye after a homophobic attack.

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I realised the core of this story is about love. It’s like a modern-day Romeo and Juliet. It’s a question about being with the one you want to love, and staying with someone come what may. Sometimes you meet someone, and no one is going to tell you otherwise. There’s a desire there, and no matter how you raise your child, no matter what laws you implement, that desire is too deep. You can’t just take it away.

I met two young men, Jon and Alex, in a bar. It was a lovely May evening in St Petersburg. We drank a lot of beer and we talked about our lives a lot, and I told them I wanted to photograph them together. We ended up back at Alex’s apartment, they did their thing, and I was a witness.

I’m not gay – some people think I am, but I’m not. I think I’d know by now. But I can relate to desire. And I can relate to love. I wanted to feel it as they feel it. When I was there in the flat – and maybe it was because of the beer – I was able to not rationalise and just go with my instinct. The whole night is a bit blurry for me, to be honest. I can’t actually remember taking this picture.

This story is a critique of homophobia in Russia. But it’s more than that. All societies have homophobia. I wanted to understand how I think about it, how I look at gay people. I have a young son; we called him Thor, the God of thunder. How would I respond if he told me he was gay? So the story was personal for me. But I also think it’s the frontline of human rights now. To my knowledge, there isn’t a single religion that is tolerant of homosexuality. Not even the Dalai Lama. Why are they scared?