Documentary

Mads Nissen’s Homophobia in Russia wins World Press Photo of the Year

Jonathan Jacques Louis, 21, and Alexander Semyonov, 25, in Homophobia in Russia © Mads Nissen, courtesy of Scanpix / Panos Pictures, and World Press Photo

World Press Photo announces winner: "Today, terrorists use graphic images for propaganda. We have to respond with something more subtle, intense and thoughtful"

Mads Nissen, a staff photographer for the Danish daily newspaper Politiken, has won the World Press Photo of the Year 2015 for an intimate image of Jon and Alex, two gay men in St Petersburg, Russia.

Life for lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) people is becoming increasingly fraught in Russia in the wake of aggressively prohibitive laws for “non-traditional sexual practises.”

In the run-up to the Sochi Winter Olympics, Russian President Putin notoriously said of gay citizens in Russia: “One can feel calm and at ease. Just leave kids alone, please.”

Sexual minorities face legal and social discrimination, harassment, and even violent hate-crime attacks from conservative religious and nationalistic groups. Nissen, who is represented by Panos Pictures, spent more than a year with gay pride activists groups across Russia as they rallied for their civil liberties under tyrannical new laws and a rising tide of extremist homophobia.

The winning picture is part of a larger project by Nissen called Homophobia in Russia, which was shot for Scanpix and selected by the jury of the 58th annual World Press Photo contest. The picture won out of 97,912 images submitted by 5692 press photographers.

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Speaking to BJP last August, referring to the story, Nissen said: “As a photographer, but also just as a human being, you notice a lot of changes or tendencies in society that are difficult to ignore, even though they can be quite hard to identify.

“In the past I’ve worked as an activist for grassroots organisations, and came across some militant, hardcore, radical left-wing groups. I remember they all had the same dress code. I reflected a lot on how the group worked, and it didn’t seem related to politics. It was more a matter of culture and identity. What you wear, how you project yourself – that’s a key thing for a photographer to understand.”

Mads’ story was largely self-funded, taken on his own time between commissioned work. He first went to Russia on assignment for Scanpix. He spent time with a friend, an activist in the Gay Pride community, who was attacked in front of Mads after he kissed his boyfriend goodbye. The event inspired Mads to pursue the series, and he returned to Russia again and again.

Nissen photographed gay pride rallies in St Petersburg, capturing activist Kiriee Fedorov, 21, who was beaten by national-conservative extremists. Nissen was inches away from Fedorov as he and other activists sought cover behind the police. The picture shows him bloody and delirious after being hit by stones thrown by the crowd. The rally was declared illegal under the law banning “gay propaganda”, and Fedorov and the other LGBT activists were later arrested.

The rally followed a new law that outlawed the dissemination among minors of “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations”.

“It is essential to put in place measures that provide for the intellectual, moral and mental well-being of children, including a ban on any activities aimed at popularising homosexuality… including instilling distorted ideas that society places an equal value on traditional and nontraditional sexual relations,” the law states.

Jury chair Michele McNally, director of photography and assistant managing editor of The New York Times, describes Nissen as ‘the real thing. ‘

She tells BJP: “It’s a picture of love and hate. It’s not a typical press image, but it’s an image that will affect millions of people across dozens of countries over the world. In a lot of countries, being gay is a very dangerous thing to be. In certain areas, they’re persecuted. But the picture speaks to me purely of love.

“Mads is a storyteller, and he’s deeply committed to that. This is a very personal story to him. He was spending time with a friend who, I understand, kissed his boyfriend goodbye and was punched in the face by someone who happened to be walking by. Mads witnessed it and realised it was a story. He pursued it and pursued it and pursued it. It’s an absolute pleasure to see that commitment and compassion and thoughtfulness. He is very humble, and it’s easy to see how he was capable of gaining that intimacy. This photo has the potential to become iconic.”

World Press Photo jury member Alessia Glaviano, Senior Photo Editor of Vogue Italia, says: “Today, terrorists use graphic images for propaganda. We have to respond with something more subtle, intense and thoughtful. The photo has a message about love being an answer in the context of all that is going on in the world. It is about love as a global issue, in a way that transcends homosexuality. It sends out a strong message to the world, not just about homosexuality, but about equality, about gender, about being black or white, about all of the issues related to minorities.”

While the photography theorist David Campbell, also a jury member, says: “This is a visually great photo about an important political issue in Russia and a global human rights issue. It is as newsworthy as any other photo that could have been chosen.”

Simon Bainbridge, editor of BJP, says of Nissen: “Mads is one of the new school of Danish photojournalists who started breaking through around 15 years ago. He was at the forefront of a new approach, which sought to get in very close, with highly emotive and descriptive images that have much less distance than a lot of photojournalism. It owes much more to personal documentary. Shooting for Politiken, Mads is lucky to work for a great Danish newspaper that really values photography and has a wonderful programme for bringing in students on long-term apprenticeships.”

See more of Mads’ work at madsnissen.com

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