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The Price You Pay To Come Out In Russia
1 Mar 2016 7:14 AM
Editor's note: This story contains sensitive language and content that some readers may find upsetting.
“Are you a faggot?” the man screams. “Are you a fucking faggot?”
It’s June 2013, a warm summer's day in the heart of Saint Petersburg, Russia. Mads Nissen is stood with Pavel Lebedev, a 23-year-old with a mohawk and orange shirt, leading him through the crowd.
The man, not much older than Pavel, with a close buzzcut and sports clothes, screams again. Pavel turns to him and calmly answers the question: “Yes, I am a homosexual.”
Pavel doesn’t finish the sentence before the first punch lands. The young man in the sports clothes had wanted Pavel to answer before he attacked.
Others pile in, punching, kicking and spitting at Pavel as Nissen lifts his camera.
The previous day, when they had first met, Pavel told Nissen what it was like – the price he had to pay to come out in Russia. Pavel and the small community of openly gay men and women in Saint Petersburg were attempting to protest new legislation banning "propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations."
That month, the State Duma unanimously passed a law that effectively made it illegal to hold any gay pride events, speak in defense of gay rights, or say that gay relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships, anywhere in Russia. “Pavel is hated and feared,” Nissen says now, “because he is attracted to men and not women.”
Mads Nissen, a 36-year-old, Copenhagen-based father of four-month-old baby Astrid and three-year-old Thor (named after the God of Thunder), has documented such state-sponsored homophobia in Russia for over three years.
Becoming a father, he says, made him connect to the story in a very personal way. “How would I respond if my son or daughter were gay?" he asks. "I wanted to understand how I think about sexuality, how I look at gay people.”
The depth of homophobia in Russia – how embedded it is in civil society and the judicial process – is shocking. “I’ve seen violent attacks from homophobic groups that kidnap gay people and torture them for hours, while filming it all to share it on social media,” he says. “I have photographed lesbian couples who fear their children might one day be forcibly removed from them. I’ve been inside the court where people are sentenced under the anti-gay law.”
That connection, and the experience of spending time with Pavel and his friends, helped Nissen realise the core of his photography. That this series was not about politics, or gender, or sexual orientation. It was a story of love; how we feel it, how we express it, what we’re willing to do for it.
“Sometimes you meet someone, and no one is going to tell you otherwise,” he says. “You stay with them, come what may.
“No matter how people are told to live, no matter what laws are passed, those feelings exist, and they’re unstoppable, unbreakable.”
Nissen’s series was fraught with risk – for militant homophobic groups operate openly in Russia. “I met with militant homophobes in a parking lot in Moscow," he says. "I knew their faces from the videos where they catch and torture gay people – there are more than one hundred online. One of them showed me a loaded gun and asked me how I feel about gay people. I didn’t know what to say.”
Nissen has become used to people assuming, as a result of this series, that he himself is gay. “I’m not,” he says, “but I can relate to desire, and I can relate to love.”
That willingness to connect led to one of the most iconic images of the last few years; an image which won the World Press Photo of the Year award in 2014. Nissen was in a bar with Jon, 21, and Alex, 25, friends of Pavel’s, and an openly gay couple. The three drank together and talked.
The single thing Nissen values in a photograph is closeness. Before he stepped on a land-mine, war photographer Robert Capa was quoted as saying: “If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough.”
“I always felt that was a cliché, macho comment from Capo,” Nissen says. “But maybe I wasn’t fair to him. Maybe we need to be emotionally close to our photographs. I realised, if I am not moved, touched, happy or angry when I take a picture, then it does not mean very much to me.”
So, in that bar with Jon and Alex, as Nissen told them what he wanted from his photography, so they made their way to Jon and Alex’s flat. As the couple lay on their bed together, started to take off their clothes, to kiss and hold each other, so Nissen photographed. “Maybe it was because of the beer, but I just went with my instinct,” Nissen says. “I can’t actually remember taking the picture."
In his acceptance speech at the World Press Photo Awards, Nissen addressed the gay community in Russia. “They want to humiliate you,” he said. “But to me, you are the brave. They want to make you look weak. But I believe only the strongest dare to be vulnerable.
“When they hate,” he said, “my answer is more love. When they oppress – my answer is more freedom.
“When they say: ‘Protect the children against gay propaganda,’ I say: ‘Take it easy, it doesn’t work like that. I spent two hours in a gay bedroom and I’m still straight.’ What are they scared of?” www.madsnissen.com