Radical portraits of LGBTQI+ people around the world

Radical portraits of LGBTQI+ people around the world

Robin Hammond's polaroid series highlights queer people in countries where their identities are criminalised. The results speak to experiences of discrimination and violence, but also perseverance and hope.

In 2014, photographer Robin Hammond was living and working in the Nigerian capital of Lagos when he heard a tragic story that caught his attention. A group of five men in the north of the country had been arrested for engaging in homosexual acts before being detained and tortured.

“I had been working in Sub-Saharan Africa since about 2007, and I was very much aware in those years of this rising tide of homophobia and transphobia on the continent,” Hammond explains. “[These men] had just been released, so I went up from Lagos to meet them.”

When he sat down with them, he heard their accounts of torture, being publicly lashed, and how they had to hide as protestors called for them to be stoned to death. They were keen for him to tell their story and raise awareness for their cause, but when he took out his camera to take pictures of them, the tone shifted.

“It was really challenging because they were really afraid,” Hammond says. “They said: ‘Look, you can tell our story but there’s no way you can photograph us’.”

Photo: Robin Hammond

As a photographer and visual storyteller, he realised that he needed to find a compromise that everyone would be comfortable with, so drew for a camera that he wasn’t expecting to need. “I was photographing at the time with a large format polaroid camera, and I said: ‘Hey, why don’t we use this – I’ll take the photograph in the way you want, I give you the polaroid and, if you’re comfortable with it you can give it back to me,’” he explains. They agreed, Hammond took the photograph, and after waiting a minute or two for it to develop they handed it back to him.

This would become Hammond's way of photographing others in comparable positions. From then until 2019, he has travelled across the world to several countries – from Cameroon to Malaysia, via Russia – where there are laws criminalising the activity or existence of LGBTQI+ people. In each situation, he would repeat the same process – take someone's picture, show it to them and ask if he could keep the final result. “It started this process, which became very collaborative from a safeguarding point of view,” he says. “Folks weren’t going to contribute to this story if they thought it was going to put them in danger."

A number of the polaroid portraits have been collected and presented in Hammond's new photobook, Where Love Is Illegal. Invited into the homes of LGBTQI+ people, who often had to hide and bury their identities, Hammond encouraged them to dress and express themselves how they wanted, before giving them the final say on whether they wanted to show the world.

The pictures are intimate, tender and beautiful, but filled with tension. Behind each image is the knowledge that so many people and communities live in fear of being fully able to express themselves, lest they could face imprisonment – or, in extreme cases, the death penalty. However, the images also speak to the resilience of LGBTQ+ communities all over the world, no matter how visible they might be. “Wherever you go, there’s queer folks,” Hammond says. “It doesn’t matter how much you deny it, and as much as there are folks who try to stomp out this scourge of homosexuality – gay folks and queer folks around the world persevere.”

Kenya, October 27. Tasha, 21, a Ugandan refugee living in Nairobi and supported by Nature Network – a Nairobi-based organisation providing LGBTQIA+ refugees in Kenya with support through safe temporary housing, health services, food and security. Tasha is a transgender woman who presents as female. Because of this she is often targeted and does not often leave the apartment where she lives. “As a transgender, I’m always indoors. Me, I never move out. I’ve never enjoyed my life here in Nairobi, that is what I have to tell you. Because from Monday to Monday, from January to January, I’m always indoors. I only move out if it’s really important, because I’m scared for my life. Being in the same place, same house, same room – it really bothers your mind. You feel like you’re being tortured in a way, so you’re not free to do what you want. At times you feel like you wanna take poison.” Tasha explains how many Ugandan refugees end up in sex work to be able to afford food and shelter. “I don’t wanna lose my life. I’m still young. I still have a future out there. I wanna do something for myself. I wanna stand out for other LGBTI people.” Photo: Robin Hammond / NOOR for Witness Change

Of course, it’s not only laws and authorities that can put LGBTQ+ people in danger. “There’s threats from police and such,” Hammond says. “But these laws also give permission to people who are homophobic or transphobic to take the law into their own hands.” This applies even to countries with progressive attitudes, where protections for queer people are enshrined in law.

“We should also caveat that it’s not just in countries that have legal sanction where people face homophobia and transphobia,” he continues. “And I think while it’s really, really terrible to see states punish people, from the folks I’ve met the greatest pain inflicted on them is when it comes from their families – the people who they trust and love the most can often be the most discriminatory."

Kathmandu, Nepal, November 2018: A posed portrait of 36-year-old transgender woman Sunita Thing with her 34-year-old heterosexual husband Shankar Koirala and their sons Sudip Thing, 13, and Dipesh Thing, 10. At 12 years-old Sunita, from a poor rural family, was sent from her village to Kathmandu to be a domestic worker. She knew she was different and wondered why, but knew no better than to obey her father when, at 17-years-old, she was asked to marry a woman. It didn’t feel right to her – so much so that she tried to kill herself. Soon her first child was born, and then a second. She had started to become aware of the LGBTQI+ community through Blue Diamond Society, a LGBTI organisation, and realised she was trans. She then met and fell in love with Shankar. “I realised that it was impossible for me and my wife to live together, because we thought differently. We got divorced and went our separate ways. I got my children’s custody.” Everything changed very quickly. “I introduced myself as a transgender women and changed my role from their mother to their father. I started counselling them on LGBTI issues from a young age. I started taking them to Blue Diamond Society’s events. My sons have accepted me as their mother and Shankar as their father.” Now they present as any other family. “We live as husband and wife, like any other couple. We are happy. It has been eleven years." Photo: Robin Hammond / Witness Change

Text in the captions has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Where Love is Illegal by Robin Hammond is published by Editions Bessard. Find out more about his non-profit organisation Witness Change, which fights to end human rights violations through visual storytelling here.

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