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Myra Abdallah

Where Love is Illegal

NOW talks to international human rights photographer Robin Hammond

“Hold my hand, this is my reward for your courage.” (Photos courtesy of Robin Hammond, formatted by NOW)
“My society is ruled by religions which strongly refuse my sexuality so I lived wearing the mask of a straight man.” (Photos courtesy of Robin Hammond, formatted by NOW)

Robin Hammond, born 1975, is an internationally renowned photographer from New Zealand who has dedicated his career to documenting human rights and development issues around the world. After the publication of his first book, Your Wounds Will be Named Silence,on life in Zimbabwe under the rule of Robert Mugabe, he continued his work on social injustice in Africa with the publication of Condemned. In addition to his many other projects, Hammond is launching his new project today on human rights violations against the LGBT community in several countries, called Where love is illegal.

 

 

NOW: Tell us more about yourself.

 

Hammond: I was born in New Zealand. I lived in Japan, the United Kingdom, and South Africa. I am currently based in Paris. I graduated from Massey University, New Zealand, in 2001 with an Advanced Diploma in Photography. In addition to my many projects that document human rights abuses, I am a National Geographic and Time Magazine contributing photographer. I am also the founder of Witness Change, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing human rights through highly-visual story telling. I also made a wide variety of other photographic bodies, from the impact of climate change on Pacific Island communities to rape used as a weapon of war in Congo and Bosnia, to the poisoning of ecosystems by multinationals in developing countries.

 

 

NOW: Tell us more about your project.

 

Hammond: While in many parts of the world the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and inter-sex people are gaining recognition, other parts of the world are increasingly persecuting people for their sexual orientation and gender identity. A not-for-profit organization [Witness Change] that I founded recently with a group of activists has created a photo project to document LGBTI stories of violence and survival from around the world.

 

Bigotry thrives where fear causes us to be silent. Many people in countries where it is illegal to identify as LGBTI or to ‘commit’ gay acts find it very difficult to have their grievances heard; to express themselves at all. In fact, in some of these places to be openly LGBTI is to risk your life. I believe one of the greatest weapons against bigotry is to give those facing discrimination a chance to speak out against it.

 

 

NOW: Why did you choose the theme “Where love is illegal” and to report on abuses against the LGBTI community?

 

Hammond: I was struck by how often the people I met felt desperately alone. Many thought that they were the only ones to have feelings of attraction to the same sex or the need to express themselves as an identity other than that which they were assigned at birth.

 

I wanted to provide a platform for them to tell their stories, to amplify their voices so they could, on one hand, counter the voices of hate and, on the other, let other LGBTI people know they are not alone.

 

 

NOW: How hard was it for you to travel to countries where homosexuality is forbidden and find people who would talk to you about their sexual orientation?

 

Hammond: The production of the work was not simple. Many of the people I was trying to meet were doing their best not to be found. I worked with grassroots LGBTI organizations in order to locate them. It was important to work with local groups as they were able to educate me about the local context, advise me on security issues, and, importantly, provide a level of trust to the subjects of the photos.

 

 

NOW: Did you find it difficult to convince people to open up and allow themselves to be photographed?

 

Hammond: I worked as a photographer and conduit to tell the stories of the people I met. I collaborated with the subjects to create the photographs, including decisions about locations, poses, and attire. Many hid their faces to protect their identity, and all were given veto power over images they felt compromised their safety. The goal was to tell each person’s story as that person wanted to share it.

 

As well as posing for photographs, these brave survivors of persecution recorded written testimonies of the discrimination they faced. These stories are shared as written, without outside editing. They are acts of courage and defiance against homophobic attitudes that have denied LGBTI people the right to express their words, their feelings, and of course, their identities.

 

 

NOW: What differences did you find between the countries you chose to include in your project?

 

Hammond: I worked in seven different countries—Nigeria, Uganda, South Africa, Cameroon, Malaysia, Russia and Lebanon. And with people from 15 different nationalities, all from places where the government and/or society discriminate against LGBTI people. All of these places have different laws, but around the world there are 76 countries where same-sex acts are illegal, and five of those have the death penalty for consensual sexual activity between people of the same sex.

 

Witness Change is now working hard to get their photos seen and their voices heard. Today we are launching a social media campaign where the people I photographed will share their stories through the website we’ve designed (www.whereloveisillegal.com) and on the dedicated Facebook page, Instagram and Twitter accounts. We hope their stories will encourage others from around the world to share their own. It is a kind of ‘coming out’ of survivors, in a safe environment.

 

 

NOW: Your project is more than just a photography exhibition. It helps reporting on human rights issues as well. To what extent do you believe that photography is capable of delivering a humanitarian message compared to written articles?

 

Hammond: Photography, when done right, has the unique ability to have us connect deeply, almost instantly, with the subjects of the photos. That’s its power. But while it can connect, it rarely explains. That’s why I like to include the subjects’ stories. My hope is that people feel an emotional connection and an intellectual understanding. I want to make people care, and if they care enough, they might act.

 

 

NOW: Is it hard for a photographer to shoot human rights violations?

 

Hammond: Sometimes it is impossible, as in this case. I couldn’t be there when these people were facing the discrimination or persecution they experienced, so I had to rely on their personal testimonies so that we can understand what they’ve been through.

 

Emotionally, I get very involved in my projects and the lives of the people I am photographing. I have to if I want to be a good storyteller. Yes, it has a toll, but I feel very privileged to have these special and often deep encounters with people who, because I am taking a real interest in them, often let down their guard, allow themselves to be vulnerable, and let me into their lives. Doing this kind of work gives me a very real sense of purpose. I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else.

 

 

NOW: What message do you want to deliver through your photographs?

 

Hammond: The message I want to deliver is whatever the subject wants to say. The photographs are very much informed by the stories of the people in them. These are their stories and their photos and I want people to feel they know and care about the lives of the people in them. Ultimately it is about creating a connection. Photography and storytelling has the potential to break down the barriers that divide us: race, religion, distance, nationality—all of these reasons we use to see the ‘other.’ I hope through this work we can see one of ‘us.’

 

 

NOW: What are your future plans?

 

Hammond: Right now, with my friends at Witness Change, all of whom are volunteers, we are working hard to have Where Love Is Illegal be a success. We owe it to the people who entrusted us with their stories.

 

I am continuing with the other big Witness Change project, one that I started nearly five years ago, documenting the mental health impact of crises. That work has been focused in countries in sub-Saharan Africa, but it’s expanding to other parts of the world. I was recently working on this in Lebanon. It is an enormously neglected area and one where, once again, the people involved have difficulty advocating for their rights. My job is to tell their stories.

 

Myra Abdallah tweets @myraabdallah

“Hold my hand, this is my reward for your courage.” (Photos courtesy of Robin Hammond, formatted by NOW)

I believe one of the greatest weapons against bigotry is to give those facing discrimination, a chance to speak out against it.”