LET’S MEET UP WITH…TADEJ ŽNIDARČIČ

Tadej Žnidarčič (Ljubljana, 1974) is a Slovenian photographer based in Uganda. With his photo series ‘We are Here, We are Gay and We are Ugandans’, which consists of portraits of Ugandan LGBT activists, he won second prize in the ‘Open’ category of Pride Photo Award 2013. An interview.
 
Each of the photographs in your photo series contains two images: on the left side a back portrait and on the right side a front portrait. Can you tell me how your photo series came about?
 
Soon after I arrived in Uganda in September of 2009, the Anti-Homosexuality Act – often called the ‘Kill the Gays bill’ – was submitted in the Ugandan parliament. It received a lot of international media attention: the bill proposed life imprisonment for anyone engaged in homosexual activities and the death penalty for ‘aggravated homosexuality’. It also banned talk about homosexuality – not so different to what Russia is doing right now with the ban against ‘homosexual propaganda’ – and prescribed jail time for anyone that failed to report homosexual activity to the authorities.
 
Most of the media reports that were written about the bill at the time were dry and factual, but personal stories of people were lacking. I wanted to see what the LGBT community had to say about the bill. My idea was to portray a few people and interview them about their personal lives, their thoughts on the bill and their hopes for, the future. Through a mutual friend, I met a few people in the LGBT community. Soon I found out no one was comfortable with being photographed. The situation for LGBT people was quickly growing worse and more dangerous. Nobody wanted to be exposed. I still remember how one of the women told me that she stopped going to church because she didn’t want to be compared to terrorists every Sunday.
 
Because I wanted to preserve the anonymity of my subjects, it took me some time to figure out how I would exactly photograph them. After some experiments, I decided to photograph them from behind, posing in front of a wall. These photo portraits, taken in the first months of 2010, can be seen on the left side of my photo diptychs.
 
Why did you decide to photograph your subjects in front of a wall?
 
I specifically looked for imperfect, crumbling walls. For me, the walls functioned as a metaphor for many things. They form an impassable obstacle, yet they might fall down one day. They also symbolize social isolation. Enforced and involuntary, but at the same time, perhaps, also self-chosen: turning away from society, retreating in your own world. In the darkest interpretation possible, the walls allude to execution walls: when they shoot you, they put you in front of a wall.
 
When and why did you decide to make the portraits on the right side of your photo diptychs?
 
In 2013, three years after I created my initial photo series. The ‘Kill the Gays bill’ was submitted to the Ugandan parliament in 2009, but fortunately it never passed, mainly because of foreign pressure from governments and NGOs. At a certain point, even the president of Uganda distanced himself from the bill. However, when a new parliament was formed in 2012, the bill was reintroduced in parliament.
 
I quickly noticed that a lot of people were willing to step up and fight the bill. A good number of them happened to be the people I had photographed in 2010. I thought: why don’t I revisit them and see what has changed? I was very surprised to find out that the majority of them were now willing to be photographed from the front.
 
Why do you think this is?
 
In the last three years, the courage, confidence and energy of Ugandan LGBT activists has grown. Because of their activism, they have received more exposure in Ugandan media than ever. Both wanted and unwanted exposure, that is. They are now used to it. They are willing to let the public know who they are. They don’t want to be in the shadows forever. In 2012, the first Ugandan gay pride was even held.
 
I still remember the horrific ‘Rolling Stone’ incident: in 2010 an Ugandan tabloid newspaper published photos of LGBT people under the headline ‘Hang Them’. Isn’t it rather dangerous to be a publicly known LGBT activist in Uganda?

It is dangerous. The risks are real. And everyone is very aware of that. There have been a good number of attacks, especially on transgender people, who are often mistakenly believed to be gay. People avoid risks by living under the radar during their day-to-day lives. The LGBT community certainly can’t go just anywhere. But it’s not all bad. People have fun as well. They have parties. They organize concerts. A lot is happening in the LGBT community.
 
I think it is highly unlikely the ‘Kill the Gays bill’ will ever be passed. It is simply too crazy. It is drawing too much negative attention towards Uganda.
 
With my photo series I wanted to give a face to LGBT people in Uganda. Now they are not just abstract people anymore. What the combination of photos from 2010 and 2013 reflects is a tremendous growth of confidence, within the LGBT movement and within the people themselves.
 
Niels van Maanen
art historian and critic, Amsterdam
 

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Pride Photo Award is an annual international contest for photos about sexual and gender diversity.

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