Let’s Meet Up With … Mads Nissen!

In last year’s edition of Pride Photo Award, Danish photographer Mads Nissen (Hobro, 1979) won Second Prize in the Documentary Category with his photo series ‘Homophobia in Russia’. Nissen’s photo of a young gay couple sharing an intimate moment in Saint Petersburg, won World Press Photo of the Year 2014. Niels van Maanen recently talked to Nissen about his multi-awarded photo series.




Can you tell me how your photo series came about? Why did you go to Russia?
In the summer of 2013, I was in Saint Petersburg, teaching a workshop for young Russian photographers. I planned to stay in Russia for a week or two after the workshop, since there were several subjects I wanted to look into, one of them being LGBT rights. The so-called ‘anti-gay law’ was about to be implemented at that time. I didn’t know any people from the Russian LGBT movement, but I met some of them during a same-sex marriage demonstration and a gay pride rally in Saint Petersburg. They shared their stories with me and took me to gay clubs and other places.
During the gay pride, I was standing next to Pavel, a young and gentle dude from a small village in Russia. At a certain point a homophobe came up to Pavel and asked him if he was a ‘faggot’. Pavel was then punched right in his face. Hard. I was super shocked. I knew that the situation was bad, but now that I had seen it, I felt it. Pavel wasn’t provoking anyone. He was just standing there. And yet, he was confronted with pure hate. The police later arrested both Pavel and the homophobe for making trouble. It was an absurd situation.
There was so much hate and violence that whole afternoon. Later that day I took a picture of another man, Kirill, who was also violently attacked by homophobes. Homophobia changed from being something I had heard and read about into and a personal issue. I felt the responsibility to dig much deeper into it. 

What were you aiming for with your photo series?


First of all, I wanted to document what was happening. Secondly, I wanted to share my experience of it. Basically, I wanted to stop homophobia. [laughs] I realize that I’m a journalist and that I’m not being completely objective here, but I simply do have a set of values. I have a message about tolerance and understanding. I didn’t necessarily make my photo series to point a finger at Russia, but to point the finger at all of us. Many of us agree that we’re not homophobes or racists, but do we act as we preach? Some people say: ‘I will completely accept it if my child is gay.’ But perhaps they hope their child isn’t, deep in their hearts? How would I feel when my son turned out to be gay? Are we really that tolerant?

In many of your photographs, you are very close to your subjects. Especially your photo of Jon and Alex, sharing an intimate moment in Alex’s bed, made me feel how immersed you are in what you are showing. How do you get people to open up to you?


If I want my viewers to get engaged, I need to get engaged myself. Unfortunately, human closeness is lacking in most journalism. There’s this famous quote by Robert Capa, the macho war photographer who lost his life when he stepped on a landmine: ‘If your photographs aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.’ Capa was talking about physical closeness, but what I strive for is mental closeness. Using my camera is just a little part of what I do. It is actually very easy to use a camera nowadays. Most of what I do is working with people, making everyone feel comfortable. My profession is less and less about techniques and more and more about human skills.
I met Jon and Alex on an evening in May 2014. We were drinking beers and talking about our lives. I had photographed the hatred, the violence, but I felt something was missing: love. In the end, that’s what it’s all about: two people wanting to be together. I asked Jon and Alex if I could come along with them to Alex’s home. At first they were a bit shy. I explained to them that I wasn’t interested in pornography at all and told them to pretend I was not there. They did, and after a while they completely forgot I was there.

Life is obviously becoming increasingly difficult for sexual minorities in Russia. Were the people in your photos not afraid to pose for your camera? Did they have any hesitations?

Yes, life has definitely been getting worse for LGBT’s, but there’s a new generation of LGBT activists – most of them are in their early twenties – and they are tired: tired of hiding themselves, tired of excusing themselves, tired of bullshit. They’ve attended gay pride rallies in Western Europe and they refuse to keep a low profile. They are very brave. Pavel was attacked five times in one year and he’s still standing strong. He won’t give up. They won’t give up.

You included a photo you took in a Russian gay night club in your photo series. It shows a flamboyantly dressed guy and some muscular, mostly naked men. Do you feel this photo plays into stereotypes? It certainly doesn’t conform to the sanitized, sexless version of homosexuality that mainstream LGBT rights activists usually emphasize.


I was looking for gay clubs in Saint Petersburg and this is what I saw. I’m not saying that all gay clubs are like this in Saint Petersburg, but this is one part of it. The guy’s name was Ruslan. He was twenty-seven years old, had recently got divorced from his wife and was now jumping out of the closet. I should approach this issue carefully, but sometimes when you’re being denied your sexuality for a long time, a lot of steam builds up… when you finally get the chance to come out, you do it well. Ruslan was exploring himself, going to the edges of his own sexuality. It’s simply something he needed to do, I thought.
To me it’s not a picture that relies on stereotypes, but more of a raised middle finger to all oppressors. The new generation doesn’t want to hide anymore. If you don’t like it, then go fuck yourself. At the same time, I think the photo of the loving lesbian couple with their child in my photo series is equally important: plain, ordinary folks, just as boring as myself. [laughs]
You took photographs of videos in which Russian gay guys are being humiliated and abused. Why did you choose to include these images in your photo series?
On social media I came across a lot of shocking videos: anti-gay vigilante groups create a fake online dating profile, set up a date with a gay guy, and then capture, beat and humiliate him. They film it all and then share it online. When I saw these video’s I was very shocked, sad and angry. I met up with one of these violent gangs, but I soon realized I wanted to pass my initial shock on to others, so I decided to photograph the videos from my computer screen.
The big question was if I could publish these pictures. By showing the faces of the abused guys, I might retraumatize them. Furthermore, would it make me just as guilty as the homophobes? Terrorists commit attacks because they want attention. So does that make a photographer the ‘prostitute’ of a terrorist? I have had huge debates with myself about this. As a documentary photographer I can’t just ignore terrorism. I can capture it, document it and then put it in another context. So, that’s what I tried to do here as well.
I took two photographs. One of them is of Maxim Martsinkevich, who is a leader in the campaign against LGBT people. What shocked me is that Martsinkevich is so secure of himself that he doesn’t even bother to protect his own identity while abusing other people. Recently he was actually finally arrested, but most of the other militiant homophobes are not. I also took a photograph of a young man who is forced to dance naked in front of a camera. There’s an incredibly sad expression on his face. It hurt me so much when I saw it. And it pissed me of as well. When I exhibited the picture in Copenhagen, people started crying. I simply had to show it.

In February this year, you were announced as the winner of the World Press Photo of the Year 2014, which is obviously a big deal. Did you get any reaction from Russia?

Apparently, Vitaly Milonov, the architect of Russia’s anti-gay laws, claimed my photo series to be anti-Russian, which is utter nonsense of course. I don’t hate Russia, I hate homophobia. Unfortunately, my photo series hasn’t been published in the Russian mainstream media. Perhaps that’s not really surprising: you could argue that my prize-winning photo can be used as gay propaganda to minors, which makes it against Russian law. If it were to be exhibited in Russia, you would have to be at least eighteen years of age to see it. Weird, isn’t it? It’s not a pornographic picture at all. And in the meantime President Putin just keeps on publishing shirtless pictures of himself. [laughs]


Interview: Niels van Maanen
Art historian and critic, Amsterdam

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


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