Intimate portraits of survivors in places where love is illegal

In countries where being queer is deemed criminal, LGBTQI community members resist the hate they face with love and resilience.

Photographer Robin Hammond has spent his career documenting human rights issues. His recent project, “Where Love is Illegal,” takes an in-depth look at abuse and intolerance faced by LGBTQI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex) people in seven countries. I asked him via email about the collaborative portraits and stories he created with 65 people who experienced discrimination and persecution.

COBURN DUKEHART: Why was it important to you to tell the stories of LGBTQI people? What was your personal motivation for the project?

ROBIN HAMMOND: I’ve spent most of the last ten years in Africa. Homosexuality, I always knew, was frowned upon, but it went from a subject rarely talked about to, in my mind, a very hot and hostile issue. It wasn’t just a bunch of extremists though. Africans who I considered my good friends were not shy about letting me know how “evil” gays were—how if they ever met one, they would beat them.

I travel extensively and often come across views I don’t hold, and I have to do my best to put myself in the shoes of others. But I found these statements from intelligent people who I liked very hard to stomach.

My projects often come from an experience or a view of an injustice, something that makes me angry. It became vital to me to tell these stories—the ones that had not yet been told.

COBURN: How did you meet the people you photographed? Was gaining access to their private lives difficult?

ROBIN: I did this work in seven different countries with people of 15 nationalities. Usually I’d work with a local LGBTQI nongovernmental organization. Finding people willing to talk was sometimes a little hard, but, sadly, uncovering stories of discrimination, once I’d found an organization, was very easy.

I can’t express the misery some of these people have lived. Of course, I was lucky not to have to; they did that themselves.

For some, though, it was too much. Milli told me of the “corrective rape” she survived, but couldn’t bring herself to write about it. She simply wrote:

“I don’t want to write.
Because I don’t want
To Remember, it makes
Me very angry. But most
Importantly, I want to
Move Forward”

I was deeply, deeply touched by the experience of hearing these 65 stories. I will remember them all, always.

COBURN: Tell me about the portrait sessions. What was your process?

ROBIN: I asked that each person tell me their story of survival and write something about themselves. The intention was that these testimonies would inform the construction of the portrait—how they dressed, posed, etc.

It was a collaboration unlike any other I’ve been involved in. I would ask them how they would like to be seen. How they would like to stand.

It was a risk and sometimes led to unexpected results. So much of the discourse about LGBT rights has been about members of the LGBT population, but not from them. I wanted to give people the chance to say what they wanted to say and be seen how they wanted to be seen. This didn’t always line up with my own expectations.

For example, Jessie is a transgender woman from a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon. She has been thrown out of school [and] attacked by her father and brother. Her story is tragic. I wanted to make a portrait that reflected that story. But she clearly didn’t. She posed the way she felt–a sexy young woman.

I photographed all 65 subjects using a Polaroid-type film on a large-format field camera. I made a deal with every subject: If they thought the photo put them in danger, they could destroy it. Having a physical photograph gave them this option.

COBURN: What did you find personally challenging about working on this project?

ROBIN: Most of my work focuses on human rights issues. That means telling stories that sometimes powerful people don’t want told, and it means sharing the experiences of people who’ve been the victims of abuses. These people are often hard to find, reluctant to talk, petrified of being persecuted. Taking pictures is often a very small part of the work, at the end of a long process of finding the people and winning their trust. This work was no different.

Given the expense of the film, I’d sometimes only take three pictures. There was sometimes a huge amount of work just to take those three frames.

COBURN: Did anything about working on this project surprise you?

ROBIN: I was surprised how visually literate many of the subjects were. They really got the power of imagery and how they were being portrayed. I think that is in part due to social media—we’re all gaining a greater fluency in the language of photography.

It’s also, I’m sure, partly because many of the people I worked with are very conscious of how they look, on one hand because it forms part of how they wish to be identified, and on the other, because how they look could give their identity away.

So many LGBT people in the world today feel they are alone. Or they are surrounded by people who tell them there is something wrong with them. Unfortunately they believe it.

COBURN: What do you hope viewers will take away from seeing your images?

ROBIN: “Where Love Is Illegal” marks a change in my career. I’ve always wanted to do work that felt meaningful. And I’ve always hoped it makes a difference.

That’s why, with a small group of others, I created the nonprofit Witness Change, which was formed on the back of “Where Love Is Illegal.”

Our aim is to produce highly visual storytelling on seldom-addressed human rights abuses. We are creating projects that amplify the voices of those who have survived abuse, document the stories of those who have not, and endeavor to stand for the end of human rights violations for generations to come.

COBURN: What can viewers do to help if they are moved by your images?

ROBIN: Bigotry thrives where those discriminated against are silenced. The objective is to have the people in this project seen and their voices heard, and to raise money for grassroots LGBT organizations working in countries where being LGBT is illegal or subject to massive discrimination. So we ask everyone to share these stories and to donate to these organizations however they can.

To see more photos and stories from this project, or to donate, visit the “Where Love Is Illegal” website. You can also share your own photos and stories, and follow “Where Love Is Illegal” on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr.

See more of Robin Hammond’s work on his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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