• July 27, 2015

A Photographer Shares LGBT Stories of Love and Discrimination

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.

Portrait of "O" and "D"
Lesbian couple “O,” 27 (right), and “D,” 23 (left). They were attacked on the way home from a concert after kissing at their subway stop. “The real fear I experienced was not for myself, it was for the one I love,” said O. St. Petersburg, Russia. November 2014.
Read more of O and D’s story here.

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.

Portrait of Ruslan, 25.
Ruslan Savolaynen, 25, is a survivor of multiple homophobic attacks. The many assaults have resulted in a brain injury, memory loss, retinal detachment, and a broken leg. He now has frequent headaches and nosebleeds, and doctors fear he has had a cerebral hemorrhage. St. Petersburg, Russia. November 2014.
Read more of Ruslan’s story here.

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.

Portrait of Milli
Milli, 35, South Africa. In April 2010 Milli went to stay with a friend. The landlord strangled her with a wire. He shouted, “You think you are a man! I’m going to make you pregnant and I’m going to kill you.” He then raped her for hours. He was arrested, but he was released on $40 bail and didn’t appear in court. He was eventually tracked down a year later.
Read more of Milli’s story here.

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.

Portrait of Tiwonge Chimbalanga
Tiwonge Chimbalanga from Malawi. In 2009 Tiwonge and her husband Steven were arrested and charged with buggery and indecent practices between males. They were sentenced to 14 years in prison. The case caused an international outcry and both were later pardoned on the condition that they never see each other again. Fearing for her safety, Tiwonge fled to South Africa.
Read more of Tiwonge’s story here.

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.

Portrait of Jessie, 24.
Jessie, 24, is a transgender Palestinian woman born in a refugee camp in Lebanon. She was born male, but knew she was female from a young age. Her uncle repeatedly raped her, and her father and brother have attacked and tried to kill her multiple times. Unable to complete her training as a nurse due to discrimination, she has resorted to doing sex work.
Read more of Jessie’s story here.

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.

Portrait of Buje
Buje (not his real name) is gay. In December 2013 he was taken from his home in Nigeria by a vigilante group who beat him with electric cables. He was then held in prison for over 40 days. He made several appearances at the Sharia Court, and was lashed 15 times with a horsewhip. Sodomy is punishable by death under Sharia Law, but requires four witnesses.
Read more of Buje’s story here.

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.

Portrait of Mitch and Lalita.
Trans man Mitch Yusmar, 47, is seen with his partner of 17 years, Lalita Abdullah, 39, and their adopted children, Izzy, 9, and Daniya, 3, at home outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Their relationship is not legally recognized and they live with the insecurity that their family could be torn apart should something happen to Lalita, who is the only recognized parent.
Read more of Mitch’s story here.

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.

Portrait of Abinaya
Transgender woman Abinaya Jayaraman, 33. Her family rejected her gender identity and she took a cocktail of sleeping pills and pain killers in an attempt to end her life. She spent three months in the hospital, then was disowned and thrown out of the house. She now does sex work in Malaysia to get by.
Read more of Abinaya’s story here.

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.

Portrait of Simon
Simon, 22. He was arrested while having sex with his boyfriend in Uganda. They were beaten, dragged naked through the village, and thrown in jail with no medical treatment. They later escaped from a hospital when a doctor, who was Simon’s ex-boyfriend, took pity on them. Simon fled to the Ugandan capital of Kampala. He has not seen his boyfriend since.
Read more of Simon’s story here.

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.

Portrait of Miiro and Imran
“Miiro, 25 (left), and Imran, 21 (not his real name), are a gay couple living together in Uganda. The pair was evicted from their home, beaten, had all their possessions burned, and then were thrown in jail for being gay.
Read more of Imran’s story here.

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.

There are 42 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Rose
    August 24, 2015

    My heart is aching for these people who cannot even find solace in their own families. As a mother I cannot find a reason not to love my child more than life itself. To the comment that the U.S. should mind it’s business-that is how the Armenian genocide of WWI which murdered my family and the Holocaust of WWII were allowed to happen. Ensuring everyone’s human rights are every HUMAN’S business.

  2. Elisha
    August 22, 2015

    Every man has its rights to be whatever he/she wants to be.Other peopele shouldn’t judge them,judge anybody.Because only respecting others can exchange others’ respect.

  3. Sue
    August 19, 2015

    Do same sex couple hurt other people. No. So why does Society condemn them? We are supposed to be an intelligent specie – but the level of intolerance in some societies does not reflect this. Live and let live, Love and let love. After all, people are people. Accept them all as they are. Thought provoking photographs, Thank you.

  4. Steve
    August 19, 2015

    I must be honest about how I feel: LGBT people are a mystery to me but I don’t fear them (not anymore). Scientists tell us that sexuality is tied to reproduction. They teach that sexuality developed eons ago to add genetic diversity which increases survivability. LGBT’s are unlikely to reproduce which, scientifically, means that their genes won’t likely survive and therefore relegates them as dead-end mutations (scientifically speaking). YET, LGBT’s are otherwise every bit as human and as deserving of legitimacy as myself. You see, I am left-handed. I have always been left-handed. It was never a choice. If we are to suffer left-handed people or blue-eyed people among us, we must respect the diversity of all people whose biology is different than our own. Otherwise, we’re just animals.

  5. Brooke Rolston
    August 17, 2015

    Replying to some previous posts: if you equate one’s sexual orientation with another’s choice of house color or automobile model, you are confusing identity and lifestyle. I do not choose the way I am created. I do choose my tastes, my lifestyle. My sexual orientation is not a choice, it’s in my deepest constitution as a human being. So I am opposed to those who punish anyone, anywhere in the world, for being who they deeply are. The rejection of LGBTQI people for living and loving as they were made is universally wrong.

  6. Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander
    August 17, 2015

    Incredible job. Nat Geo, I’ve loved your for years, and now I appreciate you even more. Thank you for giving voice to this important issue. The sooner we get it the better: In the end, it truly is “ALL about Love…”

  7. Carol
    August 17, 2015

    Man’s inhumanity to man keeps me awake at night.

  8. Mpho Maripane
    August 17, 2015

    it is very painful to realize how inhuman our societies have become. we all deserve to be loved and only God can judge us. let him who has no sin cast the first stone. Big ups to this project that is allowing people to share their stories.

  9. Elaine S.
    August 17, 2015

    My belief in human rights is very simple. It is not political or cultural. It is simply this, no one person has the right to hurt another. These pictures and stories bring to light areas that still use religion and politics as reasons to hurt others. Studies like this one will help us to see that we are all responsible for any injuries. To stop the brutality we must take responsibility and look honestly at all the conditions of man kind. Thank you for posting the stories and pictures to help us recognize the feelings and conditions of others.

  10. Target
    August 17, 2015


  11. bharati
    August 16, 2015

    you queer.-christianity

  12. Chris
    August 16, 2015

    So moving and powerful. It angers me that we treat each other so badly. Please keep enlightening us National Geographic.

  13. Trudie Barreras
    August 16, 2015

    This is a very moving and beautifully done series. I note that in some of the comments, people are resisting the idea that “we” are “pushing our ideas” on people in other countries, and claim acceptance of homosexuality is the issue. The issue, as was so emphatically demonstrated in the photos and stories, is the difference between love in all it’s magnificent manifestations, and cruel brutality of which there is always too much in the world.

    • Lynn
      August 17, 2015

      I hope these images help make the world a kinder place. I am not personally gay, but I am opposed to the sort of bigotry and intolerance these people have had to endure. No one should have to deal with that kind of thing.

  14. bharati
    August 16, 2015

    god’s favourite daughter

  15. Bob
    August 16, 2015

    Someone should tell Bill O’Reilly of Fox News channel about this story. It might make him change his attitude about LGBTQI folk.

  16. Waltayr Dantas Filho
    August 16, 2015

    shots as life use to be

  17. Carol
    August 16, 2015

    This brought me to tears and smiles. I applaud those who are brave enough to share their stories. Their strength of spirit is amazing. Any time that people are persecuted (beaten, raped, jailed and killed) for being who they are, it is a travesty. Whether it is in the United States of America (and yes, it still happens here) or in other parts of the world where it happens with more frequency, severity, and often with impunity, it is a travesty. Ask those who have been saved by the USA from persecution if they think we should have “minded our own business”. If we do not stand up for human rights everywhere, we are complicit in the continuation of this persecution.

  18. Lynn
    August 16, 2015

    Whether you accept the gay lifestyle or not, I think most people can relate to the idea that abuse such as described here is a crime against humanity. Please keep documenting these abuses and those who suffer them. You are making the world a better and safer place to live by doing this.

  19. Julie
    August 16, 2015

    Valedictorian graduating in Boulder, CO: “Some hate me for whom I am, some accept me, and some love me for whom I am.”

  20. Paul Lerner
    August 16, 2015

    Powerful and very important. Thank you to National Geographic for sharing this with us. Fighting for the dignity and freedom of LGBTQI people around the world is one of the most vital human rights struggles of our times.

  21. Jenelle
    August 16, 2015

    Our rights as human beings…freedom to love who we want…freedom to simply be who we are and who we are meant to be. Thank you for this beautiful, heart centered, raw, and authentic portrayal of the intolerance and prejudice that exists all around us. We all need to wake up with eyes wide open to the fact that we are all One and brothers and sisters on this amazing planet. Love and respect are the gifts we have to give to each other… no matter what color, race, or sexual orientation. Tolerance and allowance go hand in hand with this Universal love. Everyone has a right to BE. Allow love and respect to lead the way at all times, and take care of each other with compassion, understanding, and gratitude.
    LOVE ALL…….

  22. Bill Arena
    August 16, 2015

    Beautiful work, so important. As an American I’ve seen some of this terrible injustice in the media. Thank you Robin for your courage and compassion in bringing these amazingly painful stories into the light. Blessings upon all who are enlightened through your efforts.

  23. Florence V Davis
    August 16, 2015

    previously posted

  24. sapwcbtpm
    August 16, 2015

    Such brutality because of love? This needs to stop NOW!

  25. Harvey
    August 16, 2015

    While I find the idea of killing, jailing and otherwise harming homosexuals appalling I think this country needs to mind its own business about this issue and many others. As demonstrated in one of the dialogues the majority of the people in these countries think differently from the U.S.A. and in the one case shown do not understand how we feel, nor do they agree. Forcing our way on others has created many problems for the U.S.A. not the least of which are the problems we have with so many of the Muslims worldwide. Most of the readers of this article would take great umbridge should I or others force on them the color they should paint their home, the model of automobile they buy, how they cut and style their hair and such but yet those same people try to force acceptance of what they see as repugnant sexual behavior on others who are part of their society. Minding one’s business is an important part of being able to be a friend. Minding other’s business is very good way to make and enemy. Them being right or wrong in your mind and your society doesn’t mean they are right or wrong in relation to their society.

  26. Harvey
    August 16, 2015

    While I find the idea of killing, jailing and otherwise harming homosexuals I think this country needs to mind its own business about this issue and many others. As demonstrated in one of the dialogues the majority of the people in these countries think differently from the U.S.A. and in the one case shown do not understand how we feel, nor do they agree. Forcing our way on others has created many problems for the U.S.A. not the least of which are the problems we have with so many of the Muslims worldwide. Most of the readers of this article would take great umbridge should I or others force on them the color they should paint their home, the model of automobile they buy, how they cut and style their hair and such but yet those same people try to force acceptance of what they see as repugnant sexual behavior on others who are part of their society. Minding one’s business is an important part of being able to be a friend. Minding other’s business is very good way to make and enemy. Them being right or wrong in your mind and your society doesn’t mean they are right or wrong in relation to their society.

  27. Verónica Hetzler Kunz
    August 16, 2015


  28. Susan
    July 31, 2015

    A good Kenyan friend was discussing an old tribal tradition of Levitrate marriage in which a widow is obligated to marry her husband’s brother. I expressed how unimaginable that is for me, and her response was “You see our tradition as intolerable, just as we see homosexuality. Why do you try to push it on us? ”. I’ve heard plenty of homophobic comments, but her comparison was the first time someone has been able to make me see just how utterly alien it is them.
    I hope this series will enable people to see that a person does not choose to be gay, especially when they will face such violence and rejection. These are ordinary people willing to put their lives on the line for love.

  29. Daniel
    July 30, 2015

    I have so much pity for these people. What makes me so angry is the blind hate their own families have for them. To be rejected by ones own mother and father…Is your hate worth losing your child over?!?! Do you think Christ himself would treat them with ANYTHING less than love? What a glorious mess we are.

  30. Cevon Anderson
    July 29, 2015

    In Uganda and other African countries these perpetrators have been strongly encouraged and ushered on by the the American Christian right, conservative evangelicals. In Uganda the newly passed anti-gay bill, outlawing homosexuality and threatening offenders with up to 14 years in prison, was financed by the American religious right.

  31. Erna
    July 28, 2015

    This is truly enlightening to all the disapproval of LGBTs not only in America but in places have the world away from the States.

  32. Daniel Curley
    July 28, 2015

    We have always loved – thank you for new portraits of our community

  33. Kathleen Lusty
    July 28, 2015

    You will attract the audience you play to.

  34. Mike Wingert
    July 28, 2015

    Dramatic character studies of strong people struggling through bigotry and mindless hate.

  35. Daniel Corral
    July 28, 2015


  36. Cara
    July 27, 2015

    This was hauntingly beautiful, powerful and devastating. These poor individuals have experienced so much pain, both physical and psychological, it’s hard to fathom. Thanks you for your work, the world needs to see what happens to those who are LGBT+ around the world.

  37. Jessica Hossfeld
    July 27, 2015

    There is nothing sadder than being mistreated for who you were born to be, and fearing that those you love will be harmed because you love them.

  38. Cole
    July 27, 2015

    This is so important.

  39. Jamie Cato
    July 27, 2015

    This is so beautiful. Fantastic work.
    Change is coming. Peace is near. Love and respect for all.

  40. Giannina
    July 27, 2015

    Ours is a sad world in which people can be hated for loving…

  41. Harold Smith
    July 27, 2015

    This work is incredible. Thank you for using your lense to help these beautiful individuals find a voice.

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