7 mins

Where Love Is Illegal, and why it matters

Photojournalist Robin Hammond has worked on many difficult and complex stories from around the world. His visual storytelling work is published in large media channels such as National Geographic, The Guardian, or The New York Times.
But often, after a story that he worked on was published, that was usually “the end of it.” No solutions were brought to the people and communities he was reporting on.
He knew that his work was essential, but he felt that the impact was lacking.

To increase the impact of his photojournalistic work, he decided to create his own NGO, Witness Change, in 2016.
“Where Love Is Illegal” was the first project launched by the NGO.
Six years later, the campaign is still going strong with a substantial social media presence.

To learn more about the vital work that the campaign is doing to fight intolerance one story at a time, we spoke with William Lounsbury. William is a photojournalist and Head of Communications at Witness Change.

“Speaking out against bigotry
is one of the greatest weapons in defeating it.”

Where Love Is Illegal

Robin Hammond was working in Nigeria in 2016 when he heard that 5 “criminals” had just been apprehended, flogged, and jailed.
Their crime? Being gay.
The men managed to escape, however, they had to flee – it was unsafe to return to their families and community.

The men’s story gave Hammond the idea to start Where Love Is Illegal.
It’s a campaign designed as a collaborative process, presenting photo portraits of LGBTQIA+ people who recount their stories of survival and discrimination using their own words.

70 countries where love is illegal

“70 countries around the world have criminal laws against sexual activity by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or intersex people.
That’s 70 countries where people who love each other must do so in secret.”

Being LGBTQIA+ is literally punished in these places.
“The brutality of punishments is shocking in all of these countries, and include fines, imprisonment, torture and, in some instances, death.”

But the campaign doesn’t stop where love is illegal. “When we talk about discrimination in general, it’s truly a global problem. And it often exists in horribly similar ways everywhere around the world.”

Where Love Is Illegal aims to change that.

A posed portrait of 23 year old Ugandans Ashiraf (left); Kajjan (right) in Nairobi. Ashiraf identifies as a transgender woman and Kajjan as gay. While same sex marriage is not legal in Uganda, in 2015 the pair conducted a marriage ceremony in a hotel to celebrate their relationship. “We had happiness at the party” says Ashiraf, and then adds “and that was the day.” That was the day their new married life began, and also the day their lives changed for the worse. A friend took photos of the wedding and posted them on social media. Local newspapers got hold of the photos and published them. Two weeks later their neighbors recognized them in the newspaper and went to the police. They locked their door when they heard the mob with the police coming, and hid inside. They could hear them trying to enter and talking together: “They said a lot of stuff, that we are sons of evil, we need to go to hell, we shall kill them direct if we get them.” That night they packed their bags and left for Kenya. But life in Kenya was not what they had hoped. They struggled to be registered by the United Nations refugee agency, and struggled even more to find a place to settle down: “After three months in Kenya, our life was not good at all, as we kept on migrating from one place to another because Kenya is like Uganda they don’t allow us in here. We were beaten, abused, tortured on the way when we were moving,” says Ashiraf. “My boyfriend is HIV positive and I am negative but I have (high blood) pressure. Life is hard because we don’t have money to eat yet we have to take our medicine. The landlord is chasing us out of the house because we don’t have money. I tried to look for jobs but couldn’t get because I naturally look like a transgender. Whenever I go to look for jobs I am abused that I am a lady, sometimes beaten.” Kajjan reiterates the sentiments expressed by his wife: “Up to present time, we are still suffering because I am HIV positive though my boyfriend isn’t, we have nothing to eat, nor food.” Kenya, October 2017.
Robin Hammond/NOOR for Witness Change

The portraits

The campaign started with roughly 70 portraits shot by Hammond in Lebanon, Russia, Malaysia, Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, and Cameroon.
Today, the campaign has grown into a global movement.

Taking portraits of people who are stigmatized is obviously a serious endeavor.
There is a real risk of personal danger to the person being portrayed.
“Consent is something that we are always reaffirming,” says William Lounsbury describing the process. “It’s not simply an agreement at the beginning and then ‘done,'” he says. “We are reconfirming consent throughout the entire process.”

As an additional precaution, the photos are in large format instant film. If the person is not comfortable with the portrait, the one and only copy of the photo can be destroyed on the spot.

Each person handwrites their story and is free to share whatever they want.
“The only thing we ask is that the person writes a personal testimony about their identities as an LGBTQIA+ person. That is what we will publish on the website, and that’s what we use for our social media caption.”

The campaign also gathers “contributor stories.”
It’s the same principle; however, contributors submit photos that they themselves have taken.
Contributor stories allow the campaign to have a wider reach – stories are submitted directly to the Where Love Is Illegal website.
This approach also gives agency to contributors who choose how they wish to present themselves.

“We’re reaching people who need to see these stories
and need to know that they are not alone.”

The power of connection

The team behind Where Love Is Illegal strongly believes in the power of connection.
Learning the first-person stories of people who have survived discrimination and persecution offers the possibility to “connect people, transform opinions, open minds, and change policies.”

The stories are heart-rending. They explain how people stared cruelty and adversity directly in the face and then found the will to move on.
While none of the stories end with everyone living “happily ever after,” each is a powerful account of courage, hope, and humanity.

By sharing these intimate tales, Where Love is Illegal combines storytelling and social media to shine a light on injustice to create connection.
“Speaking out against bigotry is one of the greatest weapons in defeating it. We believe that ignorance should no longer be used as an alibi for inaction.”

I dream of kissing you in public

Unsplash / Elena Rabkina

Local to global impact

Where Love Is Illegal has a three-fold reach: broad, narrow, and local.

The NGO tries to “reach as many people as possible. We want to engage people in stories that they are not familiar with, and we want to engage with people who are having these experiences to see that they are not alone.”

The broad reach

The social media and traditional media spheres of Where Love Is Illegal address a broad audience.
William, Robin, and their team have a documented reach of over 200 million people. William shares his excitement for the diversity of the reach.

“When we started to see these audiences, big numbers that are from repressive countries, that’s when we got excited. Because we’re reaching people who need to see these stories and need to know that they are not alone.”

He also reports his amazement towards the comments threads on social media. Following some threads offers the possibility to see “somebody whose understanding of an issue has started to evolve just through a thread. Because the majority of the time, social media gives you the exact opposite effect. So to see it when it does play out well, it’s exciting.”

A narrow, targeted reach

Robin also spreads the word about this work through targeted exhibitions and talks given about the project.
He has delivered a Ted Talk, spoke at the UN, and worked with different foundations. Giving center stage to people affected by discrimination and violence brings a forceful perspective on the issue of LGBTQIA+ rights into these spaces.

This kind of advocacy, directly addressing changemakers, reaches a narrow audience and has the potential for global impact.

On the ground

“Every field project we do is always done with the support of a local organization. Working with somebody who is a local activist gives us credibility. They introduce us to people. They tell us from the beginning of the sins committed against them by the media, both locally and internationally. A lot of times, that is a huge issue. Many problems come from how the media represents people, in their own country but globally as well.”

Where Love Is Illegal is dedicated to communicating with communities on the ground to determine the most beneficial way to work together.
In doing so, they are also breaking the narrative of media exploitation of vulnerable communities.

Witness Change produces photojournalistic content for their campaigns and is dedicated to the local organizations they work with.
Fundraising campaigns, supporting imprisoned LGBTQ people, and curating local exhibitions are a few ways to advocate with local communities and activists.

Willaim confides, “A lot of times, it’s using the work to help local organizations to promote themselves and promote their stories in the media, and their communities.”

A posed portrait of 34 year old Human Rights Activist fighting for the rights of LGBTI people in Uganda and on the African continent, Kasha Jacqueline Nabagesera. She describes herself as one of the early pioneers of the LGBT struggle in Uganda and founder and former Executive Director of Freedom and Roam Uganda, the only exclusively Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Women’s rights organization in the country and currently founder and editor of Kuchu Times and Bombastic Magazine. Kasha is the recipient of the Martin Ennals Human Rights Defenders Award and the Nuremburg International Human Rights Award. She has several times been evicted by landlords because of her sexuality. She has been physically attacked many times. Kasha can no longer use public transport. “Every time the media talks about homosexuality in Uganda my face appears, the visibility is so much that it exposes me. People have threatened me with death many times, especially on social media. People have wished for me to be knocked down by cars. They want to cut off my head, kill me.” “Even if I receive these threats, words hurt and depress me, at the same time it allows me to know where I need to improve in my work – attitude change – that’s why I keep doing what I do. It hurts, but it doesn’t really put me down. One day it will change. I am happy to be part of the foundation for future generations to build on.” Uganda. March 2015.  Photo Robin Hammond/Panos for Witness Change

For more about Where Love Is Illegal

Learn more about Where Love Is Illegal on their website, Instagram and Facebook.

Likewise, check out Witness Change, the NGO which runs this campaign along with their other campaigns 1000 Dreams and In My World.

Feature image: KieferPix / Shutterstock