Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of anti-LGBT violence.
The five young men couldn’t risk being seen speaking to a foreigner about what they’d done, so they met secretly with Robin Hammond in his hotel room.
The men explained they had been found guilty of practicing homosexuality — a crime punishable by death in Northern Nigeria. Fortunately, their convictions fell short of the most severe sentence, but they still suffered 20-25 lashes each, were ostracized by their families, and effectively became homeless.
Their stories changed the course of Hammond’s career in a big way.
Hammond, a contributing photographer for National Geographic, has been visiting Africa for years capturing the continent through his camera lens. He’s witnessed firsthand the extreme homophobia and transphobia that exists in many regions there.
This time felt different though.
“It wasn’t until I’d heard these personal stories that it really became real to me,” Hammond, who met with the young men in 2014, told Upworthy. “Very rarely did we ever hear from the survivors of this bigotry.”
Inspired to do more, Hammond launched “Where Love Is Illegal” in May 2015 with $20,000 from the Getty Images Creative Grant. The online project documents stories and photos of LGBT people who’ve been persecuted for their sexual orientation or gender identity.
As Hammond put it, “These people are saying, ‘You can discriminate against me, you can beat me, you can call me names. But you won’t silence me.’”
“Where Love Is Illegal” evolved into a global movement of storytelling focused on promoting change.
At first, Hammond thought his series would be contained within Africa. But as it grew, so did Hammond’s realization that anti-LGBT attitudes are virtually everywhere, and his project should reflect that.
So “Where Love Is Illegal” went global. Hammond has visited seven countries to document LGBT people and their stories thus far — in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
It’s crucial to Hammond that the queer people in his photos have control over the way they are portrayed.
“I am an outsider coming into their community and trying to tell their story,” Hammond says. “So what I wanted to do in the creation of this work was try and find a way where it wasn’t just my take on it, but the stories were really coming from them, and weren’t just about them.”
That’s why each person in the project chooses how they are photographed, and the stories complementing each image are written by them, unedited.
But Hammond wanted “Where Love Is Illegal” to have even further reach. So he decided to lend his platform to anyone who wanted to utilize it.
Although the stories are gut-wrenching, the people who tell them “are not what happened to them.” They’re so much more.
“While the stories that we are sharing are stories of survival — which often mean people are describing some of the most horrendous abuse,” Hammond says. “So many of those people, despite what they’ve been through, have come out stronger because of it.”
Hammond hopes the photos inspire others to fight for change — especially those in countries that have already experienced that change.
Many of the people who’ve learned about “Where Love Is Illegal” are in developed countries where queer people are generally more free to be who they are, according to Hammond. That’s great, because it’ll take a worldwide effort to create justice for everyone.
“We can’t let the fight for equality stop at our own borders,” he explained. “It’s not just a nice thing to try and help people outside our own countries, it’s a moral obligation.”
The effects of “Where Love Is Illegal” is just beginning.
In the coming months, Hammond hopes to launch workshops in countries he’s visiting for the project, equipping LGBT people with the tools to tell their own stories in their own communities. This way, each person becomes a catalyst for change.
“I believe in the power of storytelling to connect people,” Hammond said. “And if it’s done well, it can move people to take action.”
After all, it takes more than powerful photos to prompt progress.
“None of this really makes any difference unless there’s real change on the ground,” Hammond said. “Storytelling and raising awareness is a good thing, but I feel like I will have done a disservice to these people if we don’t actually come together and try to make real change.”