Last Thursday, Mads Nissen's photograph of a gay couple in a warm embrace in the heart of Russia, a country notorious for its anti-gay stance, was named the World Press Photo of the Year for 2014 in Amsterdam.
The winning image is part of a photo essay on the effects of an anti-gay law passed in Russia in 2013 banning "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations" among minors, because, as it states, "it is essential to put in place measures which provide for the intellectual, moral and mental wellbeing of children, including a ban on any activities aimed at popularising homosexuality … including instilling distorted ideas that society places an equal value on traditional and non-traditional sexual relations…"
But according to Nissen, a staff photographer for the Danish newspaper Politiken, the essay is about much more than this law.
"To me this image is not just about homophobia in Russia," he told us in an email. "It's an opportunity for all of us to look at ourselves, and ask if we are tolerant enough."
Nissen said that the photo essay was inspired by an incident that occurred in Saint Petersburg during the summer of 2013. A 23-year-old man who he had met just the day before, Pavel Lebedev, was approached by a man on the street who asked him, "Are you a faggot?"
Pavel calmly answered the question, "Yes, I am a homosexual."
Before he could even finish the word "homosexual," the stranger punched him in the face. Pavel was then forced to endure a barrage of kicks, punches, and spit.
Outraged, Nissen thought to himself, How can this be happening? Today? Something needs to be done.
He had seen videos of violent attacks from homophobic groups that kidnap gays and torture them for hours. He's photographed lesbian couples that fear their children might one day be taken away from them. He's been inside a Russian courthouse when people were being accused of a crime under the new anti-gay law.
But this was the breaking point. He decided he needed to be able to capture, in photo form, the underlying, unstoppable force under all the these issues: love — regardless of sexual orientation.
"I became a photographer to be able to tell important stories to the rest of the world," Nissen said. "This is happening right now. From Russia, to Amsterdam, to Shanghai, to Johannesburg, this image is creating debate about the rights of the LGBTs. That makes me humble and proud."
He was introduced to the photo's subjects, Alex and Jon, in May of last year. They hung out, had some beers, and eventually, the couple invited him into their bedroom for the shoot.
Then, at a certain, very intimate moment, this photo was snapped. As one young man gazes down tenderly at the other, he rests his hand gently on his lover's chest. It's an image of pure peace — they are in a safe place, surrounded by darkness and walls — but at the same time, we're aware of the dangers that lie outside those walls. It's about both love and hate. A gentle light bathes the two men, suggesting a wisp of hope, but we don't know where it's coming from.
And out of 97,912 pictures submitted by 5,692 press photographers, this one won.
"Today, terrorists use graphic images for propaganda," said World Press Photo jury member Alessia Glaviano, in a statement. "We have to respond with something more subtle, intense and thoughtful."