Photojournalism and civil disobedience

“Because make no mistake; in many parts of the world, distributing this image, will cost you your freedom.
Being in this peaceful image will get you killed”
Mads Nissen

On February 12, 2015, “Jon and Alex” by Mads Nissen won the 2014 World Press Photo Contest. An international jury of leading professionals in the field chose this photo among 97,912 photos submitted by 5,692 photographers, photojournalists and documentary photographers from around the world. The image depicts a gay couple sharing an intimate moment in St. Petersburg, Russia.

After the adoption of anti-gay laws in Russia in June 2013, homophobia has been on the rise there. This law, which claims to protect minors, bans propaganda promoting “non-traditional sexual relationships”, and explicitly prohibits anyone from stating that gay relationships are like heterosexual relationships. As a consequence of this law, actions against gays and gay right activists have spread by both legal and illegal means. This ambiguously legalized persecution has been documented by Mads Niessen in the series called “Homophobia in Russia”, which includes “Jon and Alex”.

Beyond the beauty and aesthetic power of the photo, one can ask questions about its political meaning. Is Niessen’s work inserting the spectator into the private sphere in which this moment takes place or is a private moment taken out of (“its”) context and put into the public realm? Moreover, should we keep using the public/private dichotomy even if we are aware that “private” practices of individual subjectification are inextricably politicized? Then, where exactly is resistance taking place?

Now that the World Press Photo exhibition tour has begun in Amsterdam, and will move around the globe, the anticipated controversy has become a political issue. After the sponsors of the exhibition in Moscow withdrew their support, a crowdfunding campaign has just started. It is clear that any kind of material support for the exhibition will be perceived as promoting gay propaganda in Russia. The mere act of housing the exhibition in Russia would be considered an illegal act. The subtle politically motivated disobedience that Jon and Alex, Mads Nissen and World Press Photo have artistically stitched together, has now opened up the opportunity for acts of full civil disobedience. Would we be civilly disobedient in donating to this campaign or in reproducing or sharing this artwork?

Nissen’s words at the 2015 Award Ceremony are very much to the point: “with this photograph, we are challenging homophobia and the hetero-normative definition of love”. They are certainly doing it, while at the same time they allow us to rethink the traditional understanding of civil disobedience based on new practices and contexts.