Mads Nissen, the winner of the 2015 World Press Photo of the Year, is an inspiring individual. His award-winning shot came from a larger series about homophobia in Russia. Here, we present to you a selection from the series as well as an in-depth interview conducted by managing editor Alexander Strecker during the World Press Photo Award Days in Amsterdam.
LC : Let’s begin with the biggest question: can you tell us more about the now famous image?
MN: The image was made in the bedroom of Alex [one of the men in the photo]. It’s part of a larger body of work on homophobia in Russia that I started the work in 2013. At one point during my work, I felt that there was something missing. I realized my work is not about politics or religion, nor this new anti-gay law. It’s just about two humans who are in love with each other. Two humans who are attracted to each other regardless of gender. So, I decided to look for pictures of love.
This was important, so that the audience could connect with my body of work. In order for them to do that, I needed a picture that worked as a mirror to [the viewer]—the viewer needs a bridge into the work. Often, it’s those intimate moments that create that bridge for the audience to engage more, to see themselves as the persons in the story.
LC: When you made the frame, or when you were looking at it after, did you have any feeling that this was an amazing image, or has that only come afterwards?
MN: When I do stories, I obviously do a lot of research before—a lot of thinking—on the visual style, how to approach, how to convey the particular story. But when I am in the moment, I do not think too much, I just go with my instincts.
It’s like dancing. If you think too much, there’s no point. Just go with the flow; go with the feeling. That’s what empathy is about. You’re trying to put yourself in the mind of someone else. I’m not gay, but I can relate to being in love, and I can relate to being passionate, and if I’m photographing, say, a funeral, I do the same thing. It’s not my brother’s death, but the pain they’re having and feeling, I can relate to it.
I’m always looking for images that stand out. Not just a documentation of what was happening, but also that have the potential to become a metaphor or a symbol of something bigger. That metaphor can be a universal human feeling—the kind of material from which great novels or poetry or storytelling is made. Things that are larger than the stuff you see in concrete reality…that’s what I’m looking for.
LC: The aesthetic of your winning image is very distinctive, one could even say artful. Can you talk about injecting an artful aesthetic into a photo-documentary context—what does that add to the images’ strength or communicative power?
MN: What I need in these exciting times—filled with so much information—is not more work, but better work—work that touches me more. Often, I see awful stories from around the world, but they don’t touch me. Aesthetics and intimacy are the keys to open those stories; to make people engage with those stories.
I think the lovely thing about photography (when it’s at its best) is that it doesn’t just speak to your brain—it speaks to your heart. There needs to be something for the eye but then hopefully it goes to your guts, to your stomach, and that’s where you really feel it. You don’t even think about it, you just see the image and you respond, instinctively, to its message. And from there it goes up to your brain and you start to think, “How do I feel about this?”
A lot of people want to take the image apart from the storytelling, but for me they’re very connected. As with a written article: if it’s written very, very well, it engages you more and opens you up to the story. I don’t want to take pictures just so people can see how it was. I want to take pictures so people can feel how it was—for me that’s very important.
LC: Stepping away from the work a little bit: you have lived in China, you did this project in Russia, and you work as a newspaper staff photographer. What do you see as the role of the press, specifically the role of photography, within politically repressive societies?
MN: Freedom of the press is a crucial pillar of democracy. If we don’t know what’s happening, how are we to decide on anything? But in all regimes, we see how the government tries to repress the free media. Luckily, there will always be individuals pushing the other way—pushing for more freedom. Once in a while, they break through and then once in a while they’re pushed back—it’s an ongoing struggle.
LC: Russia is more open than China (I think) but I imagine you had to be careful with some of your (homosexual) subjects’ identities? Especially given the hostile environment that you show in your photographs…
MN: In the case of the LGBT communities in Russia, there were always some people who would say, “I prefer not to have my image saved,” and that was something I completely respected. If I do take their image, and it does get published, maybe they will get fired from their job or maybe they will be arrested. It’s a huge responsibility.
LC: So do John and Alex know that their portrait was named the photo of the year?
MN: Oh yeah. One of the first things I did after getting the phone call was to reach out to John and Alex. They were super happy. The whole LGBT community was super happy. If you go onto the Facebook profile of Alex, you can see the image on his wall. It’s great how they are always saying, ” We won,” ”We are exhibiting there.” That’s how I want it to be. It’s not about me. It’s about them, their situation, their story. I’m so happy that they keep the ownership of the story.
Still, I have to be careful: the law is tricky [in Russia]. It says you cannot make propaganda for “non-traditional sexual relationships” to minors. It’s a little bit weak in its description but also so broad. For example, my image will be shown in Russia [Moscow and St. Petersburg as part of the traveling World Press Photo exhibition] but if you’re under 18, you can’t go in. And if you’re a homosexual and have kids, you can’t tell them that it’s OK to be gay. So things are both permissive and restrictive.
LC: You’ve been a staff photographer for a few years while also pursuing personal projects. What’s the relationship between the two like?
MN: I’ve been working as a staff photographer for six years, and in Denmark we don’t have magazines really, so if you want to publish serious documentary photography, it’s in the newspapers. But I work for a great newspaper. It not only respects but even encourages documentary work and long-term projects.
In addition, my colleagues in the newspaper are some of the brightest minds in my country. Each day, they give me more ideas. When I was working on my project on homophobia in Russia, I could talk with them about it and learn so much. Being with great journalists inspires me so much.
Of course, working at a newspaper, there are also daily assignments: portraits (lots of portraits), press conferences. But that’s fine. As a freelancer, I spent a lot of time worrying about assignments and what was going to happen tomorrow. At the newspaper, I have the chance to just focus on taking pictures.
Fundamentally, the daily routine gives me balance. Before, I had been traveling a lot, covering many difficult issues: conflicts and so on. When I was on the road, I had to be sensitive to keeping my internal balance. When I lose that, then maybe I can’t deal with my own emotions. And then I can’t deal with other people’s emotions—and if I can’t deal with their emotions, the pictures will reflect that.
I need to be in balance in order to make pictures that really have the intimacy that I’m looking for. So in that sense, when I’m shooting one of those portraits for the newspapers, it’s totally OK with me. You cannot run a marathon every day. I’d rather do these daily assignments and be shooting every single day than lose my balance. Right now, it’s a great combination. But who knows—maybe in five years I’ll have to find something else.
—Mads Nissen, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ Note: You can see more of our favorites from the 2015 World Press Photo Awards in our feature article.
Also, read Mads Nissen’s acceptance speech from Amsterdam—truly inspiring words from an inspiring young photographer!