Margaret Eby
February 13, 2015 8:27 am

Yesterday, the annual World Press Photo of the year (for 2014, that is) was awarded to Danish photographer Mads Nissen for his striking image of a gay couple — Jon (who is 21) and Alex (who is 25) — sharing a tender moment in St. Petersburg.

Nissen described the image of Jon and Alex as “a modern day Romeo and Juliet story,” a romance complicated by outside forced. He also told the British Journal of Photography about how the photo came to be. Nissen said: “I met two young men, Jon and Alex, in a bar. It was a lovely May evening in St Petersburg. We drank a lot of beer and we talked about our lives a lot, and I told them I wanted to photograph them together. We ended up back at Alex’s apartment, they did their thing, and I was a witness.”

It’s a beautiful photograph: Well-balanced, expertly composed, and captivating to look at. But the image that Nissen took is not just gorgeous, it’s also incredibly important. The photo is part of Nissen’s series, Homophobia in Russia, in which he documents everyday life for LGBT people in a country where the political climate is increasingly hostile toward them. The climate is so hostile in fact that President Vladimir Putin, as the Daily Beast put it, “has made the oppression of LGBT minorities in Russia a top priority in recent years.”

“This is an attempt to understand what it’s like to live with forbidden love in modern Russia,” Nissen wrote on his website. He went on to more fully explain the political atmosphere saying, “In June 2013, Russia’s homophobia moved from the streets into the country’s legislation, as the State Duma unanimously adopted an anti-gay law banning ‘propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,’ effectively making it illegal to hold any gay pride events, speak in defense of gay rights, or say that gay relationships are equal to heterosexual relationships. Sexual minorities face legal and social discrimination, harassment, and even violent hate crime attacks from conservative religious and nationalistic groups.” It’s a shocking climate and lifting the curtain on the individuals it is hurting is part of what makes this photograph as crucial as it is. 

Michele McNally, who is director of photography as well assistant managing editor at The New York Times and Jury Chair for the World Press Photo contest commented on the photograph in a statement saying: “It is an historic time for the image . . . the winning image needs to be aesthetic, to have impact, and to have the potential to become iconic. This photo is aesthetically powerful, and it has humanity.”

Nissen, who is a staff photographer at the Danish newspaper Politiken, won a 10,000 euro prize for the image. But naturally it is what the photograph captures — the private worlds operating within the contemporary crisis faced by Russia’s LGBT community — that makes the photograph both so incredibly important and so entirely moving.

[Image via]