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'Forbidden Identities' Documents LGBT Russians' Dangerous Lives

Greek photographer Leonidas Toubanos grew up in Athens and lives in Scotland, but recently he's been spending time in Russia photographing the country’s LGBT community.

by Tom Griggs
Sep 7 2014, 5:48pm

Photos by Leonidas Toubanos 

Greek photographer Leonidas Toubanos grew up in Athens and lives in Scotland, but recently he's been spending time in Russia photographing the country’s LGBT community. Thanks to homophobic laws, the artist’s subjects face a hostile—and often violent—social environment. For this and other reasons, Toubanos calls his project Forbidden Identities. Wanting to learn more about the photos, I spoke to him about his subjects' difficult lives and the risks they took to participate in the project.

VICE: How did you end up photographing gay and lesbian couples in Russia?
Leonidas Toubanos: My aim is to create images of anthropological, social, and political interest. From my point of view, a society should depend on mutual understanding and aid for all of its members. Photography is used as a source of information for not only local but also for international current affairs as well. I believe that we, as image makers, have a duty to uncover all the aspects of a society—and definitely not just the positive ones. By bringing the negative ones into the public light, we contribute to the acknowledgement that it is something that society should improve.

How did you find your subjects?
I found the phone number of a LGBT community advocacy center on the internet, and I just made a phone call to their office in Saint Petersburg—I didn’t have any personal contacts. I explained to them the details of my project, and they sent emails to LGBT activists in Russia. I got positive answers from more than ten couples, plus some single LGBT members that were very keen to help me. One of them volunteered to help me with the production of my project and planned my trip in depth. She arranged all the appointments and also helped me with translation. Moreover, she tried to filter my meetings, because we were afraid of attacks by homophobic people. It is common for homophobic people to create an account in gay or lesbian chat sites and arrange appointments with them. We all know what happens next.

What’s daily life like for most of these people?
LGBT communities are very often at the center of criticism, as people with non-traditional sexual orientation are easy prey and treated as the scapegoat of society. Russia holds a special place even among countries with harsh conditions for LGBT members, as violent attacks and crimes occur almost on a daily basis. One girl told me that, at her current job, her manager asked her in her interview if she is a lesbian. She asks this question to everyone that they interview; they don’t accept gays or lesbians in her job. Another problem is the violent attacks from homophobic people—LGBT people can be beaten at any time if someone knows that they are gay.

Were your subjects concerned about the potential risks of appearing in the photographs?
Most of these people are activists, so their participation in my project is a way to protest against the law. But other participants asked me not to publish my project in Russia because they were afraid of losing their jobs or they didn’t want their relatives to know that they [identity as] gay or lesbian. It is a sensitive matter, and I have to be very careful regarding the distribution of my images. I am in touch with the participants, and I always ask them before a publication. My aim is to help them and not to create additional problems in their daily lives.

Did making these photographs put you at risk?
I don’t really think that I will have any problem. Maybe I will not visit Russia again. I know that what I am doing is right. I think the anti-LGBT propaganda laws and all these homophobic people are amoral. My only concerns were about the people that I photographed. I realized how brave they were, and that gives me courage. 

During the Sochi Olympics, the media paid attention to the issues facing Russia's LGBT community. In your opinion, has the media attention decreased since the Olympics ended?
I realized after the end of the Sochi Olympics that the interest of Western countries, and of the media in general, has not been the same. Nowadays, news changes rapidly, and I think that the problems that the LGBT community faces in Russia remain the same.

What are you ultimately trying to show in these images?
I am interested in developing a visual language that would push the viewer from the act of looking to the more important act of seeing—that would challenge [viewers'] preconceptions and force them to actively position themselves in the discourse of social matters. 

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