Editor’s note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion and head of the network’s Change the List project, which focuses on social justice around the world.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed an anti-homosexuality bill into law on Monday, February 24. The version of the bill that passed no longer includes a death penalty clause for some homosexual acts. This story published in October 2013.
It was meant to look like an execution.
In 2009 and 2010, photographer Tadej Znidarcic, 39, posed the gay Ugandans in front of a crumbling wall, their backs to his camera.
The simple, anonymous stance could be interpreted several ways. Maybe the men and women were turning their backs on a society that blasted their names and photos on the front pages of newspapers and had criminalized their sexual orientation.
Maybe the wall symbolized the cultural, legal and political obstacles Uganda dropped in front of its gay and lesbian citizens.
Or, most directly, maybe they were about to be shot.
“When they execute you,” Znidarcic said, “they put you in front of the wall and then they shoot you. Often they would blind your eyes and they kill you.”
That didn’t seem far-fetched in 2009 Uganda, since that was the year the parliament first considered the “Kill the Gays Bill,” which called for gays and lesbians to be executed under certain circumstances because of who they are.
The pose, then, also had a practical purpose: The gay and lesbian subjects of Znidarcic’s photographs weren’t willing to show their faces publicly. To do so would have risked too much. They were invisible by necessity.
But when Znidarcic, a physicist-turned-photojournalist from Slovenia who has been living in Uganda for four years, revisited his subjects earlier this year, much had changed.
The subjects no longer wanted to hide.
“The majority said, ‘No, no, no, no. I want to be seen. I want people to know we are here and who we are,’ ” Znidarcic said. “It’s amazing, in a way, how brave they are.”
The title of his photo essay, “Here we are, we are gay and we are Ugandans,” is taken from a quote spoken by one of his subjects. The project features 12 gay and lesbian Ugandans photographed by Znidarcic from behind in 2009 and 2010 – and from the front this year.
He paired the images to emphasize their transformation.
They’re turning around for the world to see.
“Each day I get friend requests, messages from the world over,” John, one of the subjects of the photo series, told Znidarcic. “That has encouraged me. I live a quiet life in the neighborhood, befriend people and make them understand about who I am and dispel the stereotype that we are like a virus.”
Last year, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, said anti-gay discrimination does not exist in his country. There are openly gay people in Uganda who have proven otherwise by facing cameras and sharing their stories.
Znidarcic and other journalists have documented the nation’s difficult coming out process.
In 2011, a gay rights activist, David Kato, was beaten to death after his name was published in a tabloid’s list of the country’s “top 100 homosexuals.” That list, according to a CNN report, included photos, addresses and the headline “Hang Them.”
Much work remains, of course.
But Znidarcic sees great reason for hope.
When he started taking photos of gay Ugandans in 2009, there were only two or three people in the country who were publicly open about their sexual orientation. He set out to document the lives or ordinary, gay Ugandans, contacting them through friends of friends to gain their trust and assure them anonymity.
Taking the photos was a painful and covert process.
“I would say, ‘OK, now look at the ground,’ and I would start photographing,” he said. “They were a little bit uncomfortable because they didn’t know what was happening behind their back. Sometimes people would pass by and they would comment like, ‘What are you guys doing?’ … We were not just free to experiment for hours.”
Now most of the people he’s worked with are out.
It has caused them problems at work and with their families.
But their boldness inspires Znidarcic.
Perhaps it’s just symbolic, but when Znidarcic returned to this project in 2013, he couldn’t use the same, crumbling walls that originally served as his backdrop.
One of them had been painted white.
“I passed by and I said, ‘Wow, the wall is gone,’ ” he said. “They painted it.”
The backdrop for the country’s political fight, too, had changed.
Now, if Uganda wishes to further strip away the rights of gay and lesbian citizens, it not only must answer a vocal international community, it also will be forced to look directly into the eyes of its gay and lesbian citizens.
- John D. Sutter, CNN