The latest winner of the World Press Photo contest captures a stark, intimate moment between a same-sex couple in a country notoriously hostile to LGBT rights. Danish photographer Mads Nissen photographed Alex and Jon of St. Petersburg, Russia, as they embraced, unclothed and in the dark. As the light hits the young men’s faces, their bodies are in shadow. While one man rests his hands on the other’s chest and stares at him lovingly, it is unclear where one starts and the other ends. The photo is nothing short of the embodiment of the romantic ideal of two becoming one.
Nissen’s image is all the more arresting considering that Vladimir Putin has made the oppression of LGBT minorities in Russia a top priority in recent years. “I met two young men, Jon and Alex, in a bar. It was a lovely May evening in St. Petersburg,” Nissen told the British Journal of Photography. “We ended up back at Alex’s apartment, they did their thing, and I was a witness.” The photo is parts of Nissen’s larger series of photographs “Homophobia in Russia,” which includes images of victims of physical attacks and couples who risk losing their children. “This is an attempt to understand what it’s like to live with forbidden love in modern Russia,” Nissen said of the project on his website.