Look. See. The curtain is being opened in Where Love Is Illegal, by Robin Hammond, at Seattle Art Museum.
Look. See. The curtain is being opened in Where Love Is Illegal, by Robin Hammond, at Seattle Art Museum. JG

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Each photograph in Where Love Is Illegal features a person or a pair of people (a couple, or a mother and child) who by having their photograph taken and included in this series are declaring their identities as LGBTQI.

These aren't photographs of something, they're the kind of photographs that mean to do something by existing. They're pictures of people across the Middle East, Russia, and Africa, on display through July 1 in a hallway that's separated from the regular galleries at Seattle Art Museum, situated right inside the door to Hammering Man, where you can see them without paying any admission at all. (They're on view thanks to a partnership between SAM, the Gates Foundation, and the Pride Foundation.)

Each of the people who look at the lens in these pictures is making a decision to be visible. Each makes that decision over and over again with every pair of eyes that looks back at them, for who knows what could happen? Images that circulate across the world and the internet can put people at risk. What if someone recognizes so-and-so, and appearing in the photograph comes back to hurt them? Could this blog post bring harm?

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It is not unthinkable that the people in the photographs, in other words, are at greater risk because of the photographs. At the same time, the photographs are defiant evidence of their personal choice to take the risk. What were the conversations like with the photographer, Robin Hammond?

And who wrote and edited the stories that are printed alongside the photographs? Some are more authoritative-sounding than others, which suggests that the tellers had a say in the way they were represented in text. (A little explanatory information about process in photography exhibits like these would go a long way.)

There are also visual cues that the people appearing in the photographs helped to create the settings for the pictures. Some wear costumes and pose in front of curtains. Some are verité-style, seeming to represent the emotional state of the sitter at the time of the telling. Some use the visual cues of their particular locations—hijabs or patterned wallpapers—as ways to play hide and seek with representing a culture or context and separating from it.

The stories detail the ways in which the people are persecuted where they live for being who they are. The relationship between the pictures and the stories is that the pictures enact a relationship with what they do not picture: beatings, arrests, rapes, disownings, shamings, imprisonment. In other words, this is not crime-scene photography, though this is photography about crimes against people.

The problem is not a specific place with a specific problematic culture or religion or set of laws, the problem is the requirement that certain people choose between being seen and being allowed to live, which happens everywhere.

How did Hammond find people? They chose their stances in different ways and for various reasons. One bi-gender person strips off their clothing above the waist and holds a knife at the ready, prepared to avenge their past attackers, daring them to come again.

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Not everyone can afford to be "out" even to people halfway around the world, so some of the subjects agreed to be photographed but made sure they were depicted in the act of hiding, of living in hiding. They covered their faces or turned away, revealing concealing. So much is lost in the hidden expressions and appearances.

The pictures carry the wish that truly being seen might mean safety, and a chance to live truly and truly live. The photographs also carry death in them. Some of the subjects are no longer alive.

Hammond traveled the world to take these portraits, and you can only set eyes on them in Seattle for a few more days. Meeting these particular eyes, and recognizing how that moment of being seen is so often used against these same people, you are faced with the opportunity to mirror their decision, and begin to show up.