Danish newspaper staffer Mads Nissen won the World Press Photo of the Year award Thursday for his portrait of a gay couple in St. Petersburg, Russia. The image captures Jon and Alex in "an intimate moment," according to a news release, and received praise for bringing attention to the struggles of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people living in a nation often seen as homophobic.
“It is an historic time for the image," said judge Michele McNally, director of photography and assistant managing editor of the New York Times. "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.”
The annual World Press Photo contest recognizes the best in international photojournalism. War scenes, death and protests dominated this year's submissions, TIME reported, including scenes from Ukraine, West Africa and Ferguson, Missouri. The picture of Jon and Alex is part of a series called "Homophobia in Russia," for which Nissen spent a year with gay activists as they fought for civil rights. The mostly self-funded project started when Nissen saw a friend be attacked after kissing his boyfriend.
"As a photographer, but also just as a human being, you notice a lot of changes or tendencies in society that are difficult to ignore, even though they can be quite hard to identify," Nissen told the British Journal of Photography.
Nissen is a 35-year-old photographer at Politiken, one of Denmark's biggest newspapers. He attended the Danish School of Media and Journalism in Copenhagen, spent two years in China and moved back to Denmark in 2009. Nissen has freelanced for Newsweek, TIME and Der Spiegel, among other publications, according to his website. Nissen won third prize in the World Press Photo contest's daily life category in 2011. This time around, his Photo of the Year submission was selected from 97,912 images by 5,692 photographers.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Russia as it was under the Soviet Union, but the country has recently ramped up its efforts to prohibit "nontraditional sexual practices," the Washington Post reported. In 2013, authorities outlawed any related propaganda that could influence minors, effectively stopping gay rights parades, discussion of equality on TV and schoolteachers' lessons on the subject. The issue garnered particular attention during the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, during which several LGBT athletes came out and protested.
Nissen's photo shows that love can be "an answer in the context of all that is going on in the world," said World Press Photo judge Alessia Glaviano in the news release. She added, "It is about love as a global issue, in a way that transcends homosexuality."