Jake Naughton  \\ Mexico-Based Photographer
Mexico City / +521 55 5107 5756

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This is How the Heart Beat: East Africa’s LGBTQ Refugees

This is How the Heart Beats is a three-part project about the LGBTQ refugees of East Africa. It follows them from their homes in Uganda where they faced unimaginable abuse, to Kenya, a country they fled to but where they face the same hardship, to the United States where many are eventually resettled, though the process takes years.

In Uganda, the notorious “Kill the Gays” bill caused an international uproar. In its wake, LGBTQ activists received funding and a global platform that would have been unimaginable without the bill. But the visibility created a grassroots allergic reaction, and though the rhetoric has died down and the bill has been defanged, attacks and abuse are on the rise, and to be gay in Uganda today may be more dangerous than ever before.

In the months after the bill’s passage, Sulait and his boyfriend were tortured in a Uganda prison, and so they fled to Kenya only to be attacked by a mob of men with machetes there. Hundreds of others from countries around the region fled to Kenya to escape homophobia too. They hoped for peace, but instead, found only more persecution.

After years of waiting in hiding in Kenya, many resettle in the US. But America is not the paradise they imagined. Persecution and fear are replaced by isolation and anxiety about an unknown future.

This project was envisioned and created as photojournalism, and was published in a variety of outlets. But, eventually the opportunity to share it with the public in a different way arose, and so the final four images here are of an exhibition at Photoville.


When We Were Strangers

What does it mean to be in love? My partner Juan and I have tried to tease out the answer through a yearslong collaboration. When We Were Strangers examines the experience of loving another from the perspective of a couple deeply entrenched in a relationship.

At its most basic, falling in love means cleaving away something of yourself and becoming something else. Painful and unnatural, it is geologic in aspirations but minute in practice, flecked with the possibility of the sublime.

In images and prose we try to understand this journey we have embarked upon together. We weave together the sublime, the difficult and the everyday moments that comprise a relationship. We are interested in the frayed edges, the messy intersections, the elements of oneself lost and new facets gained in the process, and the limits to all of that.

It's a collaboration in the deepest sense of the word, with decisions about what to shoot, and how, made jointly. Earlier this year, we published this first chapter of what we envision as a lifelong project as a book. This first chapter is a love poem, one that explores what happens when two people attempt to become something more and less than themselves. It charts the beginnings of a relationship and everything that follows.

The final five images below are of the book, and an exhibition at United Photo Industries that coincided with the book’s launch.


Both Sides of the Veil: Living and Loving in Queer India

In 2009, the Delhi High Court decriminalized Section 377 of the Indian penal code, which made same-sex sexual activity illegal. Just a few years later, in 2013, the Supreme Court nullified that decision, making homosexuality illegal once more. Then, at the beginning of September 2018, the Indian Supreme Court struck down Section 377 once and for all, ending years of limbo.

But for a time, India had the peculiar distinction of being one of the only (if not the only) countries in the world to have decriminalized and then re-criminalized homosexuality.

After three years of working within the confines of documentary image-making for This is How the Heart Beats, creating work which exposed a grave reality but which answered for rather than asked questions of the viewer, I sought a more collaborative and open-ended approach for Both Sides of the Veil.

Using fabric, and enlisting the support of members of the LGBTQ community in India, myself and my collaborator on the project, Aarti Singh, created a series of dynamic portraits that visibly drew attention to the limbo the queer community faced and the uncertain future ahead. The project also included audio interviews with subjects as well as video portraits.

Conceived of as an immersive exhibition (more here), the work was first shown in India in a massive public exhibition at the India Habitat Centre in order to spur a dialogue about what the future holds for the LGBTQ community. Taken as a whole, the project is an extended meditation on progress, seen through the lives of people most upended by its about-face.

The final four images are of the exhibition in Delhi.