In 2010, British photojournalist Bradley Secker traveled to Damascus, Syria, to begin covering the situation of gay Iraqi men who were fleeing Iraq due to a spate of homophobic violence and murders in the country.
“I’d previously traveled and spent time in much of [the eastern Mediterranean] and heard plenty of good and bad firsthand stories about gay life, which is how the subject was initially on my radar,” Secker told NBC News.
It was then that Secker began following the situation of gay men and those accused of being gay in Iraq more closely, relying on friends who lived in Syria and Lebanon to keep him updated on major events, violations and rights issues.
“The subject wasn’t getting a huge amount of press attention and was predominantly highlighted by human rights organizations,” Secker said. “I wanted to help tell some of the stories those men had lived through photography and journalism.”
Since then, Secker has spent seven years documenting through photography the lives of LGBTQ asylum seekers from across the region — Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey. Currently based in Istanbul, his photo project Kütmaan continues to document the lives of those forced to flee their homes due to persecution over their sexual or gender identity.
“After relocating to Turkey [in 2011], I continued shooting stories about others from Iran, southeastern Turkey and later Syria and Iraq once again,” Secker said. “The project continues to develop as new stories develop.”
Kütmaan is a combination of different bodies of photography work — including Secker’s initial work documenting gay men who fled violence in Iraq and his most recent photography project focusing on the lives of LGBTQ refugee sex workers in Turkey.
The photos are telling and cover a wide range of experiences and emotions. In one photo, a man proposes to his boyfriend during a birthday celebration in Istanbul, surrounded by smiling friends. Both are gay men from Syria who fled to Turkey hoping for resettlement outside the region.
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In another photo, a transgender man sits on his bed in Turkey while on a Skype call with his girlfriend who lives in another part of the country. The man had fled to Turkey from Iran, where those who are transgender still face stigma despite gender confirmation surgery being subsidized by the Iranian government. Homosexuality in the country is criminalized and can be punished by death.
“The goal of my work is to put names and faces to the many, many people who are forced to flee their homes and lives due to their sexuality and or gender identity,” Secker explained. “I want to create dialogue, challenge perceptions and promote understanding.”
In some cases, Secker keeps the identity of the individuals he photographs anonymous to help protect them from further persecution.
In one photo, a gay man from Syria stands on a rooftop in Istanbul — his silhouette the only thing visible against the city skyline. Secker describes this particular image as a sign of life and defiance against the brutal imagery of ISIS throwing gay men off of rooftops.
Secker uses many methods to connect with the individuals he photographs for the project, including reaching out to LGBTQ activists and organizations, as well as using social media and hook-up apps to arrange meetings. Secker said finding willing subjects to photograph can take some time and effort.
“As the subject is rather sensitive, it obviously takes some time to gain people’s trust and [permission] to photograph them, sometimes with their faces, sometimes not,” Secker said.
He said finding individuals to photograph for his most recent project focusing on LGBTQ refugee sex workers has proven especially challenging.
“There’s a sense of shame for many of those working in the sex industry, and of course with exposing themselves, as well as all that comes with being a refugee in an unfamiliar country,” he explained.
Despite all these challenges, Secker has remained committed to documenting the lives of LGBTQ asylum seekers in the region with the hopes of bringing more awareness to their stories and the difficulties they face.
Perhaps the most tragic story Secker has heard through his work was the story of Danial, a gay Iranian man who sold his kidney to get the money he needed to escape Iran. “That was the most heartbreaking and tormenting,” he said.
But Secker points out there have been moments of optimism in his work as well, such as his experience documenting Mr. Gay Syria in 2016, which was the first time a candidate was chosen to represent Syria in the annual Mr. Gay World pageant.
“It was a story of such optimism, defiance and struggle that I found it empowering and inspiring,” Secker added.
He also noted that many of the individuals he has photographed have now built new lives for themselves in places where they have more freedom to live openly.
“Fortunately, the vast majority [of individuals I have photographed] are in better, safer environments and living new lives in Europe, Canada or the [United States] after being granted asylum."