Last year, photographer Stella Asia Consonni began her Love Me series, photographing couples in love as a way of moving past her own recent break-up. One of these images, featuring two men, Jordan and Luca mid-kiss, was uploaded to Instagram by Consonni and subsequently deleted by the social media platform because it “didn’t follow community guidelines”, much to Consonni’s shock and anger. To make matters worse, this occurred on the same week as Pride events around the world were in full flow.
Instagram later issued a feeble apology and allowed the image to be re-uploaded, but it was the homophobic hate mail that the Italian-born photographer received that really horrified her. “I was shocked to see the horrible, violent comments the image received,” Consonni tells us below. “People said things like ‘disgusting’ and ‘death to all gays’.. the weirdest ones were the mad religious people talking about how gays and people like me ‘promoting homosexuality’ would ‘burn in hell after the final judgement’. I even got death threats to my personal email that’s nowhere to be found on the web, which was quite spooky.”
Appalled by the hate, yet also staggered by the overwhelming support she received, Consonni decided that the best way to deal with these bigots was to celebrate inclusive love and bring it to the attention of as many people as possible. This week, Consonni opens a new exhibition in Shoreditch showcasing her Love Me photo series, alongside a kissing booth where couples can kiss and have their picture taken and printed.
Alex James Taylor: What was the initial concept behind the series?
Stella Asia Consonni: The project started off as a self-healing process. Following a painful breakup and in need of a solution to the horrible feelings of abandonment and low self-esteem, I turned to my camera and decided to shoot people in love. Working on images of tender intimacy was brutally painful, I remember trying not to get tears on my negatives while scanning (I think I ruined a couple!), but it also reminded me that love still existed out there.
The project was meant to be a celebration of youth, diversity and equality. The subjects, mostly strangers to me, opened their homes and their hearts with their stories, dreams, fears and hopes, which was very heartwarming.
“When I saw that the image was taken down I was left speechless.”
AJT: You published the photo of Jordan and Luca on your Instagram and it was deleted by the platform. Can you talk us through that?
SAC: When I published the image it didn’t even cross my mind that it could have offended anyone and cause controversy, Jordan and Luca kissed so passionately that the only thing I could see there was love. I was shocked to see the horrible violent comments the image received. People said things like “disgusting” and “death to all gays”, the weirdest ones were the mad religious people talking about how gays and people like me were “promoting homosexuality”, and would be “burned in hell after the final judgement”. I even got death threats to my personal email, which isn’t published online anywhere. When I saw that the image was taken down I was left speechless. On the other hand though, the support that I have received and the number of people that were standing by my side was overwhelming. I also received many lovely emails from people thanking me for exposing the issue, and a few people even took it as a chance to come out to their parents.
AJT: Did Instagram give you an explanation?
SAC: Not really. When it was first taken off I got a general message saying that it ‘violated community guidelines’. When they reinstated it they only said that some kind of error occurred. On their website, Instagram states that how many times an image is reported doesn’t affect their decision to take it down or not, so I’m still not really sure why it happened.
AJT: And the homophobic trolling you received from this image led you to expand the project into an exhibition and make sure more people see it?
SAC: Exactly. When I moved from Italy to London ten years ago I didn’t have any family or friends over here, I started to hang out at the Joiners Arms on Hackney Road, an LGBT pub sadly now permanently closed, and people welcomed me and looked after me like family. When this whole situation happened I felt like I had to kick back, I owed it to Jordan and Luca but also to all my friends from the Joiners Arms. No one should ever be put down and insulted because of their sexual orientation.
“When this whole situation happened I felt like I had to kick back…”
AJT: You’ve also created a film, can you tell us about that?
SAC: I feel like the film compliments the photographs in my aim to create a unique and intimate portrait of love, by expanding the visuals to those small details that make us fall in love with another person: from the way someone looks at you, to stretch marks, to the way someone holds our head while kissing you. Moving image is surely a lot more time consuming and complicated than stills and it wouldn’t have been possible without the amazing people that believed in me and my project, making all my crazy ideas coming to life. I am really grateful for all the talented people that worked with me on this piece, my DOP Jack Reynolds, Millie Yoxen at Object & Animal, editor Ben Crook at Speade, grader Megan at The Mill and Jack at Factory. Also Kedar Williams (Jackson from Netflix show Sex Education), who did the voiceover in the film and Sophie Leseberg Smith who wrote the script.
AJT: Has the project cured your faith in love?
SAC: It did for a while but then other things happened… But I’m getting there.