By many measures, the world is a safer and more welcoming place for gay people than it was ten years ago.

A growing number of national and regional governments have passed laws legalizing gay marriage and unions between people of the same sex. Other countries have tightened legislation that prohibits anti-gay discrimination and hate speech targeted at people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT). “There’s been enormous progress globally and locally,” wrote Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch earlier this year. “It’s important to note that the fight for LGBT rights is not a Western phenomenon; many of the governments at the forefront of the defence of LGBT rights are from the developing world.”

But while LGBT rights may be generally improving around the world, many more people live in countries where homosexual acts or identifying as gay can lead to state-ordered physical punishment.

Human rights groups say that in some of these countries — including Russia, Nigeria and Uganda — governments have targeted LGBT people as a way to redirect peoples’ anger from the governments to a vulnerable minority. All three countries have introduced anti-gay legislation in the past three years and in all three countries human rights groups have reported simultaneous increases in attacks on LGBT people.

Photographer Robin Hammond, who is from New Zealand, first started documenting these issues when he was on assignment in Lagos, Nigeria, and read about five people who had been arrested for being gay. He then decided to expand his work to seven countries, photographing LGBT people of 15 different nationalities.

Hammond says he wants to improve peoples’ lives rather than simply chronicling their suffering and is today launching a non-governmental organization named Witness Change, which aims to kickstart social media campaigns and put on traveling exhibitions to help raise funds for grassroots organizations that are dealing with the highlighted human rights issues, including LGBT rights.

He described the process he has developed for taking his portraits — and for asking his subjects to write down their personal stories:

While I predominantly use photography to talk about the issues that are important to me, the medium has shortcomings — it can connect, but rarely does it explain. So I wanted the survivors of discrimination to talk for themselves about what they’ve been through. With each of the 65 subjects I asked that they write down their story of discrimination and survival. They chose what to say and how to say it. This resulted in extremely powerful testimonies, some five pages long, some a single sentence.

For many it was the first time they’ve told their story. The point is to have their voices heard. Many have lived lives of silence.

After they wrote their testimony I would ask more questions.

We would then take a photograph. The photographs are all posed portraits. The way the photograph is posed is a collaboration between myself and the subject. I would ask them how we could illustrate their story. The results were sometimes interesting. Some told me to come back another day and I would return to find them in full drag. Others said. “They tied me like this — show it”. Kasha, the Ugandan lesbian activist, wanted to be shown as a strong leader. I asked her if she had a symbol of strength — she rose her fist. Joseph, a transgender woman from Uganda, spoke about his mum and how grateful he is that she accepts him for who he is, so I photographed them together.

Of course some did not really know how to stand or pose. I would offer them ideas on what I thought might look interesting. Some took on those ideas, some were rejected.

Many of the photographs were unexpected. Many are not posed as I would have visualized before meeting the subjects. The poses were informed by their stories and very much by how they wished to be photographed. The point is that it was really important the subjects had as much control as possible. It is their story, and their image.

I photographed these portraits on a large format 5×4 (5-inch by 4-inch) field camera using Polaroid-type film. The reason is aesthetic but also so I could show the subject the photograph. I always gave them the veto over the image. Some subjects were obviously concerned about their safety, so it was important they felt safe if they had requested to have their identity hidden.

I would do, on average, one portrait per day. A lot of time was spent with each subject getting to know them, discussing their lives, and talking about the project.

The photographs and testimonies personalize and make real an issue often spoken about in abstract ways, in discussions about laws and sanctions and politicians.

Some people may find some of the images uncomfortable. I know many people will be saddened by the testimonies. This is the reality of life for many LGBTQI people in our world.

Robin Hammond is a freelance photojournalist based in Paris, France.

Alice Gabriner, who edited this photo essay, is TIME’s International Photo Editor.

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