Umberto N. Nicoletti is a photographer from Italy; his book 'Asylum' features beautiful portraits of LGBTQI+ refugees from around the world.

What is ‘Asylum’ about, and what inspired you to make it?   

I felt compelled to make a positive change in the world and embarked on a very special project, my first photography fine-art book, called ‘Asylum’. The book features portraits of LGBTQI+ refugees who are fleeing persecution in their home countries and describes the challenges they face as they seek safety and refuge elsewhere.  

Thanks to a dear friend of mine, who volunteers for an organisation which supports LGBTQI+ refugees in Italy, I became aware of the issues facing people who are discriminated against because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, in many countries all over the world. I collaborated with this organsation to raise awareness among both the general public and the LGBTQI+ community. 

I was devoted to “Asylum” for over six years. These images were captured by partnering up with five global organisations, including Rainbow Migration. These organisations help people in their asylum process and they also play a crucial role in the integration of LGBTQ+ refugees The other organisations I collaborated with are The 519 in Toronto, CIG Arcigay in Milan, The DC Center in Washington D.C., and RusaLGBT in New York. Each has been instrumental in bringing this body of work to life! 

For people who haven’t seen the book yet, what will they find inside?  

Inside are several portraits of LGBTQI+ refugees, all shot in just black and white. My photographic approach does not merely involve capturing images but rather portraying the individuality and complexity of each person. The lights and shadows are a visual metaphor. I don’t name them. The anonymity of the people in the photos not only respects their privacy but also symbolizes the struggles and pain that LGBTQI+ refugees face in their home countries, as they are forced to hide their true selves for fear of persecution and violence. This evokes a sense of empathy and frustration in the viewer, highlighting the urgent need for change and recognition of their humanity.  

I use beautiful, glossy images, commonly associated with fashion and advertising, to shift the focus from the discrimination and hardships they face, to instead show their unique stories and inherent worth.  

By portraying the refugees as celebrities, idols, and heroes, “Asylum” seeks to humanise LGBTQI+ refugees and restore their dignity. The stories contained within its pages are testaments to the remarkable qualities of resilience and perseverance that have propelled them forward in the face of adversity.

So “Asylum” is not merely a collection of beautiful pictures; it is a heartfelt and thought-provoking exploration of the human spirit and the journey toward a safer and more inclusive world for all. 

Did you encounter any challenges or issues while putting the project together, and if so, how did you overcome them? 

The primary challenge I encountered was securing funding, due to people’s lack of awareness of the issue. I was also very concerned about safeguarding the people. I had to find a balanced compromise, enabling me to shed light on this vital matter while ensuring the well-being of those involved. 

What did you learn about being LGBTQI+ and seeking asylum by doing this project? 

I consider LGBTQI+ refugees to be real heroes. They show us the true state of human rights in the world. They suffer from terrible injustices just because of who they are and where they were born, which is something beyond their control and not based on their own worth. This is something we often overlook. 

They are a reminder that no one should take their freedoms lightly and that it’s easy to fall back into unfair ways of treating people. Living in constant fear, worried about every little thing and every look from someone else, is no way to live. Not being able to trust people and always feeling threatened stops us from making deep connections with others, which I believe is the best part of being human. 

What is the goal of your project? What message do you want to pass on to the world through ‘Asylum’? 

The project aims to bring attention to the persecution many LGBTQI+ people face in their countries of origin, due to their gender identity or sexual orientation. It serves as a platform for the voices and narratives of people who are seeking safety to have the freedom to be who they are.  

The goal is to start a conversation about the important ideas of acceptance, inclusion, and being welcoming, especially to LGBTQI+ people in their new countries. It’s sad to see that some refugees face unfriendly treatment from their own communities, which should never happen. 

‘Asylum’ is not only a photographic documentation, but rather an art project that places a profound emphasis on the restoration of their inherent dignity. 

I also hope to help this cause financially by getting donations through the website Anyone can give money to the organisations that are part of this project. 

So, I’m pushing for a world where we value and support everyone’s freedom, and where we appreciate the variety of people that makes our life together better. Let’s practice understanding, encourage kindness, and aim for togetherness as we deal with the complicated ways our lives are connected.


‘Asylum’ was published in May 2023 by Rizzoli New York. Find out more.