Using Photography as a Way to Heal From Sexual Violence

When I was considering whether or not I should write this article, I went back and forth between not feeling qualified to write it and knowing that it is an important topic. It’s an article involving sexual assault, and I haven’t been sexually assaulted. But, I know many people who have been, and I know that if there’s any way to help survivors of any type of sexual violence overcome the trauma that comes packaged with that terrible ordeal, it should be made available to them, and it should be talked about. I didn’t ever expect photography to step in to help, yet here we are.

There are lots of numbers out there. Seventy-eight American women are raped every hour, which is almost 700,000 each year. One out of six American women experiences a sexual assault or rape in her lifetime, as do one in ten men. The CDC calls sexual violence a serious public health issue, but to those who have experienced it, it feels like much more than that — more than an “issue.” 

And I could rattle off all the statistics I could find about what happens afterwards: that 50-75 percent of women in substance abuse treatment programs have survived sexual assault, that girls who are raped are three times more likely to have psychiatric disorders, or that the chance that a woman will develop PTSD after assault is 50-95 percent. And it’s not just women who are victims: about three percent of American men have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, and they’re dealing with these issues as well.

But while the statistics matter to people viewing them from the outside, to public health officials, and (hopefully) to lawmakers, what matters most for survivors of sexual assault is the ability to overcome the challenges that have been unfairly presented to them. To overcome the PTSD. To overcome the urges to abuse substances, the suicidal tendencies, the psychological ramifications of being violated. To not let it ruin their lives. Many treatments focus on managing anxiety and confronting triggers, but many victims continue to struggle with feelings of powerlessness, anxiety, and insecurity.

So, when I saw that photography was being used to help in this effort, I thought it was a worthwhile share with the Fstoppers community. Just a few hours away from me in Columbia, Missouri, a study by Abigail Rolbiecki at the University of Missouri School of Medicine used “photovoice interventions,” in which participants used simple photography to express emotions and, combined with traditional PTSD treatment programs, experienced a more complete recovery. According to the University of Missouri:

In the study, Rolbiecki recruited nine women who had experienced a sexual assault at any time in their lives. Each woman was given a camera and instructed to take photos that captured her experience with sexual assault and recovery. The women met weekly as group to discuss their pictures. After group discussions were complete, the participants worked together to plan an invitation-only photography exhibit to educate others about sexual assault and sexual assault policies. Rolbiecki interviewed each participant after the exhibits to further discuss their experience with photovoice as a therapeutic intervention... Photovoice allows participants to redefine themselves despite their victimization. Through this tool, survivors can share their story with complete control of how it is told, allowing them to re-enter the world with a story solely authored by themselves.

"Rolbiecki said that after the intervention was complete, the participants reported decreases in PTSD symptoms and self-blame and increases in their post-traumatic growth, particularly with their personal strength.”

And then there’s a group of NYU students who are working on a new magazine, Survivors, which aims to “serve as a platform for victims of sexual assault to narrate their own stories and reclaim their identities through photography."

Image courtesy Emily Gordin

In the University of Missouri study, survivors used the action of photography to heal, taking the images themselves. As Konbini writes, this magazine takes a different approach: the survivors are the subjects being photographed. As the subject of the image, the survivor gets to have the power to choose what emotions they portray, what should be focused on, and how they want to represent themselves. Since powerlessness and loss of control are major impacts of sexual assault, being given a platform to gain some of that control back is, quite literally, a very empowering method of healing. There's a Go Fund Me campaign to fund the project here.

I recently saw a collection of images from Elisa Iannacone, a UK-based photographer, who took a more elaborate approach to explore her healing. Her series, "The Spiral of Containment: Rape’s Aftermath," was a self-healing process that, again, focused on empowering the survivors depicted in the images, exploring the idea that many survivors fixate on single ideas or feelings as they overcome the trauma. As she tells takepart, this is something we need to talk more openly about in order to help address the problem. “Survivors are becoming empowered and feeling more able to share their stories. It is our responsibility as a society to listen.” 

Image courtesy Elisa Iannacone

There's also a fine art project that's closer to home for me. Marsha Foster, a photographer friend of mine based here in Northwest Arkansas, has been working on a personal project entitled “The Hostage Project,” a series of images that depict a woman bound in some way, attempting to “elicit emotion and draw attention to all types of abuse women endure, exploring the societal and self-imposed ideas responsible for women’s emotional and physical bondage.” It was her first personal fine art project and has been displayed in local galleries.

"Perpetrated" (Image courtesy Marsha Foster)

"I find it interesting that photography heals from both sides of the lens," she says. "I know it healed me, and I’m a better person than I was at the start of the project. I’m much less angry, much more accepting and loving than I was."

Like most forms of art, photography can be used as a medium for healing from so many tragic situations. Dealing with trauma from sexual violence is difficult to say the least. If this article reaches just one person who is grappling with these issues and helps them heal in any way, it’s done what it was intended to do. 

Have you used photography as a method of healing from a traumatic situation? If you're comfortable with it, I'd love to hear how and why in the comments below.

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1 Comment
Paige Hawley's picture

Hi there,

I am graduate Art Photographer in the UK. I thought your viewers and yourself may be interested in my conceptual photography, in which relates to feminism and art in in the contemporary and of course taking into consideration the history of feminism and also the different styles of photography I have used from digital, 35mm film and my most recent project medium format.

My projects each tell a story of an event which happened to me, I want to inspire women to go forward from rape and sexual violence.. their voices are important and need to be heard!

I attended court this year to get justice from when I was raped. Unfortunately I didn’t get the justice I wanted, it was the most difficult experience being made to feel like I’m the criminal when I am the victim. I stood up and made my voice be heard, no one should be silenced, I refused to be and still do. Others shouldn’t be silenced either, my photographs are to inspire others to go forward and the more exposure for this I think will help for survivors to move forward in their lives although didn’t get justice but they can say “I tried, I’m a survivor and activist”, and that for me is important.

My project; The Aftermath was my way of coping with the after effects of rape, each individual photograph reflects in detail what happened the night I was raped. Photographing and developing film was my way of beginning to heal, which lead on to my projects “Process” and "STOP", developing the negatives by stopping the process, the development stages define my healing process of the after effects of rape.

My final major project from this year which is named "You Should Take a Picture it Lasts Longer", the concept of this is me confronting the camera, based around the theme of the theory of 'The Male Gaze', inspired by the work of Sarah Lucas. My work is political in rights for women, I am continuing ongoing projects within this theme, and would love to share my style of work with you!

All of my work has been published into books through blurb Also holding many exhibitions to reveal to other women that they are not alone and if I can document and expose my story, any one can do it!

For more information take a look at my website

Thankyou for your consideration,

Paige Megan Hawley.