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.