Grace Brown was a 19-year-old photography student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan when she began photographing survivors of sexual assault on her blog Project Unbreakable. She now travels around, photographing survivors and giving talks about the project and sexual assault awareness. Recently she was invited to photograph in London, Ont., and Calgary. Though she admits Canadians are “so nice,” the experiences she documented were anything but. “It doesn’t matter where it is — in a small town, big city, on an entirely different continent — it still happens.” This is an edited interview with Brown, who spoke to photo editor Canice Leung by phone from New York.
Q: How did the project start?
A: I didn’t plan to work with survivors of sexual assault. In October 2011, I was thinking about starting a photography project on catcalls. I had a classmate who didn’t believe they happened. I wanted to photograph women holding posters with the catcalls they had heard since moving to New York, to show the reality of issue. But one day that same month, my friend blurts out her sexual assault story, and the entire project shifted. I woke up the next morning with the idea.
She was the first photo I ever took. It was the most intense and the one I remember best. It was so new and so raw. We were taking such huge steps in being vulnerable . . . It was a teenage boy who crawled into her bed when she had had too much to drink at a party. It is things like that, that don’t need to happen — that will always be the basis of my journey with Project Unbreakable.
Q: What has been the response from readers?
A: I expected a lot of backlash for such a sensitive topic, but people saw it as a way of healing, as an awareness project . . . It was a way of letting go for the survivors . . . I had people — men and women — tell me, “Oh my god, I had no idea that this is what really happened. I never really thought about it.”
Q: What has been the response from the people photographed?
A: They tell me they feel lighter. One person said she felt like an entirely different person after she had her photo taken.
Q: What is it like when you take a portrait?
A: It’s very quiet. I’m more introverted, shy, socially awkward, so I try not to talk too much . . . It’s more about giving them their moment . . . When they come, they sit down, write their poster. I tell them they can pick exactly what to write. I don’t have any control over what goes on (the poster), but I do say to write down what they want to let go of the most. And I’ll take their picture.
Q: How do we change the way we talk about sexual assault?
A: Be there for a friend, and don’t say something horrible to them; or let a survivor find their own journey on their own path. I’m most interested in the mindset of 18- to 20-year-old boys. It’s so casual to them to make jokes about . . . drugging women and all that.
Q: What effect has this had on you?
A: It taught me to have grace and more patience with strangers. In New York, someone might bump into me on the street. I would get frustrated and calm myself down: “OK, if you were photographing this person, you would give them so much respect, so just keep walking.” It took a year and a half for me to learn to take care of myself. For so very long, it really affected me. I would get headaches, doubt the intentions of every person that I met, and I let go of important friendships . . . Our society doesn’t like to talk about trauma, or how it affects us or social workers, doctors, nurses, journalists, anyone who witnesses trauma. It’s very much a “keep on keepin’ on” ideal. And it’s not possible . . . The memories sat inside me for a while, but that wasn’t working out too well. Now, I have found other ways to manage bearing witness to trauma.
More photos after the jump: