The sign reads, “I’m doing this because I love you.” Its holder stands behind it, her gaze purposefully focused on the camera, a New York City bench behind her. The words on the sign are not her own, however. They are the words spoken by her attacker as he/she sexually assaulted her.
If it sounds “disturbing,” as one viewer of many similar photographs commented, the truth stands that these images are reflections of the victims and survivors behind sexual assault and their stories.
Thanks to Grace Brown and “Project Unbreakable,” survivors are being offered the chance to step forward. Project Unbreakable, named one of the top 30 Tumblr blogs to visit by TIME Magazine and featured on MTV’s action campaign website, “Act,” posts photographs of survivors of sexual assault with quotes from their attackers on the project site, projectunbreakable.tumblr.com.
Brown, the founder of the project, is a 20-year-old photography student from Massachusetts who recently took a break from her own college education to photograph for the Project Unbreakable college tour.
Grace stopped at SRU, only the second of 19 sites on her fall tour list, on Tuesday to photograph volunteers from the university and the surrounding community.
Brown got the idea for the film project after hearing a close friend’s story of abuse, she said.
“I’ve always been surrounded by survivors,” Brown said. “In October of last year, I was out with a friend for Halloween, and she randomly blurted out her story. And even though I had heard so many stories before that, [hers] really got to me, and I went to bed that night feeling so desperate for a little bit of peace. Then I woke up the next morning with the idea.”
Though she has only been a photographer for about three years, Brown has become nationally renowned, along with her project, which started as a way to spark awareness on the issue of sexual assault but turned out to be even more than that—a way that victims could tell their stories.
“At first, I started doing this to just spread awareness and to be able to show that these are real people behind the statistics,” she said. “But about two weeks in, I was getting hundreds of emails thanking me for what I was doing, and suddenly [people recognized that] there was a healing power behind standing up with these words. [For many] it’s about taking the power back and having a voice again.”
Jodi Solito, the Director of the Women’s Center, arranged for Brown to photograph and speak on campus. She said she sees the therapeutic side of allowing victims of sexual assault to step forward in this way.
“There are several different projects out there that try to give voice to survivors of assault and abuse, and just seeing how Brown [is allowing victims to] take the words that someone uses against you and write them down… seems to be a really therapeutic thing for survivors to be able to do,” Solito said.
Having taken over 200 photographs and posted over 800 on the project site (some people opt to take their own photographs and mail them in), Brown is beginning to see not only the hurt behind each story, but also the healing.
“It brings healing and allows victims to share their stories,” she said. “It’s a way to sort of have a voice again and have a safe space to have a voice, to have people believe [the victims]. That’s a hard thing about our culture right now is that sometimes no one believes them, and that’s just not okay. But on Unbreakable, I, as a photographer, believe them, and the community that surrounds ‘Unbreakable’ believes them, and I think that’s really important for them to know that they’re not alone.”
“Even if people don’t participate, they’ll sometimes email me and say, ‘I’m a survivor, [and] I’m not ready to participate, but I wanted to let you know I was reading the project and one of the posters was something that was said to me, too, or it makes me feel like I’m not alone,’” Brown said. “So we’re bringing people together.”
Solito acknowledges the power behind a community of strong men and women.
“Even if people aren’t ready [to share their story] now, they could be ready at another time,” she said.
As Brown posted on the site in a letter to the community,
“We are getting there,” she said. “The silence is ending. Please don’t lose hope.”