Project Unbreakable: Stories of Surviving Sexual Assault
“It’s time to talk about it,” is 20-year old Grace Brown’s message. “Sexual assault isn’t talked about. It’s time to talk about rape. We need to talk about it in elementary schools, and high schools, and middle schools, and we don’t. It’s not brought up.”
Her way of talking about rape is Project Unbreakable. Brown has a Nikon D90 DSLR camera and a desire to put the spotlight on a problem which is still too common. At high school, Grace had considered becoming a sexual assault counselor. In her last year at school, she began to take an interest in photography. “I went through a lot of guilt; photography was shallow in comparison to therapy,” she confesses. In her first year of college, Grace combined the two.
“I’ve always been surrounded by a lot of survivors of sexual assault,” she explains. “One day last October I was out with a friend one night, and she just blurted out her story. Even though I’d heard stories before, all too often — this one got to me.
“I felt so incredibly sad that night, feeling like this was just always going to happen to people I care about, and I was just going to have to continue hearing about it. And I woke up the next morning and had the idea for Unbreakable.”
Though Brown couldn’t directly stop assaults, she could provide men and women with a therapeutic outlet for their feelings, and a way to regain the power over their attackers. An army of 22,000 followers from all corners of the world support her and those who are brave enough to appear on the site, holding up posterboard marked with the words of their assaulters.
When she began taking the first photographs of sexual assault survivors, Brown was working on a school project — a photographic study called “Fifty Extraordinary Women.” To date, Brown has only captured 19 of her 50 extraordinary women through the lens. But she has photographed more than 200 other extraordinary survivors of rape, both male and female, and curated user-generated contributions from over 1,000 more. “I didn’t expect it to happen like this,” she readily admits.
Now, Brown and her staff travel around the country, meeting survivors of rape and photographing them. She can’t bring herself to read the words each man and woman writes on the posterboard they hold before them –- she used to, but she noticed it began affecting her too much. But through the lens, she finds the human and gives them the ability to talk back to their attacker, proving that life goes on after the unimaginable. “I just focus on the more hopeful part on it when I’m taking the picture,” she says.
Public debate over sexual assault is not always nuanced. The words of Todd Akin still ring painfully in the ears of most right-thinking people. WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange is credited as a hero for his work in holding power to account, while the accusations of sexual assault in Sweden that keep him in London’s Ecuadorean embassy are downplayed. British politician George Galloway recently recategorized what many class as rape as “bad sexual etiquette”. “That wasn’t the best thing to say,” but any sort of debate helps, Brown believes. “Now everyone’s talking about it.”
She works six days a week on Unbreakable, whether photographing people, talking to survivors, or managing the website. College has been put on the back-burner for a year. Recently, the Unbreakable team has expanded to five staffers, including a social media manager and an executive director … but the task of preventing rape is big, and there is only so much Unbreakable can do alone. The rest of the world needs to pitch in too.
“We need to change so much,” laments Brown. Society shies away from an open conversation about rape. In her eyes, “it needs to be where when I say what I do,” photographing survivors of rape, “people don’t get uncomfortable.”
One in three women and one in five men will face sexual assault in their lifetime –- though almost everyone agrees that the statistics don’t tell the whole story. Many victims don’t report the crimes, feeling ashamed or unwilling to confide in someone else. Every two minutes, someone in the United States is assaulted sexually.
The statistics are horrifying, but they don’t show the true hurt behind sexual assault. Unbreakable helps demonstrate that there are faces, lives, people, and stories behind hard facts. “It changes everything,” believes Brown. There is an ever-growing community of rape survivors — an unenviable social group.
“I’m proud of it turning into a community. Every woman who is photographed is given, through that image, a way of taking the power back. It’s an outlet for them -– a safe outlet. It’s a space for them to say ‘this did happen to me, and I’m working through it.’” The name “Unbreakable” was chosen with purpose.
Unbreakable directs survivors towards RAINN — the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network — for counseling and support. Brown is keen to stress neither she nor her team are professional counselors. “I didn’t start this to provide healing; I did it to draw attention to the problem.” After she photographs survivors, they thank her. “The way we interact … it’s really poignant.” Many of them remain in touch with Unbreakable.
People can donate to Unbreakable to help further survivors be photographed. Brown is heading to London soon, and she wants to travel to other countries -– including South Africa, where instances of rape are the highest in the world. But on a personal level, people can help out from their computers.
“If you read an article on rape, post it on Facebook,” Brown exhorts. “Begin the conversation. Don’t use your Facebook to talk about the ice cream you’re eating. Do what you can. Make a difference. Every person has the ability to be a good person and make a difference … it’s just a matter of figuring out what you can do.
“If someone knows a survivor who talks about their story, listen. Be supportive. Watch what you say.” Project Unbreakable is a year old next month. Thanks to Brown, people are talking about rape. The more people talk about it, the better society can tackle and eradicate it.
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