Trisolini Gallery in Ohio University’s Baker Center is now displaying an exhibition of 50-plus photographs taken by 22 survivors of sexual assault, relationship-based violence and childhood trauma.
One of the photographers – an OU student named Katie – stood before a silent crowd of several dozen people at the exhibition’s reception last Thursday. She described herself as a survivor of two different sexual assaults, one when she was 13 and another when she was a freshman in college. It took her a long time to accept the label of “survivor” for herself, she said.
“I, like many other survivors, have refused to label myself with the survivor identity,” she said. “I fear the stigma that comes with it, but even more I fear the deep-rooted trauma and hurt that I do not allow myself to think about.
“Facing your past traumas head-on and acknowledging the emotions it makes you feel is terrifying, so instead of looking my trauma in the eye, I faced it from behind a camera,” she said.
That concept became one of the unifying ideas behind the exhibition, titled “Through the Survivors’ Lens,” which runs at the Trisolini Gallery (located on Baker Center’s fourth floor) through Sept. 14.
The exhibit this year echoes the “What Were You Wearing?” exhibit that was featured in the same gallery space at OU last year, also during the first few weeks of fall semester.
During the reception last Thursday, several dozen OU staffers, students and community members quietly examined the photographs, which include text descriptions explaining the person’s experiences with and recovery after sexual assault, dating violence or other abuse. The photo on the door to the gallery – a stop sign with several lights photographed with motion blur – simply reads, “On this night one of my good friends chose to hurt me; when I asked him to stop, he wouldn’t. Being a survivor hasn’t stopped since.”
Geneva Murray, director of the Women’s Center at Ohio University, said during the reception that the photographs present a powerful visual presentation “when words simply could not do the job alone.” The exhibition is also meant to continue the conversation on sexual violence and the profound impact it has on the community, she added.
“These photos show individual experiences, but we know that violence is not an individual problem,” she said. “It is a community problem that requires a community solution. I’m proud to be a part of that community response.”
The gallery opening in the first few weeks of fall semester is important because statistics show that more sexual assaults are reported to police and campus authorities during the first few months of fall semester at colleges across the United States, a phenomenon that some describe as the “Red Zone.”
Katie said she hoped that by sharing her experience – both at the reception and through her photography – that others find “similarities in our journeys, and know that we are not alone.”
“Art and photography have always been a place for me to let go,” she explained. “Probably around the age of 13 when I first picked up a camera and felt its healing powers…. To go for a walk in the rain and take pictures to let go of these emotions, to use art to express the hurt that I couldn’t describe with words.”
OU President Duane Nellis also spoke briefly during the reception, thanking the people who worked with the university to present their artwork.
“You’re helping to create a culture where others can better understand the diversity of survivorhood,” he said. “You’re also helping other learn more about what we can do to support survivors.”
However, he added, plenty of other survivors never have, and quite possibly never will, be able to tell their stories in a public manner.
“Please know that your story is important and we know that most survivors’ stories remain unspoken,” Nellis said. “When you’re ready, Ohio University stands committed to providing you the resources such as the Survivor Advocacy Program, to hear and support you.”
Kim Castor, director of the OU Survivor Advocacy Program, noted that the exhibit shows the diversity of each person’s experience.
“I hope that you leave here tonight with a renewed empathy for survivors and a renewed understanding that there is not one single cookie-cutter definition or right way to be a survivor…” Castor said. “…Everyone’s journey to recovery is different. Despite these differences, you’ll notice one common theme throughout. Each of the people who contributed to this exhibit displays strength and resiliency that is truly inspiring to me, and I’m sure many of you here tonight.”
Katie concluded her presentation by reading several definition entries for the word “survivor.”
“Survivor: A person who survives,” she said. “Someone who lives and persists. A person who perseveres and overcomes. A person who copes well with difficulty and a person who continues to function and prosper in spite of opposition, hardship or setbacks. By this definition, I am a survivor, and I know we are not alone.”
The exhibit was made possible by a large collaborative effort at the university, involving the Women’s Center, the Survivor Advocacy Program, Health Promotion, Counseling and Psychological Services, the College of Fine Arts and University Galleries, Office of Instructional Innovation, Ohio University Libraries, Better Bystanders, Ambassadors to the Survivor Advocacy Program, and the Student National Medical Association.
There’s also audio recordings of the text of the exhibit with voiceovers by several OU staffers and others, as well as Braille.