Grace Brown photographs women holding up white posters scrawled with horrifying words, all terrible in their own way. But perhaps most chilling of all is an image featuring the three words that people are often thrilled to hear: “I love you.”
The woman holding the sign, calmly, defiantly, is a survivor of a sexual assault. Brown asked that she write the words her attacker said during the act. In a series of powerful images, the words range from misogynistic insults to terrifying declarations of love.
Brown, a 19-year-old student at the School of Visual Arts, created ”Project Unbreakable” to give survivors a way to feel empowered about the words used against them.
Brown said that after 25 photographs of survivors, she is no longer shocked by some of the things that abusers say to their victims, even though the words don’t become any easier to read.
“It's too real for it to ever be easy,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The attacker uses a lot of guilt and manipulation to either make the survivor think that it's their fault or that they wanted it. It's also a common thread to see threats against the survivors if they don't keep quiet.”
The irony that many of the phrases are commonly used in consensual relationships, such as “Tell me you love me,” and “Does that feel good?” contributes to the strength of Brown’s photography.
So, too, is the power of the simple words against a white background, a common motif in photography these days.
Brown, who is also working on another series called “50 Extraordinary Women,” is proud that some of the rape survivors have told her that the project has been an avenue for their own healing. She shared a note from one of her former subjects:
"Thank you so much for everything, Grace. When I walked into your house today and wrote on that paper my mind went completely blank. When I read what I wrote, I was completely disgusted. I left your house and just drove for a while. I was shaking, and I was uncomfortable but that was the best I've felt in a long time. The memories will always be with me but I no longer feel as though those words have the same power over me that they did before today. Thank you."
Brown will be hosting a photo day in the D.C. area on March 3 for any survivors who wish to contribute to the project. Those interested can e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.