The story of Project Unbreakable.
Trigger Warning: This article contains discussion of rape, sexual assault and abuse.
In October last year New York photography student Grace Brown was out one night with a friend who chose to share her story about being a survivor of sexual violence. This has happened to me a few times, most memorably in September last year when a friend told me her sister has been raped. I am openly a survivor of rape and sexual assault and have become someone who people see as safe to discuss their stories or the stories of others with. For Brown, this was not the first time she had heard a story from a survivor, and in the morning she decided to photograph her friend holding a placard with words spoken her attacker. This was the start of Project Unbreakable.
Project Unbreakable involves survivors of rape, sexual assault and abuse having their photograph taken with quotes from their attackers. Photographs shown on Project Unbreakable’s Tumblr are either submitted or taken by Brown herself and show people from various genders, sexual orientations and ethnicities. What started out as a photography project has grown into a phenomenon. People began to submit their own images because they lived too far away to be photographed by Brown. The volume of submissions grew so large that a separate site had to be set up to accommodate them.
Project Unbreakable gives power to survivors as they reclaim words that were once used against them. These words were used to weaken us, to control us and to shame us into silence: “this is what a real relationship is like… get used to it”, “I own you”, “you’ve got nothing”. These words reflect more than just the mindset of the attacker; they reflect the greater mindset of rape culture—that rape is the fault of the victim, sex is a right not a privilege and that a woman’s sexual status dictates her worth. By reclaiming the words spoken by attackers, survivors diminish the power of those words to hurt them; they are used to shock and confront people into questioning rape culture and its effects. The words were used to disempower victims; they are now used to empower survivors.
So often in the media survivors are nameless, faceless stories and statistics. Project Unbreakable gives survivors identities, they are your mother, sister, friend, brother, neighbour. They are all of us. Survivors are often denied the right to talk back and are shamed if they do so. Photographs in Project Unbreakable do not stand alone and contribute to a collective voice that speaks out against the shaming of victims and against rape culture. Some survivors choose not to show most of their face, and some none at all, but this does not detract from the power of the words they choose to show or their bravery in doing so. Survivors are losing their anonymity and confronting their own pasts by having their photograph taken. The stories from survivors are varied, demonstrating that there is no one way in which sexual violence occurs. Project Unbreakable serves to validate the experiences of survivors that do not fit into the narrow beliefs held about what sexual violence is.
The photographs shown on Project Unbreakable are predominantly of women. This is a reflection of US statistics that say one in three women will be victims of sexual violence. In New Zealand this is one in four. Men perpetrate much of the sexual violence against women and the threat of rape is one that all women live with. Media and society tell us that we shouldn’t dress like sluts in order to not be victimised; the prevention of sexual violence is our responsibility and if we become victims it is our own fault even if we were home in our beds. This positions sexual violence as a woman’s problem and takes fault away from not only the perpetrator but from the wider culture that allows it to happen.
By positioning sexual violence as a woman’s problem, the experiences of male survivors are believed to not exist. Men are survivors too. In the beginning there were no images of male survivors on Project Unbreakable, but slowly men have started to become involved. There are different myths that surround sexual violence perpetrated against men, the most prevalent being that men cannot be raped, which has become a recurring ‘joke’. Male survivors and their stories are erased and it is important that we not only address this but also validate the experiences and concerns of men.
Furthermore, in April a photograph of a trans survivor was posted with the words “you’re trans? Oh, no. Don’t do that to yourself. Don’t do that to your body. No one wants a tranny.” To date the photograph has been reblogged and liked over 4,600 times. The photograph is a confronting image that speaks about people that are so often ignored and erased. It highlights the entrenched transphobia that permeates our culture and corrective rape, where someone is ‘raped straight’, experienced by members of the LGBTQ community.
The prospect of having my photograph taken for this article was frightening. I wrote most of this article and offered to have myself photographed in the space of 6 days. I had little time to take in and address the emotions and the stress that this subject causes me. A photograph is a public display that takes away my anonymity, and the process of having the photograph taken forced me to confront a past that I had tried to obliterate every day of my life since. The day before my photograph was taken, I had a panic attack.
Just because I have become an open survivor does not mean I have dealt with the extreme emotional trauma that sexual violence has inflicted on my life. The day before my photograph was taken I sought professional help to deal with my post-traumatic stress for the first time, five years after I was raped.
I have wanted to have myself photographed for a long time and Project Unbreakable has contributed to my strength to do so. I have quotes from my two other attackers that I could have used for this article, but I knew I had to start at the beginning: my rape at age 15. My photograph is a giant ‘fuck you’ to my rapist; it encapsulates all of my anger and hurt. It has been five years in the making.
Breaking the silence isn’t just telling others about your experiences, it is admitting this to yourself. You don’t always have to be strong; it’s normal to be human. By admitting this to myself I have lost my fear. I am free. I refuse to be broken by the trauma that still deeply affects me. By losing my fear I have lost the shackles of silence that have prevented me from not only talking about my past, but from remembering it. It is important to remember, and I have wasted too much time and energy trying to forget. This is what Project Unbreakable has done for all of us, freed us from our fear to remember so that we can say without shame, “I am a survivor”.