On Thursday, December 12, 2013, I had the pleasure of interviewing
Grace Brown, the humble and thoughtful twenty-one-year-old, who,
two years ago, started Project Unbreakable, a photography project that
gives visual voice to survivors of sexual assault.
While the project started small, with the creation of a Tumblr site depicting a few photos of survivors holding a poster with a quote from their attackers, it soon became viral. Since its inception, it has been featured in the Huffington Post, in The Guardian, and Time magazine, among many other media sites and publications.
Given PROOF’s and Project Unbreakable’s shared goal of using photography to increase awareness about rape, as well as to provide an opportunity to help victims heal and find a community, I eagerly sought out to interview this young woman who is doing much to create awareness about the prevalence of rape. Below are excerpts from our conversation:
PROOF: First of all, will you tell us a bit about the concept behind Project Unbreakable?
Grace Brown: Project Unbreakable began as a way of shedding light on sexual assault; when I first started it, I felt like there was very little discussion of the issue at hand. I wanted to bring it into conversation and, being a photographer, I knew that a photo project could be a perfect way to open up that dialogue.
PROOF: How did the idea for Project Unbreakable develop?
GB: I have always been surrounded by survivors. It just kind of happened that way that people kept telling me their stories. I went to college in October of 2011, and I was a photography major at the School of Visual Arts, in New York City. And, then I was out with a friend in October, and she started telling me her story, and it wasn’t the worst story I heard or the first, but something about it really got to me.
So, I went home that night, and I remember counting the number of people I knew who had been sexually assaulted. And, then the next morning, I woke up with the idea to have people to write quotes on posters, and then to take a picture of it.
PROOF: So when did you start taking the pictures? And is your friend’s photo the first one on the site?
GB: Yes, I started photographing about a week later. But, the next day I went to my friend and told her my idea and asked her if she would ever want to participate. She said she loved it, and she became the first person I ever photographed. So her photo and then another photo went on a website a week later.
PROOF: From there, how did things pick up and how did you spread the word about the Project?
GB: I basically relied on social media. I put those two photos on the website and then two weeks later, I was getting tons of emails from people wanting to participate. I let the magic of social media move it. I started it to create awareness. I thought, if it’s something, then it will pick up itself. But if it’s not then, okay, I understand. I knew that I was towing a line with something. It could have gone the complete opposite direction and everyone could have hated it.
PROOF: Did you have any idea that it would go viral?
GB: No, I thought I was only going to photograph a handful of people. My primary focus was to create awareness. I can pull together 10 photos and show the reality of what’s going on. But, then I realized a couple of weeks in, that there was a healing power behind participating.
PROOF: When you shoot survivors’ photos, do they often tell you their story?
GB: I actually don’t hear that many stories. If they are sending in the images, I don’t run the submission part–my assistant, Christina, handles the submissions. When I photograph, it’s such a short period of time–like 15 minutes. If they want to share, I’ll listen, but they aren’t obligated to tell their story. Post being photographed, if they feel like they have healed from it, they do often send emails. Christina will often forward those to me. We have a testimonial page on our website of people who have participated and made a difference.
PROOF: What are some of the things that people have said in these emails concerning how it has helped them heal? Can you talk more about the healing power behind participating?
GB: People have said that they have felt lighter, that letting go of the words have made them lighter, but stronger. I think that's exactly the healing power–having the strength to participate is likely a healing power in and of itself. I hope that when they see their photos, they are reminded of that.
PROOF: Is there any one picture or particular words that have been especially poignant or moving for you?
GB: Honestly, for me, it’s not about what the photo is or what the words are. I tend to remember the people, especially people that I know personally. The first one was my friend, and the poster on her quote said, “you wanted it though.” That’s always the one that I’ll go back to.
You know, neither of us had any idea what we were doing. She really took a chance on me and on this idea. I think about it, and it could have gone in such an opposite direction. She could have said no, and I would have never started the project. Of course there are people out there who don’t identify with the project and don’t agree with it, and she could have been one of those people, and it would have never happened. Out of all the photos, this one is probably the most poignant for a multitude of reasons.
PROOF: How many submissions of photographs do you get a day? A week? A month?
GB: I don’t know the number we get every day. We’ve received probably 3,000 submissions, in total.
PROOF: Wow, that’s incredible. I know that when you started the project, you were taking a lot of photos of survivors. Do you still take many photos? Or, do you mostly receive submissions?
GB: It depends. Right now there are a lot of submissions. When I start traveling again in the spring, I’ll take photos here and there, but it totally depends. Right now, I’m working a lot on the back end of things. I speak at colleges with the director of the project, and we are trying to plan our spring events.
PROOF: How long have you been touring around college campuses and giving presentations?
GB: It’s been 2 years, this spring.
PROOF: What do your presentations entail? What do you talk about specifically?
GB: We talk about the history of the project; how I got involved; how Kaelyn (Director of Project Unbreakable) got involved. We share stories behind some of the images, and we dispel myths; the whole “don’t drink, don’t wear short skirt” type of thing. Then, we talk about the importance of not losing hope when viewing these images.
PROOF: Can you elaborate more on the myths that you dispel? Also, how you recommend not losing hope when viewing these images?
GB: There is the myth that it doesn't happen to men. That is really important to discuss and dispel. The idea that the attacker is always a stranger is also a dangerous myth; it shuts off the dialogue that a rapist can be a boyfriend or girlfriend or someone else a person knows, which, in reality, is the majority rather than minority.
Regarding not losing hope, I think it's easy to look at these images and get caught up in the darkness of the words. But, you know, here are all of these incredibly brave people standing up and taking those words back.
PROOF: Right. Beyond cultural attitudes, what are your thoughts about policies on college campuses concerning sexual assault and providing survivors mental health and health services, as well as recourse to justice? How adequate are the campus justice systems?
GB: From what I’ve seen, it is unbelievably inadequate. There’s a whole network–I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of, “Know Your Nine,” but they are a group of young women around my age who are working to change how college campuses deal with sexual assault. And, while I’m not directly involved with them, I’m always hearing how frustrating it can be; and seeing all these cases come up where the system is failing the survivors.
PROOF: Yes, the system is broken. Despite federal laws created to hold colleges accountable, it appears colleges are failing to uphold such legal obligations. But that’s so amazing that you’re taking what you know–photography–and making a connection with something you care about–sexual assault–to create a moving project that has succeeded in changing how people think about rape. Can you talk more about that, about the power that lies within visual imagery?
GB: I think you and I both know that art changes the world. That’s something that is very important to me. I feel like, for me, it’s the way that I can contribute and make a change. And, with Project Unbreakable, the reason it did well in a way is that it was able to humanize statistics.
For people who aren’t survivors, they are able to see these photos and faces, and say, “Oh my god, I had no idea this was happening.” On the opposite side, it humanizes survivors for other survivors, and it makes them feel less isolated and less alone.
PROOF: Yeah, totally. I think legislative language or legalese can be a bit dry. And so with imagery, there is a way to show people, in a very poignant way, things that are happening behind closed doors that we, as human beings, avoid because it’s so painful, and, in the abstract, we know, but we have difficulty connecting to.
You are doing an amazing job of bringing that to the surface and creating art that is emotionally resonant with people–that shows that this is something that is serious that needs to be seen and talked about, while providing a forum for survivors to come together and have a community to heal and to share their experiences.
Have any of the photos on Project Unbreakable spawned any negative comments? I’d argue that the attitude about blaming the victim or being skeptical about the allegation is still prevalent. You still hear such phrases tossed around: “She was asking for it” or “The girl was an attention whore.” Have you heard or received any negative comments like this on Project Unbreakable’s Tumblr or Facebook or from an audience?
GB: I’m trying to remember. I know we’ve gotten a few weird comments, either on the Facebook page or Tumblr. I remember blocking a couple of people. But I don’t remember what the comments were–I’m sorry, I think I blocked them out. I’ve never gotten anything from an audience.
PROOF: What about when you’re talking to peers about the Project? Do you ever receive criticism?
GB: When talking to people about the project, nobody ever dares say anything bad to me. People who know I do this work don’t ever say anything negative to me. I think they are probably scared of me–which is weird, because I’m not intimidating. I was at my friend’s physical therapy appointment last week when the whole Florida state case was coming up and they had ESPN on the TV.
ESPN was so unbelievably victim blaming, saying things like, “Was she even that drunk?” and “Her story didn’t match up.” This guy was there, he was maybe in his 30s, and he said, I bet I know why she did it, and then he made a dollar sign and said, “I bet she just wanted the money.” And, I was thinking, “Oh my god, I can’t believe you just said that.” And I said to myself, “I’m sorry, I have to speak up. This is my work. Only 2 percent of rapes are false – that’s 1 out of a 1000. She wouldn’t put herself through the whole rape kit and trial just for the money–not to say this doesn’t happen, just that the likelihood is so small.” I had to leave–I was getting so frustrated and angry.
For the most part, it’s been pretty good. I think the issues that I see social media-wise are not on Project Unbreakable, but people who make rape jokes. My peers will say, “I just raped that test.” I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that one.
PROOF: No, I haven’t heard that exact phrase, but, in other contexts, yes.
GB: Yeah, that drives me crazy.
PROOF: Understandably. But, then it seems like it’s an opportunity for you to speak up and share the knowledge that you have to educate those individuals.
GB: Luckily, on the Facebook page and Tumblr, it is very supportive. There are limited negative comments.
PROOF: That’s good. Another question I have for you is, how do you deal with sifting through and processing thousands of stories of sexual trauma? Have you become desensitized to it at all? Or on the opposite end of the spectrum, do you feel more raw about it?
GB: It depends. I feel like I’ve gone through every aspect. I’ve worked really hard to set boundaries. I try not to work really late at night or early in the morning (not that I’m ever up really early in the morning, but if I were). It’s hard. Like I said, I’ve gone through all the different phases in how I deal with it and how it’s affected my sensitivity to it, whether it’s more than it should be or less. I’ve read a lot on that–and I realize it’s very common.
There’s a great book called The Trauma Stewardship, which talks about the effects of working in trauma. I think right now, 2 years later, I’ve been able to train myself to have it in front of me, but not come inside of me. Bear witness, but not take it in.
PROOF: Right, that’s difficult to learn how to do, to find that balance between protecting yourself and maintaining that sensitivity so that you can stay connected to the issue.
GB: Right, I’m not good at that; especially when it comes to people in my personal life. I’ll take everything in–just give me all of it. But, that’s not healthy.
PROOF: And I wonder if that’s maybe why, initially when people have come forward to you, they tell you these accounts, because they sense that about you and feel comfortable and trust you to tell their stories.
GB: Yes, that makes sense. It’s one of my best traits, but also my worst.
PROOF: October 30th was the 2-year anniversary of Project Unbreakable. What’s your vision for the next 5 years for the Project? Or let’s say, the next 2 years?
GB: I think it’s going to continue as is. I would love to publish it as a book, but the chances of that are so unbelievably small. But, I think that would be incredible. I think to continue with submissions, continue speaking at colleges, and also have other photographers take it on in their areas.
PROOF: What do you mean by this last bit, to have other photographers take it on in their areas?
GB: I think it's powerful when other photographers adapt it wherever they live and set up photo days and send the photos back to us to post.
PROOF: A lot of the artists we work with travel around the world and document different human rights abuses, such as the prevalence of rape in the Republic of Congo or Nepal. And, I was looking at your site and saw that you had submissions from the Netherlands, Russia, and all these other countries from around the world. How much has the Project taken off internationally?
GB: It’s always been fairly international. Even a couple of months after the project was started, we were receiving submissions from people all over the world. I remember doing an interview with an Australian radio show at midnight, my time, and that’s when I realized, “Oh my god, this is crazy.” It’s been international since the beginning, because the issue is universal; because it’s everywhere, so many people are able to identify with it.
PROOF: Great. Well thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. It truly was a privilege to chat with you about this awesome work you are doing.