Rape survivor portrait exhibit opens in Chicago

Photo courtesy of Grace Brown

Grace Brown's photo exhibit features portraits of women holding signs quoting their rapists.

Catie L'Heureux, Reporter
October 1, 2012 •

A Chicago art gallery showcased a photography exhibit during the weekend featuring portraits of sexual assault survivors holding signs quoting their attackers.

The Awakenings Foundation Gallery, 4001 N. Ravenswood Ave. in Chicago, presented the Project Unbreakable photography exhibit. The gallery hosted a private opening day reception with photographer Grace Brown on Friday. More than 40 people attended.

The exhibit displays 10 photos selected from the Project Unbreakable collection, which are archived on a Tumblr blog. The gallery photos were printed on metal for a glossy finish and feature statements such as, “You wanted it, though," “I love you," and “I’ve been wanting to do that all morning.”

“It looks almost like you could wipe off the words and then write in your own," Brown said. "It looks sort of like a whiteboard."

Though located in Chicago, the exhibit hits close to home for the Northwestern community. Alumna Jean Cozier (Communication '76) is the president and founder of the Awakenings Foundation, an Illinois nonprofit that showcases creative works of victims of rape and sexual abuse. Medill junior Kerri Pang interns as a member of Project Unbreakable’s five-person team and manages its social media accounts. She reads comments and messages from many of the people following Project Unbreakable online.

“It happens to people everywhere, people around you, people in your family, and people just don’t talk about it,” Pang said of sexual assault. “It’s definitely eye-opening and definitely a very interesting experience because it’s so much more than taking a gender studies class. It’s so much more real when you hear from people personally and see how much the project affects them and how the project has such an impact on people who have these experiences.”

Brown, the photographer, was inspired to start Project Unbreakable by these personal experiences. She created the Project Unbreakable: The Art of Healing Tumblr in October 2011 after a friend shared her story of being sexually assaulted.

“It crushed me,” Brown said at the reception Friday. “I’ll never be able to forget the way she looked at me and expected me not to believe her.”

Brown said she woke up the morning after hearing the story with the idea for Project Unbreakable. The same friend agreed to be photographed as Brown’s first subject.

Brown has taken more than 260 photos of survivors throughout the U.S. and received over 1,000 submissions internationally. The project has over 22,000 followers on Tumblr, more than 13,000 likes on Facebook and more than 2,700 followers on Twitter.

Brown said she has always connected with survivors and wanted to be a sexual assault counselor before discovering her passion for photography.

“It’s also really amazing to see all the support that survivors are getting from this project," she said. "I get a lot of emails saying that they weren’t sure how it was going to affect them, but for some reason they just feel free.”

On Thursday, Brown photographed more than 40 Chicago-area survivors in Lincoln Park. The Awakenings Foundation Gallery featured these photos in a slideshow Saturday and Sunday during the 11th annual Ravenswood ArtWalk, billed as an area “tour of arts and industry.”

Approximately 800 people visited the Awakenings Foundation Gallery during the festival, said Cozier, who was also photographed as a survivor in Brown's photo shoot Thursday.

“She’s got a unique take on it, this idea of being photographed along with the words that were used to attack you,” Cozier said. “I think it’s totally original and it’s one of the most brilliant things.”

A sophomore photography student at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, Brown is on leave from school until next fall so she can fully focus on her exhibit. In January, Time Magazine named Project Unbreakable one of the 30 Must-See Tumblr Blogs to followThe Project Unbreakable fall tour will continue to 14 other locations on the east coast as well as two destinations in Canada. The organization on Sunday released official dates for upcoming photo shoots in Paris and London.

Paulina Nava, who viewed the exhibit and follows the Tumblr blog, said she was surprised that the exhibit would be in Chicago and attended the Friday reception with friends.

“I think it was really powerful … to see that so many faces have been impacted by this,” the DePaul University sophomore said.

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