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Five Minutes with Grace Brown: Giving Voice to Victims Through Photography


A survivor is photographed holding up a poster with a quote from her attacker.

CREDIT: Grace Brown

grace brownAccording to the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Study released this week, almost one in five American women have been raped. More than 90 percent of these rapes were committed by someone the victim knew, whether an intimate partner (about 50 percent) or an acquaintance (roughly 40 percent).

Photo at right: Shervin Lainez

The definitive study, with a sample size of several thousand, corroborates estimates by sexual violence advocacy groups. It also provides clues to the prevalence of sexual assault against men (around 5 percent, including both men who were forced to penetrate others and men who were forcibly penetrated by others), and intimate partner violence against women (around 25 percent). 

But the numbers, if horrifying, are easily digested: They don’t confront casual readers with the struggle of survivors to overcome the trauma of their assault.

Nineteen-year-old Grace Brown’s photography project exposes that pain—not Brown’s own, but that of others, both loved ones and strangers. In “Unbreakable,” Brown shoots portraits of survivors holding hand-written quotes from their abuser.

The project’s web site has attracted a large number of followers, and accepts submissions (which can be sent to

Brown sat down with Campus Progress recently to talk about her work. 

Can you tell me a bit about yourself? You identify as a feminist, among other things.

I've been a feminist for about three or four years. I've always been strongly involved in gender equality and rape culture, so to speak. I've always known survivors, and they've always been wrapped into my life, and this feels like something that I just have to do. There's no question about it.

What inspired the Unbreakable project? Did it grow out of your 50 Extraordinary Women project?

It did. I was in the process of photographing for 50 Extraordinary Women. Back in April I met this woman named Yvonne Moss. On the second night I was at her house, she told me her story: She was molested and raped for nine years by her stepfather. I was completely blown away. And then, the more I photographed people for that project, the more people I learned were survivors, too.

I had been working on a new project, but I didn't really have a great idea for it. I wasn't entirely sure of what I wanted to do. One night in October, I was out with a friend of mine and she wound up telling me the story of her abuse, which I didn't know before. I went to bed feeling really upset about it, and I woke up the next morning and had the idea for Unbreakable.

I think the angle of having people hold up signs with what their attacker said is very interesting and powerful. What prompted that particular component?

My first idea was just for a class project—I was going have people hold up signs from the catcalls I had heard since moving to New York in August. Catcalls drove me insane and it took me a long time to build a thick skin to it. That's kind of where it came from.

Then, a few days before I came up with Unbreakable, I had the idea to have people just write random words on posters and then photograph them saying that word, just to capture what their mouth looked like when they said it. But that has nothing to do with sexual abuse, nothing to do with feminism. It was just a random idea that I had. Then after I heard my friend's story, I woke up with Unbreakable.

Has this project been difficult for you? What kind of emotional response have you had to the work?

It's definitely difficult. I don't want to detach, because you want to still feel connected with the person, but you can't take on everyone's stories because that will just—it will kill you. So it's really hard to find a good balance between them.

What has the response of your subjects been?

Amazing. It can be hard. It can definitely be hard. But I think they feel a sense of relief. It's a new shift in their journey, the feeling, even though it's hard.

And how about the public?

It's amazing. I've gotten maybe one negative review, and as an artist, you never forget that. But everything else is just—it's like snowballing. And I've gotten a lot of contact from people in other countries like New Zealand and Australia. I had one from Abu Dhabi the other day—it's just, it's amazing.

The person from Abu Dhabi sent an image. It was just amazing. I feel like at 19 that I'm already fulfilled. Like, my career could be done tomorrow—hopefully not, knock on wood—but if it was, I would be OK. When you're 19, when you have all these people telling you that you've changed their lives, it would be very silly not to feel complete.

I know this is the stereotypical question for artists, but what was your goal with this project? What did you want this piece to say?

I wanted to be able to give these people a voice, because I know how hard it is because they feel so ashamed. They shouldn't feel ashamed; it should be their attacker who feels ashamed, not them. So I wanted to give them a voice. I had been looking to try and find a way to do more [for survivors]: I did the thing where I would donate money and I would tell my classmates the facts and the statistics, but you can hear as many facts as you want but never really take someone to heart. I still didn't really feel fulfilled.

I wanted something that someone could look at and be like, "Oh my god." And maybe they realize it had happened to them, or they feel more compassion for someone who it's happened to. I think I just wanted to shed light and awareness.

So where do think it goes from here?

Hopefully photograph more. I just got asked to do a couple exhibits next year, which has been really amazing, at two schools. I'm doing that, and then hypothetically hopefully I can maybe travel more and go to more cities to photograph. If I find that there is more of a demand, well, there's always going to be a demand—statistics are really high. But it's just whether people are willing to participate, and whether I have the money to travel.

I guess, I'm really just focusing on you know staying in school and then doing this as much as I can. I think things happen for a reason, so I'm just going to let whatever happens happen.

Shay O'Reilly is a reporter with Campus Progress. Follow him on Twitter @shaygabriel.

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