featuring: project unbreakable’s grace brown

project unbreakable is a photography project started by 20 year old photographer, grace brown, in october of 2011. grace works with survivors of sexual assault and abuse, photographing them holding posters featuring words from their attackers. project unbreakable has been named one of time magazine’s top 30 must-see tumblrs – in the short time since the project began, grace has given hundreds of survivors a place to share their voice, their secrets and an outlet to begin to heal. i had the incredible opportunity to chat with grace about project unbreakable, the correlation between art and healing, and the importance of facing your secrets. oh, and that whole “legitimate rape” thing. read on for an inside look at project unbreakable.

watch the project unbreakable video, produced by nino gallego

thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me. i’d like to start by letting my readers know a bit more about you! is photography a big part of your life outside of project unbreakable?

it was. i used to do a lot of photography on the side. i don’t do as much anymore because i’ve been so busy with the project. originally, i wanted to photograph musicians, actually! i love photography, but i never expected i’d be able to turn it into a career – that’s still something that really amazes me, and something i’m still trying to figure out. i’ve been a photographer for about 3 years now.

are you employed outside of project unbreakable?

i’m not. my whole life is pretty much this project. i’ve done photo editing and stuff in the past, but right now, i live off of public speaking. that’s been really wonderful, and it’s about the project so it really helps bring awareness.

you actually only started about a year ago and it’s grown quite rapidly in the short time that it’s been active. in fact, time magazine named you one of the top 30 tumblrs to follow – what has the experience been like for you?

it’s very surreal. i didn’t expect for this project to be successful. i expected a lot of backlash. thinking back to the day when time magazine announced the list, i didn’t even understand the insanity of it until a couple hours later. i read the post over again and it kind of clicked: “so that’s where all these followers are coming from! oh, right, it’s TIME MAGAZINE.” it was a really amazing feeling, but definitely very surreal. i feel like i’m living a dream sometimes.

grace brown

very exciting! so, moving back to the project itself, i know that you’ve said that the idea came about when a friend confided her own story in you – could you elaborate on that moment and how you came up with the idea? what was project unbreakable like when you first started up?

one night in october, my friend just…blurted it out. we talked about it and the next morning, i just woke up with the idea. i approached her and asked if i could photograph her, and really manifest that idea, and she said “yes, absolutely.” if it wasn’t for her, if it wasn’t for that moment, this project would never have gotten started. i was only nineteen when i started, and it began with me shooting friends or acquaintances, and eventually maybe two weeks later, i started receiving emails from strangers and the rest is history.

what a whirlwind – two weeks! it must have been quite hectic for you. what were the first steps you took towards getting the project off the ground?

i blogged about it, of course, just on one of my personal blogs and got friends and family to share it via social media to scope out what kind of response or interest there would be, if any. initially, my plan was to not show anybody’s faces, and really focus on the words. i remember talking to my friend julia, who has been a very sound voice in my life, and she was the one who suggested photographing faces. you know, i should let people show their faces – i don’t force them to, but…it’s very different from what i had intended when i first started out. in the same way, i had never considered that people might want to submit their own photos, until i got that first email.

so what was the response like initially? criticism? support?

i got a good amount of positive responses, but some criticism as well. i had an acquaintance email me saying that the project would fail in the feminist community. and i believed her! i expected it. so it was interesting to see it succeed despite that. i expected a lot of hate mail!

why is that?

i didn’t know what people were going to say. “this is inappropriate!” “why do we have to show what the attacker said?” …to be honest, i didn’t start it as a healing project. it still amazes me that it does bring healing. i started it to bring awareness. i wanted people to realize that the issue is real, and its very common.

in terms of it being a “healing project”, do you have experience in the kind of “therapy” field or in helping survivors of abuse?

someone once called me the survivor whisperer. which is a sort of crass way or saying that people confide in me. even before this project, people tend to share their secrets or their stories with me. but professionally speaking, no, i have no prior experience, except what i’ve learned from readings and stuff.

i’d like to move on and talk more closely about the project itself and how it works. i know that you travel to different cities and arrange meetings with anyone that wants to participate.

anyone who wants to take part, just emails me and we set up an appointment. i schedule them in 15 minute time slots. actually, now it’s my assistant, christina, who makes the schedules. i can’t even tell you how amazing she is! so, she books the time slots…they write their poster at our meeting.

what is the atmosphere like at the meetings?

it’s very quiet. i’m a very introverted person, so the shoot is very quiet. it’s strange because it only takes about 4 minutes for me to photograph them…what takes the most time and consideration is the actual words. but the best part is when they get ready to leave and…i don’t know how to describe it. there are no words to capture this moment. they always look at me with very, very grateful eyes. it’s always in their eyes.

i imagine it being a very emotional moment.

it is. sometimes they ask if they can hug me, which i love. i used to hate hugging, and my best friend made me love hugging [laughs] so i find it very touching that people want to hug me and that they ask! it’s a very therapeutic process, i think, so a hug makes sense.

do you see many people in a day?

it depends. sometimes it’s five, sometimes it’s fifty. and i’m fine with either. i used to really strive to make it a solid twenty, but i’ve realized that if i photograph one person and it helps them, then that’s an amazing thing and something to be happy about.

definitely. and you do some public speaking while you’re on location for photoshoots as well, right?

actually, the reason i travel is to go speak at schools. the shoots are set up depending on where i am speaking that week. sometimes a school will decide that only students from that school are allowed at the event, but otherwise, the events are open to the public.

what about the photo shoots?

anyone can participate in the photography aspect. that was one of my main goals with the project – it has to be open to anyone, because it can happen to anyone. it happens to men, too. anyone can be a survivor, and that was something i felt very strongly about when i started the project – it can’t discriminate.

let’s go back to the concept of “healing” that we touched on briefly earlier. how do you think that project unbreakable helps to heal?

these people finally have a voice. they are silenced for so long. it gives them an outlet to say “this happened to me and i’m dealing with it”. it gives them a chance to let go, to get it out of themselves, out of their heads and their hearts.

i had showed your site to a friend of mine who was a bit confused as to how exactly having these words from their attacker on display, for everyone to see, is part of the healing process. what are your thoughts on that interaction?

the thing is…that’s exactly it. that interaction between the reader and the words mean that those words are no longer inside you, not eating away at you. having other people see or read them is a very brave thing because those words are often the deepest, darkest part of a survivor’s story. often, they’ve never said them out loud.

in regards to awareness, the words are something that no one will ever forget. i used to share facts and statistics with my peers in high school – one in four women is raped in her lifetime. every two minutes, someone in the united states is sexually assaulted – but i would see that information go in one ear and out the other. so when i started the project…i wanted something that people would never forget.

you mentioned that when you started the project, you only wanted to include words from the abuser. but a lot of your images include words from, for example, parents or a friend who wasn’t supportive, from the police or an attorney, or victim-blamers. what was the thinking behind that transition?

it just happened. i think someone, at first, asked me if they could. and i thought, you know, why not. if that’s something that that person is harbouring inside themselves, they should be allowed to get it out. there’s no scale of pain, there’s no judging what hurts someone more.

is there a certain memory or moment from the journey of project unbreakable that you might want to share with littlecity readers?

i think the first post is very memorable for me, just in terms of thinking about how far we’ve come since that. but otherwise, i remember almost every person that i photograph. there was one girl that i met in boston, on my second day of shooting. i was really sick that day and even though i was exhausted, i wound up talking to this girl for almost an hour at the end of the day. her story was very inspiring and she was so sweet, and so strong, and so grateful for what i had done for her. i’ll never forget her.

another moment occurred when i was honoured recently by the joyful heart foundation, along with a couple other notable figures who are running similar outreaches or projects. there was maybe 400 people in attendance, and while i was being introduced by the ceo, they played a video that my friend and i had recently produced. it was very surreal to watch it. someone at the table in front of me, smiled, pointed at me, like “that’s you”. that was a very incredible moment for me, to have so many people focused on project unbreakable.

looking back, what would you say is the biggest lesson you’ve learned?

wow, there have been a lot of lessons. this is really corny but..i’ve learned not to judge anyone. any time i meet a stranger, i’m much more open to their character. especially in terms of people i may not get along with, i always remember to think “you could be photographing them tomorrow, grace” – running this project, i give everyone i photograph the utmost respect. and i’ve realized that it’s important to keep that in mind when i meet new people.

on a more personal level, this project has given like ten years of wisdom. doing the normal 20-year-old thing, figuring yourself out, of course that comes with time. but this project has really forced me to learn about myself much more quickly. i’ve really realized that i can’t let anyone else define me, and that has been a trip. a really, really good trip.

so i want to touch on art and healing a little bit. similar projects, like postsecret, for example, seem to have this kind of ripple effect, in that, often people will write in saying that just seeing someone else’s secret online has helped them face their secret. do you think that project unbreakable has a similar effect?

i think so. i’ve received emails from people who have told me “my attacker said the same thing to me” – i can’t even imagine how that feels, to realize that you’re not alone. i’ve read postsecret, of course, and there’s definitely content that i can relate to…it’s all anyone really wants, is to not feel alone. it’s what makes projects like these so powerful.

one of the questions in your FAQ, which is actually something i had wondered while going through your photographs is, “how do you know that all these stories are true?”. you referenced a post by frank warren, of postsecret, response about the different shades of truth – can you elaborate on that?

sure. frank’s answer, which i haven’t actually read in a long time, expresses that “if it helps one person, then it’s worth it”. and that’s the most important part. it’s worthless to try and prove your truth, and the truth isn’t really the most important part. it’s about helping and healing. and the people who aren’t really telling the truth…well, they know that. and that’s okay. it doesn’t make them a bad person. no one is really a bad person, it’s about the choices you make.

on a similar note, i noticed that you also responded to the recent todd akin/“legitimate rape” controversy. do you have anything you want to say?

it’s scary that people think that way. but people do. and that’s okay. like i said, it’s worthless to try and prove your truth so whatever way he meant it, it’s worthless to try and prove it either way. i used to be a very loud feminist, very liberal, and then, who do i meet but this very refined christian. she’s like another parent to me, and she taught me that you can either let politics come between you, or you can have a relationship – and applying that to the whole legitimate rape thing….people can get angry, and yell and scream and call names. but the people who do that, aren’t really accomplishing much, and they’re not looking at the positive side. looking at my homepage and seeing the word rape appear in the headlines…that’s amazing. when people like todd akin make those mistakes, people get angry, and the conversation gets opened up so much, which diminishes sexual assault that much more.

i think the very fact that people are so angry shows some huge progress. not too long ago, it would have been a bit more hush hush, i think, people would have been less likely to speak up.

yes. exactly. i mean….i don’t think human nature is inherently bad. like i said, it’s about the choices you make. and because of a choice akin made, debates like these are happening, and awareness is being spread. it’s important.

what do you hope to accomplish with project unbreakable in the coming years?

i think unbreakable is slowly breaking down the walls of silence, and it’s something i want to continue to develop. i want to turn it into an organization. i wanna get to a point where i don’t feel like i have to censor myself when i talk about what i do. and i want that to be true for anyone that works in this field. having to censor yourself…that’s hard, because it’s something that you love and you’re passionate about.

what about you personally, where do you hope to be in the future?

i really want to publish the project as a book. that’s the best idea for me right now. i took a year off school, and i’ll be going back at some point, but the problem with me going back to school means i don’t get to photograph as much, which means unbreakable slows down. it’s difficult to accept that but i think at the same time, i need to have a life outside of project unbreakable.

++

find project unbreakable on tumblr :: facebook :: twitter
find grace brown on twitter

project unbreakable fall tour dates this way.

all images courtesy of grace brown @ project unbreakable

8 thoughts on “featuring: project unbreakable’s grace brown

  1. I’m glad that she let survivors shape the project to include words of their choosing, not just the words of the attacker as she had originally envisioned. She should work more into that dynamic of partnership with survivors, lest she come off as exploitative of them. She is, after all, getting fame, speaking fees, and now wants a book. A video I watched about the project seemed rather Grace-centric. I think it’s a normal stage for her to go through because she is so young, but I hope she will grow from more introspection and critiques of the project. Also curious, will she donate all proceeds to programs helping survivors heal or working to eliminate sexual violence? FWIW, I am a survivor many years into my healing who has chosen not to be photographed for her project.

    • This projects is not exploitive. The survivors want to be part of it. And – to the best of my knowlege there are not yet ‘proceeds’ or profit and at this point Grace is using the speaking fees etc. to support and grow he project. She states in the interview that she wants to make Unbreakable into an organization, meaning non-profit.

      The important part is, as Grace mentioned, the healing that is happening for many of the survivors as a result of participating. The fact that people are finding release by participating or just by viewing it is priceless. You can see this clearly if yum attend one her events. It would be unfortunate if she appeared exploitive!

  2. hi mel!

    i definitely agree that grace’s decision to not restrict the words people choose to share was a wonderful idea and has definitely helped shape the project as a whole. i’m not sure i totally agree with your next point though – i don’t think grace is being exploitative. everyone who is photographed volunteers to do so, and in fact, the whole process is very much a partnership. the entire reason that project unbreakable exists to is spread awareness about sexual abuse, and though grace may be the face of the project, it’s impossible to have a project that is so personal be face-less. it’s important to get to know the person behind the lens, i think, to develop the kind of partnership you mentioned earlier. without knowing who grace is, i don’t think anyone would be as willing to participate. but i do agree that she will grow from introspection…as we all will :)

    in answer to your question, i’m actually not sure if she will donate the proceeds or put the money towards helping unbreakable grow, and thus, helping people in her own way. though i’m sure these are questions she would be willing to answer.

    in the end though..everyone heals differently. there are plenty of people who have been photographed who are far along in their healing processes, like there are plenty who are just starting to heal. by no means has grace ever said this is the only way to heal or that it works for everyone. it’s a means to exploring the interaction between healing and art, and i think that’s a wonderful thing!

    thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

    xoxo

  3. Thank you for being an activist for this unforgiveable attack on your body, mind and soul. I know that if my granddaughter held up a sign it would read “don’t tell anybody, don’t tell anybody, don’t tell anybody”.

    I raised my grand-daughter who was physically and sexually abused at an age that makes those acts unthinkable as well as unforgivable, 3 and 4 years of age. She has lived with night terrors, hysterical blindness and panic attacks and seizures. May our Creator continue to guide you and all other victims throughout your life’s journey.

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