These Photos of Sexual Assault Survivors Go Beyond the Stock Image Cliches
New Zealand photographer Megan Bowers-Vette is tackling shame and creating a community with the Us Project.
When Megan Bowers-Vette set out to photograph 50 sexual assault survivors in New Zealand and Australia she expected tears, or at least some anger. Instead, what she got over and over were stories of strength and resilience.
"There have been hardly any tears," Megan told VICE. "What I've been blown away with is how much they've sacrificed from their life so that they can still provide love for their children, and still have loving relationships with other people, and also love for the people who are around the offender."
Megan was a child when she was first sexually abused by a family friend. It wasn't until much later that she started to talk about the abuse, a process she says is like having "a big bag of crap inside you and every time you talk about it you let out a little bit more of that crap until eventually you've worked your whole way through it".
Megan started the Us Project to create a community out of the silence. She wanted to photograph people how they really are, "not victims huddling in corners crying, they're out there living their lives".
"The thing for me was realizing that so many people have had this happen to them, yet everyone feels completely by themselves."
For the last few months, Megan has been taking pictures of survivors of sexual abuse and recording their stories. An exhibition of the Us Project will be on show at Whangarei Art Museum in August. As part of VICE NZ's Sexual Assault focus week, Megan gave us this preview.
"I saw the boys when I was walking home from school and one of them said to me, "We have kittens at our house, do you want to come see them?" and I said "fuck yes! I love kittens". There were no kittens. That still pisses me off to this day—that all that shit happened and there weren't even any kittens."
"It was an interesting time, because I had only just discovered myself, not only as a woman, but as a woman who wanted to date men. I joined up to a few dating apps, which seems to be the way of the world. I had been talking to this guy to about a week or so. He had to stop off at his house and convinced me to come inside. I said "can we go now?" He locked the door and said, "You're not going anywhere". That's when things got really dark. What I end up talking about all the time in my counseling sessions isn't "the act" as such, but how he treated me afterwards. He threw me out the door and said, "go down the street to call a taxi, I don't want anyone seeing you outside my house.""
"I'm not sure what hurt the most, the physical assault or the fact that I couldn't charge my attacker with rape. The law terms male on male assault as "unlawful sexual connection". The words themselves have the connotation that I participated in my assault. The word connection makes it sound willing, like we had a love affair gone wrong. I just wanted to call him for what he was, a rapist."
"I pretty much make it my business now to call out anyone who acts in a misogynistic, objectifying or sexually harassing way. No matter how small, one event can change your whole outlook on life. One encounter can leave you feeling you are no longer safe in this world."
"If I had a dollar for every time someone has heard me speak about my sexual abuse and told me that it happened to them too, I would be a millionaire. But I'm lucky, truly, because I'm blessed to be free to speak up and out about my sexual abuse experiences. I am not a victim. I am a survivor, a conqueror. And I want to help others conquer the shame, guilt, the ugliness of the memories."
"In my 20s I was so fortunate to have met a bunch of women through the theatre and arts scene, and also in the queer community. Many of these women had also experienced sexual assault in some form in their lives. That was the first point of healing for me, realizing I wasn't to only one.
Now at 48 it is very rare to even think about what happened to me. Its such a tiny part of the sum of all my life experiences. When I do talk about it, its with a certain sense of pride in the survivorship and the healing capacity of women."
"When I first gave my life to Christ, I hated it. There were all these straight, happy people. They would always be smiling and saying "lets talk about our family traditions". And I was just there thinking, my family tradition is to lie to each other."
"The thing that affected me the most was the other side of it, the emotional side of things. He would say to me "Don't tell the others, they will think your weird", and, "Everyone else likes this, there must be something wrong with you if your not liking this." These things really bit me in the arse as I got older. It put into my head from a very young age that Im weird, I'm different and I don't fit in. I guess I believed I didn't have the right to my own feelings."
"I feel like people in the gay community, they don't really talk about sexual violation. The gay community is so sex focussed. You know that you have to be strong to say no, if you're not, you really feel like you have to accept it when you really don't. You really have to push to do that. There is a lot of pressure to be seen as promiscuous or even just attractive or to be seen as someone whose is sought after. Someone who everyone wants, there's a lot of pressure to be looking good. Being somewhere, being someone else."
"He would come into the room and I'd put my desk up and think "Oh, please choose that other girl. Please choose that other girl," and he'd choose her and I'd think, "Oh cool". But other times, he chose me and we had to walk past the office, past the big sliding glass doors that the office lady was sitting in and I just looked at her and I couldn't say anything. It was just silence. I was powerless and she just looked at me and I just looked at her and I went into his office and we closed the door."
"I don't have to be feeling fine about everything that happened to me. I needed to stop thinking things would get better after some sort of 'healing moment'. There's no 'moment' like that. Every single time I get sad depressed and overwhelmed, it becomes easier each time to navigate the emotional terrain I need to wrestle with to get back to being a happy, functional person. Letting people in to know who, what and why I am—bumps and bruises and all—leaves me feeling strong, liberated and empowered. I'm not going to let anyone take away my ability to have a meaningful relationship."
See more by Megan Bowers-Vette here.
This article originally appeared on VICE NZ.