The picture is set in a park; fall leaves blur in the background of a large, white poster that reads in big, bold letters, “You wanted it, though.”
Project Unbreakable Founder Grace Brown posted this photograph on Tumblr on Nov. 6, 2011. It was the first image in the Project Unbreakable collection, a series of photographs aiming to help survivors of sexual violence heal through art. On Oct. 7, 2013, Brown and Project Unbreakable Director Kaelyn Siversky came to the University to present the now-famous collection and explain its purpose.
Photographs for Project Unbreakable depict survivors of sexual assault holding signs with words said to them by their attacker or by someone in whom they confided about their assault. Brown takes a number of these photographs, but survivors can also submit their own through the Project Unbreakable website. Siversky explained how these images help survivors of sexual violence in the healing process.
“There’s a grace in it, in offering survivors a platform to say exactly what needs to be said while requiring very little from them,” Siversky said. “It’s a place where their stories are believed without hesitation.”
While these photographs were originally limited to pictures of the survivors’ signs, over time some survivors have asked to include their faces or bodies in the frame. The project does not require survivors to identify themselves, but Brown hopes that showing survivors will help break down misconceptions surrounding sexual violence.
“We’re often taught that it matters what we wear, what we do, or what we say,” Brown said. “But the fact is that our society is teaching us ‘don’t get raped’ instead of ‘don’t rape.’ Another stereotype surrounding sexual assault is that it’s someone we don’t know, that it’s a stranger hiding in an alleyway. But so often it’s someone we do know, someone who loves us.”
Kara Wernick ’14 and Sexual Assault Response Team intern Rachel Verner ’15 organized the event through Students for Consent and Communication (SFCC). Verner hoped that bringing Brown and Siversky to campus would help students connect with the project and understand its power within the survivor community.
“It wasn’t just this [blog] that some genius came up with,” Verner said. “It was a student that was going to school, studying photography, and ended up dropping out to pursue this. It was what she wanted to do, and it was what she was passionate about. It meant something to her, and that in itself is often greater than the power behind some of these bigger campaigns that might be run nation-wide, but there’s not the personality behind them, not the realness or the raw emotion there.”
Wernick explained that SFCC hoped Brown and Siversky’s talk would have an educational aspect as well.
“The whole point of the project now is that it really does a great job of humanizing the statistics surrounding this issue,” Wernick said. “It incorporates everything from childhood abuse to one-time events, everyone from young children to people in their adult lives.”
Wernick added that the project breaks down stereotypes regarding sexual assault.
“It challenges a lot of the myths regarding consent,” she said. “You’ll have people holding signs with quotations from their spouses who assumed that by virtue of being married, you don’t need to seek consent. There are people holding up signs that reference the fact that they were drunk and challenge the fact that people think an intoxicated individual can give consent. You’ll have male survivors, female survivors, queer survivors, non-queer survivors. You’ll have a whole spectrum.”
Counseling and Psychological Services Therapist and Sexual Assault Resource Coordinator Alysha Warren was present at the event and available for support both during and after the lecture. Warren hopes Project Unbreakable can foster discussion and action on campus.
“[Project Unbreakable] provides an opportunity to engage more people in the conversation about prevention,” Warren wrote in an email to The Argus. “We don’t just want them to join the conversation though, but to get truly engaged and to begin think[ing] about ways that they can work on sexual violence prevention in their spheres of influence. It doesn’t have to be complicated; it can involve becoming an active bystander or changing behaviors that subtly reinforce rape culture.”
Warren believes that the project emphasizes rhetoric when speaking to survivors.
“It highlights the impact of language,” Warren wrote. “Some of the signs depict things that people said while presumably trying to be helpful—it challenges us to be mindful of language and to think before we speak so we’re not reinforcing aspects of rape culture like putting the onus on the survivor to prevent an assault or […] expecting survivors to respond in a certain way.”
Although the photographs help raise awareness about sexual violence, their primary purpose is to help survivors. Brown concluded her presentation with the belief that every survivor and every photo in Project Unbreakable helps others gain control and heal.
“Project Unbreakable, and the participants involved, is a symbol of hope,” Brown said.
Kimberly Berry ’15 attended the presentation after seeing Project Unbreakable online and noted that meeting Brown and Siversky changed her perspective on sexual violence.
“Before, it was just photos of women, and it’s kind of sad,” Berry said. “To hear [Brown] spin the positive aspect of it, to hear how people started to show their faces or how other people reacted to their sexual violence experience, it was really amazing.”
The lecture also served as the kickoff event for the University’s own version of Project Unbreakable. SFCC will begin working to photograph survivors of sexual violence on campus holding signs with the words of their attackers on them. It aims to put the pictures on display by Thanksgiving.
“We’ll be putting up [the Wesleyan photos] in some sort of safe space,” Verner said. “Students can choose to enter it. The hope is that by doing so we’ll be able to make students who aren’t necessarily involved with the issue realize just how pertinent it is in our community. Maybe that’s their friend holding up a poster of something that their other friend said to them.”
Berry thinks this will be helpful to the campus community.
“Project Unbreakable exposes a lot of rape culture that a lot of people on this campus think is gone, but it’s really not,” Berry said. “It shows the campus that this is a thing that’s happening and we should be aware of it. There are still people that are making excuses; there are still victims hiding. It’s important that it spreads the message to campus that these things are real.”