Can you talk about how the exhibition at MSU, We Are Worth Everything: Survivors as Themselves, came about and your role in the project?
This exhibition came about because of my experiences at VCFA while working on my MFA in Visual Art. Before attending VCFA, I was working as a photojournalist, photo editor and director of photography for large news organizations—operating under the assumption that community-engaged or social practice approaches to my work would go against the ethics of journalism. We were expected to feign objectivity and separation—both of which are impossible given the intimate nature of my work. Now I know, without a doubt, that objectivity is unattainable and that not offering for someone to provide feedback on their image, when at all possible, can also be viewed as unethical—especially because many of the communities I have been so fortunate to engage with are different than the ones I was born into.
My time studying at VCFA gave me the language, history, and theories on which I could base my approaches to my work, such as my desire to work in collaboration with people and communities. Now that I am working in a journalism school, I am really excited to marry my journalism and artistic practices—retaining the notions of journalism ethics such as to do no harm, not creating or “faking” situations or events then portraying them as reality, capturing events as they unfold, not asking people to repeat actions and so on, while drawing on the ethical approaches that were introduced to me while working on my MFA such as collaboration, informed consent, personal interrogation of privilege and power, and the like. So, when I was hired at MSU in the Summer of 2018, I knew that I wanted to work with the Survivors who stood up to the monster that sexually abused them and try using these new approaches.
I started researching visual media coverage of the Survivors online and was confronted by two distinct sets of images: images of traumatized women speaking in a courtroom to the judge and their abuser and images from the ESPN ESPY awards ceremony where many Survivors dressed in formal evening wear stood together on a stage. They had been invited to receive awards for their courage. I wondered what would be the images that fell in-between being visually represented as a traumatized person and on the other hand as a stunningly beautiful, gorgeously dressed beauty? Human beings are so much more complex, and our identities are intersectional, not fixed. There was also this notion of gender that kept emerging, the engenderment of trauma. How could I augment the formidable digital, visual archive of Survivors of sexual violence starting with this specific group? How could I support these courageous beings to portray themselves?
I was put in touch with one of the Survivors who runs the private Survivor Facebook page and she posted about my idea and an invitation for anyone who wanted to participate with my contact information. I subsequently worked with nearly forty people to create portraits together and then thirty images were chosen for the exhibition; We Are Worth Everything: Survivors as Themselves. I share copyright with each of the people I collaborated with because they were as much a part of creating the images as I was and they deserve autonomy over their images. They can circulate their images independent of my approval, however, I must ask them for permission to exhibit and/or publish the images. I put the onus on myself, which is an ongoing and very powerful exercise for me.