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National campaign spotlights University’s sexual assault victims

Grace Brown is a self-professed introvert. Calm and contemplative, she prefers to keep her thoughts to herself and to digest the world from behind her camera’s thick lens. Through her looking glass, she quietly snaps shots of men and women, girls and boys, young and old and rich and poor. She silently captures intimate images of hurt and heartbreak, sadness and betrayal and hope and empowerment, all in the same frame. She doesn’t push, pry or ask questions. She doesn’t need to — her pictures say it all.

Brown’s bold photographic-project-turned-blogosphere-sensation, Project Unbreakable, was launched overnight. Surrounded by victims of sexual violence all her life, Brown recalls waking up one morning with the idea of photographing these victims holding stark white signs inscribed with the haunting words of their attackers.

“I was out late at night with a friend last October and she suddenly just blurted out her story,” Brown said. “I was incredibly sad and I just couldn’t shake it. That night I went to bed so upset, counting the number of people in my life who’d been sexually abused and I woke up the next morning with the idea for the project, knowing it was something I had to do.”

From that point on, Brown let the project develop organically through word of mouth and social media. Now, a year after its inception, Project Unbreakable holds a spot in TIME Magazine’s Top 30 Tumblr Blogs to Follow, and after a 16-city U.S. tour, the project will take the international stage with showings in London and Paris. And Brown is barely 20.

The refreshing and yet upsetting nature of the project is what moved project participant Emily Loranger, a fourth-year College student double majoring in sociology and women, gender and sexuality, to bring Project Unbreakable to Charlottesville.

“The first time I participated, I felt like I finally had found a place to tell people that these assaults happened to me and that they weren’t something I had to be ashamed of,” Loranger said. “I chose to show my face. Of course, not everyone wants to do that, but I proved that these words had no power over me. I wanted victims here to have the chance to have the same experience.”

Working with her boss Claire Kaplan, director of sexual and domestic violence services at the Women’s Center, Loranger convinced Brown to visit Grounds. In early November, Brown spent two days photographing both Charlottesville residents and University students at Lee Park, finishing her visit with a question and answer session Kaplan said was well-attended despite the fact it fell on election night.

“One of our number-one goals is creating outlets for survivors to express themselves,” Kaplan said. “[Project Unbreakable] is a wonderful intersection between visual arts and a way of giving survivors a voice.”

For Loranger, who was assaulted both as a child and more recently off-Grounds by a fellow student last fall, participating not only gave her a voice but also helped her decide to pursue a hearing with the Sexual Misconduct Board, the disciplinary body on Grounds that hears alleged sexual assault cases.

“Seeing these people and how strong they were gave me the extra push to continue going through with [the process],” Loranger said.

The pictures of University students should be posted on the blog sometime during the next few months, Brown said. Meanwhile, Loranger and Kaplan are looking for new ways to foster awareness about sexual violence and keep students thinking about the issue before it reaches them personally.

“I think sexual violence is something we think we talk about but don’t,” Loranger said. “When people see pictures of students from their own school holding these signs and coming forward as victims, sexual assault becomes an undeniable issue. You can’t ignore that these are the people sitting beside you in class and the dining hall. You have to address it.”

That is exactly what Brown intended for her blog to do. Brown is on her way to achieving her goals, but the University is still looking to find its own way to better help student sexual assault victims. Such efforts are sometimes impeded by a lack of University funding, Kaplan said.

That shouldn’t stop efforts to combat sexual abuse, though, Brown said.

“Whatever it is you have in mind, just do it,” she said. “… It’s so important to remember we all have the capacity to get up and make a difference.”


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