What do you get when you add two motivated, compassionate college students, a mission to spread awareness about domestic violence and the open road? Peace Bound. Today Jeffery From and Emma Redden share their perspective of domestic violence after touring the U.S. and asking strangers, “Why is it important to support victims of domestic violence?”
Emma: The project was born out of the confluence of three things: our interest in the issue of domestic violence, our love and belief in the power of art, and our desire to have an adventure.
When we learned about the Davis Foundation 100 Projects for Peace grant, we designed a project that addressed the issue of abuse within an artistic framework. We decided to travel by car because it allowed us to reach very different parts of the country. This diversity was very important to the conception of the project because it enforced the idea of intersectional solidarity and support.
What was your goal for the project? Why did you choose to work with photos?
Jeffrey: Our project has many goals, but it is primarily to create a resource of accessible support for survivors of domestic violence in an effort to reduce feelings of isolation; to open dialogues among those who are unfamiliar with the issue; to spread general awareness throughout the country; and to demonstrate the national scale of both the issue itself and the solidarity that exists across the nation.
We chose to work with photographs because the visual nature of this medium makes our project both personal and accessible. Instead of statistics and academic essays about this issue, we wanted to create a visual resource that is understandable across age, race, creed, and socio-economic divisions. Moreover, we chose to use faces and handwriting so our portraits would reflect the intimate nature of both the issue and the support and solidarity the participants offer.
Where did you travel?
Emma: We began in Vermont and did a large loop through the South, up the West Coast and then back through the North. We passed through a total of 25 states and stopped at 12 major cities. The cities we spent a bit of time in included: Nashville, TN; Atlanta, GA; New Orleans, Louisiana; Austin, TX; Santa Fe, NM; Los Angeles, CA; San Francisco, CA; Boise, ID; Sioux Falls, SD; and Chicago, IL.
Jeffrey: Our process underwent an organic and necessary transformation throughout our trip. At the onset of our project, we approached randomly selected individuals, be it a woman at a flea market, or a man sitting in his truck, and presented them with our question (‘why is it important to support victims of domestic violence?’).
This first technique proved to alienating and startling for some. Therefore, we changed our methodology a bit and began canvassing on the street—but our results were still not what we wanted. People heard the words “domestic violence” and retreated.
Our breakthrough came with a simple rephrasing of our project. We began presenting Peace Bound as an “art project for peace,” and the results were amazing. The new phrasing made it clear to others that we didn’t want money, we weren’t branding passers-by as victims, and it invited an openness and creativity which allowed people to hear more than just the words “domestic violence.”
What did you discover as you met people and talked about domestic violence?
Emma: We discovered a few ubiquitous truths: domestic violence effects people’s lives across geographical, racial and socio-economic divides; there are wonderful and thoughtful people in all parts of this country who dedicate their lives to helping empower survivors; and lastly, there are people everywhere who believe in the possibility of changing the injustices in our society.
Our personal exposure to the prevalence of the issue was illuminated on one of the very first days when we walked up to two random women in a Flea Market in Virginia and they both shared with us that they were survivors. Complementary to that however, was the encouragement of our interactions with the public.
While there were people who did not want to engage with us at all, there were many strangers who took time of their day to show support for something they may, or may not necessarily be effected by. These interactions were very positive and a reassurance that despite all of the messages in our culture that promote and reinforce abuse, there are people who understand the implications and dangers, and are willing to stand against them.
How did people react when you asked them to talk about this subject?
Jeffrey: Sometimes we were greeted with (literal) open arms, and in other times people simply waved us off. Our subject matter is a difficult topic to present to strangers because, at the end of the day, domestic violence is a trying subject to investigate. Whether it’s because it’s too close to home, they think it is a “private issue” or they simply don’t want to think about such a heavy topic, it’s a hard thing to interject into someone’s day. Once we rephrased our project, however, people began opening up and approaching the topic with a new creativity.
You chose to use the subject’s actual handwriting over their photo. Why did you choose to go this route? What does it add to the photo?
Emma: In many ways our project is about identity; and the power of a community of people who offer to identify as allies. In light of this, handwriting is a way to reinforce and demonstrate identity. As each person’s face is different and unique, so is his or her handwriting. The handwriting adds an additional personal and intimate touch to a person’s statement.
What surprised you about your experience? Did this project change how you thought about domestic violence?
Jeffrey: It’s easy to divide our country by politics, race, creed, or socio-economics, but this project was a surprising reminder that before all of that, we’re just people—and most people are willing to help. Relying on strangers is a vulnerable place to be—and one we were not accustomed to—so to be received with such warmth was an amazing experience. I think the biggest things we took away were renewed understandings of our personal abilities to make change, and that people will surprise you, no matter who you think they might be or where you think they come from.
Emma: I will follow up with that. I had conceptions about what I thought parts of the United States were like, and what the people were like who lived there based off the media, stereotypes, politics and stories; and these conceptions created barriers for me. Our trip challenged that notion constantly—which surprised me. Everywhere we went people had similar stories about pain and heartbreak but also about strength and resilience. The trip ignited a sense of shared humanity. This is something I carry with me everyday.
Is there an image you’ve created that really touches you?
Emma: My favorite image is of a young man we met in New Orleans. He answered our crux question with “So they can love again, find peace again, be whole again.” When I took his photograph he crossed his tattooed arms across his chest and embraced himself, without prompt. The combination of this body language, his gender, and his hopeful statement created an image that I think is very powerful. He is a man giving tender optimism to a survivor’s future.
Jeffrey: “because we are human.” The simplicity of the statement and image blows me away. It extends beyond race or creed or gender or politics or socio-economics or what have you and reminds us that, at our most basic level, the human level, we are all connected, we are all affected, and we are all responsible for one and other. And in that same token, as humans, we cannot do this to others or stand by and let it happen. The woman in the photo is 20 year old, and she wrote it with a smile on her face like it was an obvious truth.
What were some challenges you faced with this project?
Emma: One of the biggest challenges was figuring out how to conduct the project in a way that was empowering and not isolating for anyone who participated. There is one moment that really stands out to me that illustrates this. At the beginning of the trip, we weren’t in places where it would make sense to stand on the street and talk to everyone who walked by, so we decided we would just start to ask people we came in contact with—where ever that may be.
There was a moment when we were at a fireworks store in Tennessee, and there were a couple women working inside and they were alone so I walked in, and explained the project and asked if they would be interested in participating. I thought I had been clear that we weren’t trying to seek out victims, and I wasn’t identifying one of these women as a victim by trying to talk to her – she was just someone who possibly could have some insight about our topic. If she was a victim or not, it didn’t matter; she still might have opinions and feelings about why it’s important to support victims.
But her reaction made me feel like I had hurt her and that domestic abuse was something that touched her life closely. I think hearing the words ‘victim’ and ‘domestic violence’ were painful enough so that the rest of what I said was no longer relevant—regardless of my intention. This experience made us rethink the way we approached the project. In casual, public settings, it had to be clear that we were approaching everyone who was around and we weren’t singling anyone out. Our intention for the project was to create and reinforce feelings of solidarity—so needless to say, if our process was in anyway making people feel singled out or isolate—we were doing something wrong.
Emma: Our next step is to publish the portraits into a book. At the moment, the book is a few weeks away from being ready to send to the printer. Once we have the books, we will distribute the majority of the 100 we print to different service centers and agencies around the country that we have relationships with; and then we hope to sell the remaining books to help fund the printing of another batch. Due to unfortunately pervasiveness of the issue, our project doesn’t have an expiration to its relevancy. Therefore, once the book is printed, we will use as many outlets and resources as we can to try to get the book in the hands of as many people as possible. We have plans to present our work at a statewide conference in the spring and have some contacts we hope to follow up with in terms of gaining publicity.
Jeffrey: Additionally, we will keep our website peacebound.wordpress.com as a permanent resource on the Internet. Peace Bound has the potential to benefit countless individuals; whether a survivor who finds the book in a local shelter, a family member who does not know how to support their struggling loved one, an advocate who feels weighed down by the gravity of their work, or simply someone who does not know how effected they are by this issue. The project blog already broke 11,000 hits from over 40 countries, and continues to spread.
We hope that Peace Bound’s visual emphasis makes it’s messages accessible and powerful. The simple fact that it is a tangible collection of voices speaking out against an issue too often swept beneath the carpet of “private issues” makes it a permanent resource for support, solidarity, and hope. Although approaches to challenging domestic violence will surely evolve over time, as long as this website and book remain available to the public, they will continue to spread this project’s messages of peace.
Jeffrey: I see domestic violence as an epidemic that we can only cure as a community.
Emma: I see domestic violence everywhere.