Facing the dark secrets

Apr 262006
Authors: Michelle Zilis

For photographer and CSU sophomore Heidi White, pictures are a way of showing a hopeful face in the name of stopping sexual assault, even if that photograph – a child, a victim, a daughter huddled in a corner – depicts a mother’s worst fear.

Giving a name and a face to the dark secrets that affect many Fort Collins residents, Sexual Assault Victim Advocate (SAVA) has joined with several other programs, including ChildSafe, Poudre School District and CSU Women’s Programs, to present an art exhibit at the Pluma Bella Gallery, 140 W. Oak St.

White contributed several faceless photographs depicting children as victims, as well as other photos taken at a self-defense class in which survivors learned to yell, punch and kick at their attackers.

“I wanted to be involved because I think there’s a powerful message in every survivor that is not often told because of the secrecy and taboos surrounding sexual assault,” White said. “Photographs are a way to help put a name to sexual assault.”

The show consists of 65 black and white photographs of survivors, as well as self-portraits drawn by surviving children from ChildSafe. Some photographs include family, friends, pets and anything else that has helped them on their healing path.

Every two and a half minutes someone is sexually assaulted in America, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. This statistic does not refer simply to the big cities, but also to small towns, such as Fort Collins.

“We want to raise awareness and put a face to all the statistics you hear,” said Gretchen Emick, senior social work major and SAVA advocate. “When you see the faces and read their writings, we want it to hit home that is doesn’t just happen to people you don’t know far away, but to people you probably do know.”

Survivor and CSU alumna Courtney Ellison has three photographs hanging in the gallery, which had its opening last week. A selection of them will run through the end of April.

“For me (the exhibit) gave a face to this secret that has helped me finally be able to show that I am still living and strong,” Ellison said of her experience being photographed.

To survivors, what may be perhaps the most moving part of the exhibit is what lies beneath a photograph: a letter, poem or phrase expressing an experience or meaning.

The themes of the writings vary, yet many speak of surviving, being stronger, thanking loved ones, time as the ultimate healer and learning to live without fear.

“These people are survivors, not victims, and they are very strong,” Emick said. “We wanted this to give them a new way to use their voice, to say exactly what they wanted to say, yet in a safer environment than talking to a huge group of people.”

The show is meant to affect all who see it, especially anyone still suffering who has not begun their healing process.

Ellison, who did not talk about her experience until five years after it happened, praises the show and said she thinks it is something that really would have helped her if she had seen it when she was still to afraid to talk about it.

“It gives this horrible thing a face so that it’s not a shameful thing anymore,” Ellison said. “I think if I had seen it, I would have felt like I wasn’t so alone, and if I had known that, I wouldn’t have been so ashamed.”

The show’s main goal is to affect people by showing them that the photographed people are survivors, who are strong and will keep living.

“I think it is a very positive experience, it gives these survivors a good healing venue and hopefully will help some not feel like they have to wait years before they can talk about it,” Ellison said.

Michelle Zilis can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com

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