October 16, 2017

‘Standing boldly in the face of abuse’: unconventional portraits of survivors of domestic violence

Artist Chantal Barlow honors her grandmother with a photo project showing 'the light and life' after domestic abuse

In 1975 in Compton, California, my grandfather shot my grandmother, Mableine Nelson Barlow, in a drunken rage in front of their oldest son—my father. The two had seven children together at the time of Mableine’s death at the young age of 36. My grandfather never went to prison for his crime and was ultimately allowed back into the family after becoming sober and religious. I only knew him as my loving grandfather until my father told me about his mother’s death when I was 16. I was conflicted for many years. When my grandfather passed in 2013, I inherited his beloved camera, which he used to take pictures of the family as we grew older.

In 2014, I started Unconventional Apology Project with a goal to use my grandfather’s camera to complete 36 portraits and interviews of domestic violence survivors and the family members of those who did not survive. The 36 portraits represent each year of my grandmother’s life as a way amplify her voice, likeness and story and to highlight the global epidemic of domestic violence. The name Unconventional Apology comes from my unconventional method of using survivors’ stories and my grandfather’s camera to apologize to my grandmother for how she was treated in life and death, sweeping her story under the rug. It also is a societal apology for how we stigmatize survivors of domestic violence, calling their honesty into question and engaging in victim blaming, ultimately placing the onus on the victim and not on the abuser to end the experience of abuse.

Unconventional Apology Project shows that domestic violence is not a stagnant experience, and that there is light and life after abuse.

Those tendencies are why I pride myself on the project being survivor-centric. When reading the stories and viewing the portraits on UnconventionalApology.com, you will see a stark contrast in what I present and what is typically shown in relation to domestic violence.

Having a survivor-centric focus on for this project resulted in having these brave survivors boldly speak their truths in longform, unedited interviews that go beyond their experiences of abusive relationships and into the realm of what it took them to heal and transcend both the toxic relationships and their lingering effects. I have them reflect on who they are as people who happened to have an experience with domestic violence, rather than showing them as static beings in a perpetually abused and defeated state. It was also important to me to focus on the imagery of the participants and include their names to show they are standing boldly in the face of abuse for their own benefit and that of others currently experiencing domestic violence or healing from it. I take candid shots during their interviews, which show them smiling and buoyant, demonstrating that they can obtain light, life, and hope after these traumas—the true image of a survivor of domestic violence who has found a way to heal. I felt it was important to move beyond showing people as victims, and instead show 36 examples of how to leave abusive relationships, seek help, and build a new life that is worth celebrating after leaving abuse behind. I did not feel there was enough of this representation as a domestic violence survivor myself. (I released my own portrait as the Project’s first.)

Another key component of the project is using the participants themselves as the source to educate the public and confront the stigmas and presumptions society places on domestic violence victims and survivors.

The diversity of the participants is deliberate. We have an age range of 50 years between the oldest and youngest participants representing a range of ethnic, religious, national, economic, and sexual orientation backgrounds. It was important for me to showcase the diversity of people who experience abuse and shock viewers in this way, because when you see these images all together, the faces look familiar: your mother, sister, aunt, coworker, neighbor, teacher, boss etc.

I also felt it was important to show the different forms abuse can take. When you read the stories, you will recognize physical abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse, and verbal and emotional abuse. By facing this layered reality and the as-lived experiences of those who made it out, it becomes more difficult to ignore and to assume you and your network are unaffected by it. Domestic violence touches all groups of people and we need to be cognizant of our uninformed presumptions. Unconventional Apology Project shows that domestic violence is not a stagnant experience, and that there is light and life after abuse. It serves as a repository for 36 examples of how survivors can find their peace and future, and gives current victims hope than even these smiling survivors have had moments of hopelessness that they overcame. It can be done and we need to support their journeys out.

See all of the Unconventional Apology Project portraits.

Find a domestic violence shelter in your area at www.domesticshelters.org.

If you or someone you know is in a domestic violence situation, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or TTY 1-800-787-3224.

Chantal Barlow

Creator of the Unconventional Apology Project

Chantal Barlow is an internationally collected artist from Austin, Texas, and is currently based in Los Angeles. Her primary practice includes abstract paintings on wood and Portuguese cork, which speaks to her connection to the sea and her heritage. Chantal has been exploring her artistic voice since childhood, but has formally practiced after moving to California in 2005. The following 12 years, she experimented with medium, material and aesthetic, ultimately realizing that her voice lay in the in between spaces, finding comfort in juxtaposing human experience and physical materials.

Chantal is the creator of the Unconventional Apology Project, a portrait and interview series giving voice to survivors of domestic violence. She has garnered international praise and has engaged in a discourse on domestic violence in digital and print publications around the world in seven languages. Some highlights include Vanity Fair Italy, The Guardian, Stern, MiNDFOOD, Good Housekeeping, the Huffington Post, and many others.
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