When disaster strikes, we know that to come to the aid of the survivors, we need to send provisions, volunteers, and funds to kick-start any rebuilding process. But long after the dust settles and the chaos ebbs, there is reckoning—and healing—still to be done.

Recently, the Carr Center Violence Against Women Initiative held an exhibit and panel discussion to highlight some of the important ways that creative expression can be a part of that process. On view at the Center until September, photographer Felipe Jacome has assembled a powerful photography and mixed-media project titled “Survivors for Survivors,” which he produced in conjunction with Haiti’s Commission of Women Victims for Victims (KOFAVIV) in the wake of the 2010 earthquake.

The exhibit is notable not only for the stories it tells—those of survivors of the increased wave of sexual violence following the earthquake—but for the fact that it is far more than a photojournalistic undertaking by an outsider. Jacome, who lived in Haiti for about three years following the earthquake, said that, more than anything, he was a conduit for the stories of these women.

From the “Survivors for Survivors” exhibit, by Filipe Jacome.

See more and read the women's stories by visiting Felipe Jacome's website

“These are testimonials,” he said of the mixed-media work, which layers the stories of these women written in their own words and colorful paintings over stark black and white portraiture taken by Jacome. “My photography is just the way for them to talk and express and articulate the things that they want to say in a particular way.”

Photographer Felipe Jacome

Photographer Felipe Jacome

KOFAVIV, founded in 2004 by a group of rape survivors, serves as a sanctuary for some of Haiti’s most vulnerable victims of its hostile social and political climate. Natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake illuminate the instability and inequality even further. Jacome noted in his artist’s statement that while the exact number of women and children raped in the aftermath of the earthquake is unknown, studies suggest that the figures may be as high as 22% of displaced persons and 2% of the general population.

Jacome had worked with KOFAVIV for two years, never with the intention of involving the women in a project. “I never wanted to do a piece on them, because the issue is very sensitive, and I could do more harm than good,” he said, noting that his own idea of humanitarian aid was transformed during his time in Haiti. “At the end of the day, the people who are helping the most are from the country. You can accompany this process and work on it, but it’s not something that’s going to be led by you as a foreign intervention. It has to come from the country, and these women are perfect examples of that.”

When the time was right, the women and Jacome developed the methodology for the pieces together. He worked with KOFAVIV to bring in Haitian artists for painting workshops, and as the women in the photographs wrote out their powerful statements to accompany the Jacome’s photographs, they made it clear that they were influential, strong survivors—anything but victims.

Sarah Peck, Communication Specialist for the Carr Center, is herself a photojournalist with a background in human rights issues, encountered Jacome’s work and knew it would be an “amazing” and “relevant” exhibit. “I’m dedicated to this idea that art can be powerful and part of the conversation around human rights issues,” she said.

Peck said that part of what struck her most about Jacome’s work is how prominently it positions the women; Jacome is not an outsider exercising some further subjugation of these survivors. Rather, said Peck, it’s clearly just the opposite: “He did it with such a beautiful sensitivity. The survivors are telling their own stories. These aren’t women looking away or looking down…they’re conscious, they’re powerful. The images show that, the drawings show that, and the stories they told show that….it’s a beautiful expression of resiliency.”

Recalling a panel discussion from last November, Dr. Jeremy Nobel, President and Founder of the Foundation of Art and Healing was on hand along with Jacome, researcher Vidya Sri from the Carr Center, and student Rory Gerberg from Harvard Students Demand Respect, said that he was happy to speak to the importance of art and resiliency, particularly in times of a nationwide crisis. “It’s so important for traumatized people—and that’s trauma of any sort, whether it be related to weather, wartime or domestic violence, for instance—to express their story,” he said.

During the panel, Nobel pointed to the importance of the expression of this narrative not just for the survivors, but for the entire community as a way to achieve healing and resilience for future trauma. “There are so many photographers who go into these situations and take moving photographs, and that’s important, but not necessarily helpful for people in those situations. What caught my attention was how the women were given the chance to relate to their experience by contributing to the story through the expressiveness of writing on Philipe’s photographs,” he said.

The photographs are on view at the Carr Center, 79 JFK St., Cambridge, Mass. until the fall, said Peck, when they will be switched out for another exhibit.

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