Survivors Reflect Strength and Individuality in MSU Union Exhibit

Pulitzer Prize Winning Photojournalist Invites Survivors of Sexual Violence to Create New Portraits

Survivors of sexual violence reclaim their own image in an exhibit called “We Are Worth Everything.” The exhibit is a collaboration between Judy Walgren, Associate Director of the MSU School of Journalism, professor of practice and Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist, and the Survivors who chose to participate.

On display on in the MSU Union Art Gallery, the exhibit attempts to expand the narrow visual narratives that have appeared in the media from the Survivor community at MSU and beyond.

“Visual archives are powerful devices for building and perpetuating cultural perceptions of communities, especially with groups who have been involved in traumatic events,” said Walgren, who is a photo editor, executive producer and curator. “During a recent online search using ‘Survivors’ and the name of an infamous abuser, the viewer is confronted with gridded images of extremely distraught women interspersed with photographs of a large group of women standing onstage during a high-profile awards ceremony.”

Walgren said the goal of the new exhibit is to present images that reach beyond visualized trauma and triumph. In doing so, she hopes to present a more nuanced view of the courageous Survivors, expand the archive, and move their stories forward.

The portraits speak volumes. Each survivor who participated had the freedom to design the photo shoot however they wanted, taking the lead on details like the location, apparel and items that would appear in each photograph. While some of the women opted for athletic compositions, portraying them at the height of gymnastic competition, others chose to display their personalities behind the scenes, showing that they are much more than a Survivor - they are unique individuals.

In front of the camera, Walgren said she witnessed a range of emotions and qualities from the women. The survivors let things like courage, power and healing shine through.

“You can see it in their eyes,” said Walgren. “The way they were looking back at me was really with such power and intensity, and such courage. The goal is to let them feel empowered, by taking back their image and taking back a part of themselves.”

“The main reason for this work is so that the Survivors can see themselves, not so much that the viewers can see them,” said Walgren. “The audience that I’m creating these photographs for are the Survivors. They really deserve to see themselves as the strong individuals that they are.”

With this portrait series, Walgren wanted to pursue a project that was collaborative in nature, and she worked with the Army of Survivors to plan the project. Two portraits of Survivors who lived too far away for Walgren to travel to at the time were made by fellow photojournalists Eve Edelheit, in Florida, and Maddie McGarvey, in Ohio. The exhibit also features a poem titled “Celebrate” by Kimberly Ann Priest, assistant professor in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures

“It portrays grief as a fraught, but beautiful, journey of evolving relationships, psychical spaces, and emotions,” Priest said. “The poem takes readers on this collective journey from head to heart, highlighting our social need to be valued, cared for, and celebrated as we process and integrate our personal experiences with loss.”

In Walgren’s work, she looked to the Survivors to take the lead, while she followed their guidance. She said she grew immensely from the project as a collaborator and has noticed growth and increasing strength in the survivors as well.

“They have a lot of strength. You can also see the level of healing that some of them are going through.”

Walgren has worked closely with the Survivors to ensure that these photographs will only be exhibited with their consent.

“The exciting thing is I’m still working on this project,” said Walgren. “It started off with the Survivors from this particular situation, and now I’m opening it up to any Survivors of sexual assault.”

The exhibit, which opened in February, runs through Saturday, March 14. Open hours are 12-5 p.m., Monday – Thursday, 12-7 p.m. Friday, and 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. Saturday. The portrait series is an ongoing project. If you identify as a Survivor and would like to participate in this project, email Judy Walgren.

As part of the exhibit, Priest will also hold a workshop titled Honoring the Journey: A Poetry Workshop on Creating Through Loss and Pain. The workshop, scheduled for Thursday, March 12, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the MSU Room at the MSU Union Art Gallery, will focus on making things out of the emotions of grief, fear, and depression. It will weave object and experience to craft poems that give voice to the conflicting nature of our journeys as carriers of loss and pain and their accompanying emotions.

By Melissa Priebe

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