Breaking the Silence

Every two minutes someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. Every year there are approximately 237,868 victims of sexual violence. These statistics are from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, and they paint a stark picture of sexual assault in our country. But they don’t tell a story. So Marissa Murdy grabbed her Canon 5D II and searched for survivors willing to be part of her photo series. She wanted to share their stories.

A senior at UMD, Murdy is also a survivor of sexual assault and she refused to be just another statistic.

“I am a local fine art photographer looking to start a series about survivors of sexual abuse (sex trafficking, incest, rape, molestation, etc.),” read the Craigslist ad Murdy posted for Duluth and Minneapolis. “I am interested in listening to your story.”

Murdy wasn’t sure what to expect from this Craigslist posting, which included a desire to photograph survivors in their home and Murdy’s interest in nude photography.

“I always wanted to do a photo series on it, but I never knew how,” Murdy said. “I don’t want everyone to feel like a victim. I don’t want people to look at it the wrong way. But this summer I decided I just need start it.”

Aside from Craigslist, Murdy contacted The Center Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse, the North Central Widows Program and her friends.

The first woman who contacted her lived in the cities and saw the Craigslist ad. Murdy arranged to meet her for coffee so they could get to know each other before any photos were taken.

“When I first met her, she asked, ‘Why should I trust you?’ and I was so taken aback by it. I felt like I had to come up with all these reasons.

“But she’s right. They’re putting so much trust in me to make sure that these don’t get out anywhere and that they’re displayed in an appropriate way,” Murdy said.

This nerve-wracking first meeting was how Murdy realized the importance of establishing trust with the survivors she worked with. She made sure to meet the participants in a public place and let them control the environment.

“First, I would tell my story to them and I would let them know that they could tell me as much of their story as they wanted,” Murdy said. “Some were very detailed and others were vague. But when two survivors talk about it on a personal level, it helps create trust.”

During the initial meeting, Murdy and the participant would plan a time to meet for the photo shoot.

“Some of the photos we planned out specifically. I wanted it to be a collaboration between me and the survivors,” she said.

The first woman Murdy met with (who wishes to remain anonymous) wanted to be photographed in her art studio. She is a painter who used to be a nude model.

“She was telling me about these old modeling poses she used to do. Her favorite was the warrior pose. She put her arms up and threw her head back and said, ‘I’m a warrior, not just a survivor.’ It was very powerful,” Murdy said.

Initially, others were not as comfortable with being photographed while nude.

“I wanted them to be in control of how they photographed and what they wore. I did not want to put anyone in an uncomfortable situation where they had to be nude because that can trigger things,” Murdy said.

But she was surprised to find that nearly all of the survivors ended up posing nude.

Murdy said she was biased to take nude photographs because she’s been doing so for nearly four years now.

“I started photographing nudes because I wanted to de-sexualize the body,” Murdy said. “I like when the subject looks at the viewer — it’s very confrontational. I like that confrontation and taking away the male gaze.”

This is why Murdy thought it was especially important to do nude photos with the survivors of sexual assault. She wanted to create an environment where the women were in control of their bodies after so much harm had been done to them.

“The body becomes a battlefield of illusionary control,” Murdy’s artist statement says. “On the surface we can see eating disorders, cutting, substance abuse, underneath all that is the silence of feeling less worthy and the anger wrapped up in that silence.”

Murdy eventually compiled photos from 11 survivors to put in her senior show titled “Our Experiences: Surviving Sexual Assault.”

Murdy wants to make sure the message of her series is one of strength, not victimhood.

“I speak to these reflections because I am a survivor,” Murdy said. “Despite these feelings, I see us as strong individuals and want to portray all survivors in that light and never silent.”

In addition to the photos, each survivor shared her story on a handwritten note which will hang next to their photos.

“It’s just so personal. When I read them and it’s handwritten, I feel the pain and shame that comes with their story,” Murdy said. “People see the numbers and the stats of sexual assault, but seeing how it actually affected them, their body and their relationships is really important.”

This is why Murdy’s series will not end here. She wants to travel throughout the country, gathering more stories from a wider variety of people.

“I hope to get more men in the future because it’s not just a women’s issue,” Murdy said.

But until then, she will share the 11 photos she took this year. They will hang in the Tweed until Nov. 23. Murdy hopes the photos will open a discussion about sexual assault in our country and eventually lead to change.

“The stories told are the ultimate truth; they show the flaws of the legal system, the devastating after effects, the struggles of speaking out and the vulnerability of seeing the abuser,” reads Murdy’s artist statement.

“Each survivor has a unique story, but as a whole we see the change that needs to happen.”

BY APRILL EMIG Student Life Editor

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