Powerful photography series presents uplifting images of domestic violence survivors

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Amy Swales
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“When I told my story to some people, they said, ‘Oh. Well you don’t look like domestic violence.’ What does it look like?”

Artist Chantal Barlow started the Unconventional Apology Project (UAP) to honour women impacted by domestic abuse, creating uplifting, positive portraits of survivors to enable them to tell their stories, inspire others and “show these women as whole human beings” –  with no one definition of a ‘typical’ survivor.

The fact she uses her grandfather's camera to do so is incredibly significant: Barlow was a teenager when she found out that the man she had a strong, loving relationship with had shot and killed her grandmother in the street. His 16-year-old son – Barlow's father – survived purely by chance.

Maybleine Nelson Barlow disappeared from Barlow's family history and the 1975 murder of a 36-year-old woman was swept under the rug. Barlow says her grandfather's actions went unpunished and he died two years ago, aged 84, surrounded by friends and family.

Now the Los Angeles-based artist uses her camera to help women share their experiences, and, as she tells Stylist.co.uk, she felt it was important to make the images as uplifting as possible – despite the powerful, upsetting interviews that accompany them often being difficult to read.

“There is a lot of trust gifted to me when someone is participating in UAP. Having a positive photo is a reflection of my attempts in respecting that trust,” she explains. “I knew that I wanted to highlight the best moments I shared with the participants during the interview.

“I wanted them to feel positive about the photo, even if the photo is ever taken out of its original context. Showing the participants defeated and broken down would really serve no healthy purpose. It was important to me to show these women as whole human beings.”

Barlow asks each subject to wear something blue (her grandmother's favourite colour) and reflective of their personalities, and photographs them as they share their stories – aiming to picture 36 to mark each year of her grandmother's life. The participants were intially people she knew, but now people reach out to her through Twitter and the website wanting to take part.

And the women involved find it cathartic. For some, it's the first time they've ever told the full story to anyone. Isabel Flores described the process as “healing”, while Tamieka Smith said, “Sharing it made me feel strong again. I didn’t feel worthless after that”.

The project has opened up discussion with her own family too, and Barlow tells Stylist.co.uk that they've been supportive of her endeavours.

“I turned to my family first before I embarked on this journey. I wanted to be sure we were all on the same page about my idea and we flushed out any potential concerns or questions,” she says. “They’ve been very encouraging and supportive every step of the way. I receive ongoing feedback about how this has been a healing experience for them.”

Barlow didn't confront her grandfather when she was told what he'd done, “mostly due to the fact that I was still wrapping my head around the murder. My dad was very open to me asking questions and allowing me to go through my own emotions in the moment. I had more questions for my dad than I did for my grandfather.

“For me, I wanted greater insight into how my dad dealt with the tragedy of losing his mom by the hand of his own father with whom he had a close relationship. There was still a certain amount of secrecy after he told me; it was though we were still obliged to not speak about it around him. This changed after his death.”

Although the initial project honours her grandmother and focuses on women, Barlow has said she intends to use other demographics for future projects and is happy it's been received so well.

“I feel a great sense of responsibility with all of the positive feedback. I feel the greatest amount of responsibility towards my family and the participants; I want them all to feel continually uplifted by the project’s movement and impact.

“What I did not expect are the ongoing messages I receive about the positive impact the project has made on someone. Moving someone is such a humbling feeling as an artist, especially when the impact prompts wanting to do something actionable. Many of the emails are from all over the world, from all gender pronouns, and include people wanting to make a difference in their own communities. It’s beautiful and motivating.”

See some more images from the project below, and read each participant's story in full at unconventionalapology.com.

Isabel Flores

“I would just like to say, for all women and young ladies, that we can all be the target. For everyone to know that this can happen to you [...] The only thing that I can advise in all ages is always have your eyes open. Because the red flags are always there.

“As soon as you get the first sign, that’s the warning sign. Take the flag and run.”

Read Isabel's story here

Peggie Reyna (in honor of her daughter, Dream Morse)

“He jumped on my head and snapped my neck sideways. Left me with a broken jaw… my nose broken, all my teeth kicked out, blood running out of my ears and profoundly deaf.

“Dream was already into teen age when I got free from domestic violence. She was already dating the person that she would eventually marry that was her abuser. Through the years, I talked to her a lot about domestic violence, about leaving him, about getting restraining orders. She always, always went back, same as her momma always went back for so many times. And in 1995, he put a gun to her head and he killed her.”

Read Peggie's story here

Zoë La Placa

“I remember my mom telling me, ‘Don’t make him your world! Don’t make him your world!’ You know? I now understand what she meant by that. That’s what I did.”

Read Zoë's story here

All images courtesy of Chantal Barlow / Unconventional Apology Project


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Amy Swales

Amy Swales is a freelance writer who likes to eat, drink and talk about her dog. She will continue to plunder her own life and the lives of her loved ones for material in the name of comedy, catharsis and getting pictures of her dog on the internet.