Surviving our secrets

Using photos to help heal sexual abuse

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Sandy Kelly Sameshima

Guest Author/Photographer

Surviving Our Secrets is a photographic journey of women and girls who have experienced sexual violence and harassment. As a photographer, I have always been interested in how a portrait of someone can tell an emotional story. I wanted to offer survivors an opportunity to speak through their photographs. These raw portraits were taken by me as survivors shared their stories in the small studio I set up for this in my Oak Park home. Some women told their stories with their eyes or their hands, others by the expressions on their faces. The photographs and the order they are placed on their page illustrate each women's story.  

After the #MeToo movement began, I felt inspired to speak about my own childhood trauma of incest along with a desire to connect and help other women who have been sexually abused. Also, I wanted to help children and adult survivors that may feel alone and scared because of their current or past sexual abuse. I remember how alone I felt as a child. I wanted to create something to help others feel less lonely through their healing journey.  

For a variety of reasons, it may be difficult for some survivors to tell their story in words. It may be due to a legal reason or maybe they are not ready to share all the details. A photograph allows a survivor to have control over the situation by expressing only what they are ready to express during their session. It also allows for a survivor to remain anonymous by only showing their hands or the back of their head, which I did for one survivor. She still had the freedom to speak without disclosing herself.   

In the beginning of the photo sessions, I shared my survivor story and why I wanted to create this book. I told survivors I wanted them to feel safe and that we could stop if they began to feel uncomfortable. It was important to me that the women felt in control during these sessions. We laughed together and we cried together as they told me their stories. 

Along with the photos, each survivor had the opportunity to include a statement, quote or mantra on the bottom of her page, along with her name and what happened. While some declined, most were interested, contributing things like, "No longer afraid to speak," and "Survivor of molestation and rape." 

One thing I did discover is that even though my survivor story is so different than theirs, the feelings we are left with after the abuse are remarkably similar. Often, I witnessed extreme emotion being released as they talked about their past abuse. I would offer to stop the session because I was concerned about their wellbeing, but they wanted to carry on as they knew this book could make a difference in another survivor's life. I cannot say enough about the bravery and courage of these survivors. These women are amazing!   

Some of us have met since the book was published and it is an amazing feeling being with these women and experiencing their power! A few of the survivors shared with me that being in this book has given them the courage to pursue some of their lifelong dreams. 

And, we all laughed when some shared that they originally had no intention of telling me their entire story and were planning to come in for just a few photographs. However, after arriving they felt a sisterhood in that space and decided to share. I feel so honored that they trusted me.  

Meeting them has helped me heal tremendously. I set out to help these survivors, but they ended up helping me.  

Because many of us are interested in helping other survivors we created a group called Project SOS and plan to offer discussion-panel events to share personal stories of healing and moving forward after sexual assault and abuse. It is recommended for survivors, loved ones and friends of survivors, teachers and educators, healthcare workers, first responders and law enforcement. We had an event planned at the Oak Park Public Library in April; however, we had to reschedule for 2021. 

After the survivors in the book shared with me what a positive and healing experience it was for them, I decided to start offering these photo sessions to other survivors and publish a series of these books. The first book was possible because of these very courageous survivors and everyone else who listened, supported and generously offered their talents to me.   

I also have a photography business. I am passionate about photography and genuinely enjoy connecting with my clients while I capture memories for them to enjoy now and in the future. I offer socially distant with mask sessions for portrait, family, head shot, high school senior and special needs photography sessions. 

To order "Surviving Our Secrets," or learn more about Sandy Sameshima Photography, go to sandysameshimaphotography.com. A portion of the proceeds from the book will be donated to the #Metoo movement. Survivors interested in participating in a future publication, can email Sameshima at survivingoursecrets@gmail.com. 

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Deborah Wess  

Posted: July 14th, 2020 9:01 PM

What an amazing thing you've done! Thank you, and all your sister survivors participants, for bearing witness and breaking the silence.

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