I am a photographer and a storyteller. I like to experiment and explore all of the facets this art-form provides for me, using my voice and vision to contribute to this initiative. I am proud to be a part of 500px Studio’s Focused initiative, to help raise awareness around the UNiTE campaign. Bringing awareness and lending a voice to these women is something I believe is profoundly important; their stories must be shared and heard.
I know how terrifying it is to leave an abusive situation. I know what runs through your mind when you think about what they would do if they realized that you were trying to leave; for good. I know what it feels like to lose contact with reality because this one person is slowly breaking down your every defence; intent on keeping you vulnerable, unrecognizable to your own self. For these reasons, I felt a responsibility to help raise awareness around this issue.
By request, the name of the warrior in this story has been changed to Athena, in reference to the Greek Goddess of war. Her story is as follows:
After her son was born, she had already known she needed to leave his father. When Athena returned home with her newborn child, she was left in a difficult situation, unable to adequately provide a stable environment for her family. She was with a partner who did not pick up a new job at this crucial time and was now stuck thinking about how to maneuver her escape around his constant presence at home.
While spending the day with Athena and her family, we found a brief moment to sneak away from her children; to fold laundry, as one napped and the other happily played a videogame. This is when we discussed her experience with domestic abuse.
As she folded the tiny boy shirts and little girl leggings, she began to open up. Her children had been partially raised on a Native reserve in Northern Ontario, where times were difficult in the household she shared with her partner. The stress Athena felt meant she could not always work, regularly exhausted by the arguments from the night before:
“He would constantly accuse me of cheating. Flip on the lights while I’m already in bed sleeping and start talking nonsense. He’d keep me up late some nights with his abusive behaviour and unfounded stories on what I had supposedly done... he'd say all sorts of horrible things. I even had a few panic attacks with extremely rapid breathing. Hyperventilating I think. Which I never experienced before in my life.”
His erratic and accusatory behaviour resulted in extreme stress during her pregnancy, forcing her into an early delivery and emergency c-section. During this period, she suffered from preeclampsia, a dangerous condition affecting 5-7% of pregnant women.
The nearest hospital able to deliver a premature baby, was a 4 hour journey, her then partner, unlicensed and unable to drive her. Athena climbed into her car and drove, until she physically was unable to.
At the hospital, he would use her bank card, since he had already spent his own money very quickly, to buy himself food. She recalls the discomfort of giving him her PIN and card. “He came back super drunk a few times,” Athena remembers.
After giving birth, her mom called, reassuring them that Athena's first child was being looked after until they got back. The little one was with her dad, Athena's first partner, out blueberry picking. When Athena's current partner heard about this, his angry outburst sent her into tears. The nurses asked what was wrong, and he told them Athena was having trouble breast feeding.
And so, back at home, fast forward a few weeks, her newborn had a routine doctor’s appointment, scheduled for later in the day. This is where she saw her moment. She packed one small backpack for her daughter (5 years old at the time), and as many baby clothes and diapers as possible. This all needed to look like an innocent day’s amount of items, so as to not provoke suspicion.
On her way out, she asked “do you want to come with us?” He thought for a moment and said no. She quietly recalls that this was a moment in which she almost wanted him to say yes because she was so “scared shitless”.
At this point in her storytelling, Athena cries. The doctor’s appointment was canceled, and she successfully relocated her children to a safer place. They have been living far from the reserve, for three years now. Athena is a single mom, attending university; studying organic chemistry, molecular biology and statistics.
She admits that her life is not easy. When recapping and fact-checking the above story with her recently, I asked, “are you glad you left?” She wrote her reply:
“Yes! I had to! it was something I knew instinctively that I had to do, or I wouldn't be able to live in peace! I knew, even though there were somewhat good things about him and our relationship, that overall it was not healthy for me, and especially not for my children. If you can look up an abuse cycle, and the types of domestic abuse, you would see that he did almost all of those things… I weighed the good and the bad and it was really bad... I just stripped away all the furry stuff and went to the core of things to see if they were necessary or not. That’s how I encourage people to live. Remove all the complex strings and get to the core, see what that means to you, do you really need it, is it good for you, does it allow you to grow as a person, encourage you, or benefit you in any way? If not, then remove that thing from your life, that’s my view after being in that situation…I think it’s really important to mention this, because it’s often overlooked. Young girls see how their father figure treats their mother and this is what they themselves look for in a man. As a young lady, I was looking for love in all the wrong places! And it’s a cycle you get stuck in because you are attracted to men mistreating you. So u seek that out, but then you feel like shit. but u seek it out again, and again, you feel like shit, you have to realize that to break your cycle.”
I approached this series as an opportunity to document the reality of abuse, capturing authentic moments with this woman and her children. I spent the day playing with the kids, engaging with them and trying to provide a safe place for this family to express their raw, uncensored emotions, how they have survived their experience with this issue.
When asked to incorporate the colour orange to represent the UNiTE Campaign to eliminate violence against women, I tried several different avenues, knowing that this was an opportunity to explore mixed media and give a definition to the layers of meaning that could be communicated through this approach.
I chose to “paint” the backgrounds of this series using my own images from a variety of past photoshoots. The mixture of textures in these cool-toned, peaceful, and powdery colours invoke a sense of tranquility, both in a grounding sense, as well as otherworldly. Searching my archives for the specific colours felt like mixing paint. In all this colour-play, I was striving to convey the kids’ new playground, their new home, their new headspace. Cutting and pasting their images felt innocent, reminiscent of stickers, the way kids love to plaster those all over every surface they come in contact with.
They are beautiful, amazing kids, and in the photography itself, I wanted to show them doing the all the typical things kids do, precisely because they are able and free to do so. The brushstrokes communicate free, playful, and experimental gestures, much like their flurry of activity all day long.
Athena’s escape is a powerful story, and I am amazed by her journey and the bravery she has shown. It is never easy taking that final leap and removing yourself from a difficult situation, protecting those who cannot protect themselves, in this case, her children. I wanted this image collection to invoke the strength, power, and playfulness that the children have now been given a much bigger opportunity to experience. Their lives have become a legacy born from an unimaginably difficult decision, and if it can inspire and give confidence to others who need to do the same, then both Athena and I will have fulfilled our own hopes in telling this story.