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Decentering the Self in “in.visible”: A Journey of Beauty and Faith

<ay, April 30, a photography and film exhibit entitled “in.visible” opened in Weitz 226. The exhibit is an artistic representation of the stories of five women who are survivors of sexual abuse. In.visible depicts their various emotions and journeys living as a survivor. There is fear, sorrow, anger, and even reconciliation and forgiveness. All five women have reflections that accompany their photographs, sharing their stories of their experiences of abuse and the following experience of living as a survivor.

As the title indicates, much of the artwork involves the women’s figures fading into the background, becoming partially or almost completely invisible. On one level, this portrayal of them shows the voices that have become silenced through abuse, but are beginning to penetrate public walls to educate and touch viewers on a deep level. On another level, it shows the multiple layers within the various women. One layer is one we may observe in public everyday, while another layer is the more personal and emotional layer that is more difficult to see.

The artist behind the work, Abigail Han ‘12, a recent graduate of Carleton College, started the original project almost ten months ago, when she proposed it in her Ethics of Civic Engagement course. Various people supported her including friends, family, faculty, and members of the public. “I never thought I would be able to successfully execute the project,” said Han. At the beginning, she had lofty dreams that the project would be easy and successful, however, she recounts having experienced difficulty, tears, shame, and moments of being brought down low. Coming from an upper-middle class family, she said, she grew up with many privileges, but when she began working at the HOPE Center this past year, her perspective changed. She was in an environment she had never experienced. Han began to wrestle with faith and herself in a way she never did because of the suffering she came into contact working there. “It is suffering that no one should go through,” she states.

Throughout the process, Han interviewed the women about their experiences and spent time trying to get to know them, human being to human being. She saw the potential problematic nature of a power dynamic created between her, the artist, and the five women, her subjects. Thus, she was careful and constantly checked in with her subjects and portrayed them in a way that they were satisfied with. “I wanted to make sure it was what they wanted to see also,” she explained.

Because of her experiences, Han’s beliefs and convictions about social justice grew. “Social justice means to humbly walk alongside the vulnerable,” she stated in her speech to an audience of over 50 students, faculty, and community members. “You don’t have to be in the same situation to adequately help someone. Shame, hurt, guilt, and sorrow are experiences that every human being goes through. Understanding is something we seek.”

To amplify her own ideas about social justice and service, Han shared two quotes on the importance of beauty. First, she shared a saying from Elaine Scarry from the book On Beauty and Being Just about how beauty decenters the self. Han added: “It takes an experience of beauty to knock us out of our self-centeredness and induce us to become just.” This is certainly true of the exhibit, which inspires us to try to relate to the five women in ways we normally would not.
Han wants viewers of the exhibit to wrestle with any unsettling emotions. “It should make us uncomfortable. What was done to them was evil.” However, she wants these emotions to ultimately move us to empathy and to help share the dream of a world where there are no survivors of sexual abuse. Another quote she shared was by C.S. Lewis: “We don’t merely want to see beauty. We want something else.” That something else for Han is a higher ideal for all of humanity, an ideal of social justice.

When asked what drew her to the project, Han replied that the project chose her, instead of the other way around. “I really wanted to understand what it meant to be someone involved with social justice. I don’t think we think about it enough. I don’t think I think about it enough.” Her major realization by the end of the project is that social justice is a way of life, a way to right the wrongs of society and treat others with fairness. “It’s reweaving yourself into the lives and needs of others.”

Check out more of Abigail Han’s photography on her website, Faith Thru Art:

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