Photographs show us snapshots of lives and experiences but they can also mislead, misinform and show versions of a story that we wouldn’t always recognise. Most photos that try to portray domestic abuse do the latter.
They tell us only young, white, slim, beautiful women experience abuse and that their abuser is physically violent, broadly built: a brutish modern day neanderthal. They say victims of abuse are weak, cowardly and passive.
But survivors of domestic abuse, such as Lilly*, tell a very different story: “There were small but definite acts of resistance,” she says. “You can still be a strong woman in an abusive situation. In a way you fight it every day of your life when you are in it.”
When we speak about violence against women our society tends to equate being a victim with being weak in a way that we do not with other crimes. Photos of domestic abuse reinforce this perception: a woman is shown cowering, helpless, head in her hands as a clenched, tattooed fist looms over her. She is stripped of her agency as we judge her for not leaving her abuser, and assure ourselves we would act differently if we were ever in that situation. Believe it or not, most survivors of domestic abuse would have thought the same.
The continued misrepresentation of domestic abuse as an entirely physical phenomenon – as black eyes, tears or broken bones – stops women from reporting and seeking support for domestic abuse.
For many years women’s organisations have supported women who have lived through years of emotional, sexual and financial abuse, who still question the validity of their experience on the basis that their abuser never raised his fist. We also know from survivors that the psychological trauma inflicted by abusers, the control, humiliation and degradation, often stays with them for far longer than physical pain.
Abusers are not simply white, working class men with an alcohol problem, and they certainly don’t need to be physically violent to try to break their victim.
“If photographs always show hitting or bruises it means that men who don’t hit absolve themselves of the label abuser because they don’t leave bruises,” says Mariama, a survivor of abuse. “Also it makes people think that if a woman doesn’t have bruises she must be OK.”
An EU study has shown that one in three women across the EU has experienced some form of intimate partner violence since the age of 15. That’s not just a statistic. It’s your neighbour. It’s your sister. Your teacher. Your boss. Your friend. Your daughter. It might even be you.
The damage inflicted our use of misleading domestic abuse images is severe
Domestic abuse knows no boundaries of race, religion, disability or class. Nobody thinks it will happen to them, or that they might be vulnerable to such horrors.
The damage inflicted by our use of misleading domestic abuse images is severe. It shapes our understanding of whose experience we consider to be valid, and whose is invalid. It influences who we believe and how we respond when someone we know tells us they have experienced abuse. It bewilders women experiencing fear and anxiety in their relationship. How are the women who don’t look like the photos we exclusively use to represent domestic abuse supposed to think of themselves and their experiences?
As Pia, another survivor, puts it, these kinds of photos give people permission to ask why someone didn’t leave, rather than asking why the man didn’t stop hurting her.
For women to recognise their own experiences they must see themselves represented. For our society to take seriously the experiences and trauma of women who have lived through domestic abuse they must see women affected who are older; they must see women of colour, they must see disabled women, fat women, professional women, young women, working class women, they must see diverse women.
That is why Scottish Women’s Aid and Zero Tolerance have worked collaboratively with survivors of domestic abuse to produce One Thousand Words, a photography project by Laura Dodsworth, to represent survivors in a different way.
As we develop our understanding of domestic abuse as being a crime that does not require physical violence, we must also recognise the impact of our narrow depictions of victim-survivors of male violence. Those women who have experienced domestic abuse are victims – they have been wronged – but they are not weak. They are survivors, and their strength and courage deserves representation too.
* Some names in this article have been changed
– Brenna Jessie is a Scottish feminist, activist and external affairs officer at Scottish Women’s Aid.
This article was initially published in The Guardian.