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Using Photography as a Therapeutic Tool for Sexual Assault Survivors

Using Photography as a Therapeutic Tool for Sexual Assault Survivors

Photographer Sarah Rose Smiley and collaborator Taewee Kahrs explore the healing power of image-making.

Anyone who has survived trauma knows all too well that the healing process is non-linear; it moves like a circle, going around and around again in a cycle that can sometimes feel like it is spiraling out of control. For many sexual assault survivors, social stigmas and victim-blaming cause them to retreat into a state of isolation that further harms the healing process.

With the understanding that photography can be a therapeutic tool, American photographer Sarah Rose Smiley and collaborator Taewee Kahrs — both sexual assault survivors — created the project “Coming Home: Milk, Honey, Healing“. In drawing from their own experiences, they have created a series of intimate images of vulnerability, pain, loss, joy, and triumph that reflect their inner states and disrupt the buttoned-down images of survivors that mainstream media has constructed as “respectable” in order to make themselves visible to the people who need to see them most — other survivors struggling to heal themselves.

Coming Home: Milk, Honey, Healing © Sarah Rose Smiley and Taewee Kahrs

“Photography has always been a therapeutic tool and survival skill because it gave me an outlet when hard things were happening in my life,” says Smiley. “It showed me a type of world-building and laid the foundation for storytelling combined with social justice to share my experiences and those of others in a way that wasn’t speaking for them, but rather uplifting them.”

A Litany for Survival

After meeting in a high school chemistry class nearly a decade ago, Sarah Rose Smiley and Taewee Kahrs became friends and collaborators. But it was through the process of making Coming Home that they were able to reconnect to a part of themselves that they had lost.  “After coming to the realizations of my rapes and assaults almost seven years ago, Sarah emerged as a confidant, a fierce ally, and a true friend as I began to process the violations I had endured and how to continue living into a new reality,” says Kahrs, whose memory has been shattered by the experience of trauma.

Coming Home: Milk, Honey, Healing © Sarah Rose Smiley and Taewee Kahrs
Coming Home: Milk, Honey, Healing © Sarah Rose Smiley and Taewee Kahrs

“There is so much about this time period that I only remember as snippets or blurs,” says Kahrs, who was working in sexual violence prevention and analyzing initiatives and campaigns. “I was having trouble allowing myself compassion and struggling with internalizations of non-belief. I was constantly bombarded with images that were de-railing my healing process. I felt insulted, belittled, or completely detached from the images of survivors at the time. So, I went to Sarah hoping to collaborate on a project that could visually change these narratives.”

At the same time, Smiley was navigating her own struggles as a survivor, and together they found a way to reconnect to the part of themselves that had disappeared. “There was a real desire to help each other heal,” Smiley recalls. “Then, the deeper we got into it, the bigger it became. We realize this was something we wanted to extend to other folks, for other survivors to see and understand themselves.”

Coming Home: Milk, Honey, Healing © Sarah Rose Smiley and Taewee Kahrs

Your Silence Will Not Protect You

In creating a space to tell stories on their own terms, Sarah Rose Smiley and Taewee Kahrs discovered perhaps photography’s most profound gift: liberation from the self. In bearing witness and testifying, we set ourselves free. In rendering ourselves visible, we step out of the shadows and confront our fears directly.

“Being in front of the camera, it became very clear that the only story I could tell was my own,” says Kahrs. “This both exhilarated and terrified me as I was in a place that was so sunken and murky that I couldn’t see where I was going or where I was. There were so many times where I would just stand in front of a mirror looking at myself, pulling at the contours of my own face and body and just not be able to recognize it or connect with it which often left me feeling anguished and panicked. Sarah never pushed me to figure out where the story was going, she only committed to witnessing and capturing me where I was.”

Coming Home: Milk, Honey, Healing © Sarah Rose Smiley and Taewee Kahrs

In preserving these moments, photography lay bare a deep emotional truth that one knows viscerally — but rarely can see from the outside. Looking back at photographs from the first shoot, Kahrs describes feeling gutted by her own pain. But in peeling away illusions, she discovered a powerful feeling of compassion for what she could see from another vantage point. In being both inside and outside, Kahrs and Smiley could close the gap, feeling less alienated and alone.

“For me, it is not an exaggeration to say that this project was vitally important to my very non-linear healing journey,” Kahrs says. “The series acted as anchors to myself—not a self that I wished for or a self I wanted to return to from a time before my assaults but anchors into myself in the moment. Seeing myself from the ‘outside in’ afforded me the challenge and the opportunity to meet myself with loving kindness and to also start finally engaging with the depths and edges of my grief.”

Coming Home: Milk, Honey, Healing © Sarah Rose Smiley and Taewee Kahrs

Dare to Be Powerful

With Coming Home, Sarah Rose Smiley and Taewee Kahrs looked to explore ideas of violation, pain, and healing, using motifs like milk, honey, flowers, and flesh. “The process was very intentional and very slow,” says Smiley, who was inspired by Black feminist poet Audre Lorde 1982 biomythography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, which combines history, biography, and myth to create a liminal space for the transformation of identity.

“I asked Taewee to put together things that resonated for her visually and I would put together a few archetypes and patterns so I could get a sense of what was happening for her. It needed to come from the core and then we could build upon it,” Smiley says.

Coming Home: Milk, Honey, Healing © Sarah Rose Smiley and Taewee Kahrs
Coming Home: Milk, Honey, Healing © Sarah Rose Smiley and Taewee Kahrs

With Coming Home, Smiley and Kahrs offer a counter-narrative to images we’ve seen for years, stories propelled by some media that operate under the belief “If it bleeds, it leads.” For as much as we are bombarded by images of victims, rarely do we learn about what happens after the fact. “Erasure limits our understanding and limits our empathy and the ability to connect with and care for people,” Smiley says.

“We live in a world that does not center the experience of the survivor, and if it does it focuses on what justice looks like in a carceral state. There are very binary rules of punishment rather than allowing survivors to determine what justice and healing look like for themselves. This series is a small way of world-building that asks, ‘What if we put survivors at the entrance of this conversation because they know what they need?’”

Sisters in Arms

With the hard-won knowledge that it is extremely easy to be retraumatized, Sarah Rose Smiley and Taewee Kahrs made sure that Coming Home took a different approach to tell the story of survival. “I didn’t want to hit people in the face with trauma,” Smiley says. “I wanted it to be something magical, a little heartbreaking, something that moves you — it’s all interwoven.”

Coming Home: Milk, Honey, Healing © Sarah Rose Smiley and Taewee Kahrs

By creating this series, Smiley and Kahrs restore to themselves and one another the sense of agency and empowerment that had been stolen by the assault.  “As I look back years later, I can see where my own story has gone, but that progression isn’t the point at all,” says Kahrs.

“The point of the story is to remind survivors that what you experienced was real. The depths of your pain will not be endless. You are worthy of compassion. Your body is your own. There are eyes and hands to hold you in love through the hurt and through the transformations. For those who are not survivors, we hoped they would witness and feel us as human — not statistics, not a news story, not a stock image of a silenced and beaten woman, essentially just not someone far away from themselves.”

By Miss Rosen

Coming Home: Milk, Honey, Healing is on view online at She Decides through May 2022.

Coming Home: Milk, Honey, Healing © Sarah Rose Smiley and Taewee Kahrs

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