Thursday, August 30, 2012

The Art of Human Rights and Healing ~ Survivor Quilts

Some amazing work had transpired in Chicago under the creative brainpower of Greg Halvorsen Schreck, a photography professor at Wheaton College
Greg collaborated with Chicago’s Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center in creating a photographic/quilt project with survivors of politically sponsored torture. The Kovler Center transforms the lives of individuals recovering from the complex consequences of torture,  providing medical, mental health, and social services.

Constructing the quilt 

"We had discussed possible photography projects for years. However, the need for survivor confidentiality made conventional documentary approaches impossible. Instead of a traditional documentary project, too often cementing images of individual victims, we decided to use an approach that visualized a community of survivors. Through a collaborative group project, we were able to create a process that promoted dialogue and understanding between survivors, students, and staff members. We all wanted to create an image of a supportive community that would present survivors with dignity and beauty. Posing torture survivors for photographs might reiterate the problem of someone exerting control over them, so we allowed each person to depict themselves in ways that offered self-expression, autonomy, and anonymity. The basic set consisted of a computer monitor next to a camera, allowing the subject to see each image on the screen as it was made. Most importantly, we gave them a remote control to make their own self-portraits. We wanted the survivors to see themselves in community—in solidarity with case workers and other service providers—so the Kovler Center staff participated as well." 
"After making photographs to their satisfaction, the survivors were invited to choose two photographs that they liked the best. The images were cropped into squares and printed on-site. The photographs were then cut into strips and woven back together. The editing and weaving process allowed the participants another way to alter their identity, as needed. They could control exactly how they would appear. Finally, the completed squares were sewn together to create a quilt. Students were responsible for various parts of the collaborative process: helping with the camera; editing, cropping, and printing the images; cutting the images and weaving them back together; troubleshooting and overseeing the visual design of the quilt; and sewing the quilt together. The production room was festive and energetic, with students, survivors, and Kovler Center staff working together in various combinations. The quilt was reinforced and finished at Wheaton College."

The participants’ response was overwhelmingly positive:
 “They did the worst things to me, the worst. I have scars all over from where they hurt me. I thought I didn’t have a body anymore . . . I brought my therapist with me, and then I felt okay. I made some pictures, and I started feeling happy. I could do it by myself, without the therapist anymore. I liked the pictures I saw. I started moving and having fun.”
“I realized that I could have a body again; I could be in my body. I could move. I realized I could have a life here. I could start again. I felt like I was a model, that I was beautiful.”
“After what they did to my body, I never knew I could feel this way again.”
“You made me beautiful . . . I am beautiful!”
“I felt immortal.”
"A non-traditional intervention, the finished quilt has proven to be uplifting, empowering, and transformative, beyond what any of us could have imagined. Something magical and healing occurred when survivors took the remote control in their hands, determined how to pose their own bodies, and decided when and how their image was to be recorded."

Greg shares more ideas from this past fall on working  with another underserved population in the Chicago area...
 "I started my class this semester working with the escalating refugee population in Wheaton.  Mostly from Congo and Burundi; the civil war there is pretty harrowing.  A number of us in Wheaton donated our backyards for some of them to farm.  My students documented the gardens and we had an exhibition a few weeks back: all the African gardeners came.  There was abundant Congolese and other food that they made.  Only a few of the homeowners came.  The refugees had never been to an opening, nor had most of them seen pictures of themselves.  It was quite a wild time.  So Karen and I invited our gardeners for dinner this afternoon with another refugee family.  Talk about culture shock..."

 You can read more about the quilt project HERE.

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