Empowering Haiti’s rape survivors

“Haiti is a very easy place to go and get a dramatic photo,” says Felipe Jacome. “It has great colors, great light and if you live in New York and you want some photos in a harsh environment you can literally go there for a couple of days, stick your camera in someone’s face and leave. But taking photos mindfully is extremely challenging.”

Photo courtesy of Felipe Jacome/Survivors for Survivors

Photo courtesy of Felipe Jacome/Survivors for Survivors

Jacome, an Ecuadorian photographer, originally went to Haiti as a humanitarian worker a year after the January 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 220,000 people and left about 1.5 million others homeless.

But, frustrated by the periodic invasions of “platoons of journalists” seeking stock images of photogenic desperation and devastation, Jacome set out with his camera to explore a society he had found to be more resilient, resourceful and self-reliant than was typically recognized.

The result is “Survivors for Survivors”, a series of elegant and dignified portraits profiling some of the women working for KOFAVIV, a grassroots organization offering sanctuary and support to survivors of rape and sexual violence. []

KOFAVIV, the Creole acronym for the Commission of Women Victims for Victims, has assisted thousands of women since its launch in 2004, often training those it helps to help others. It has garnered significant media attention in the four years since the earthquake, with Malya Villard-Appolon, one of the group’s co-founders, nominated for a CNN Hero award in 2012.

Reported incidents of sexual violence tripled in the aftermath of the disaster, according to the US charity Refugees International, when many of the displaced were living under canvas in insecure camps.

Many of the women featured in the series are themselves rape survivors. But Jacome’s portraits aim to challenge the characterization of survivors as victims living in the shadows, afforded anonymity and forever defined by the violence perpetrated against them.

“The idea was to go beyond victimization and to show that they are not just victims. They are mothers, they are community members and community leaders,” he says. “These women are extremely empowered, they are extremely strong and they have done a hell of a job.”

To encourage their active participation in the project, the women attended workshops in writing and painting. The results are the delicate images, decorative splashes of color and handwritten testimonies that embellish Jacome’s portraits.

“They are very rowdy women and very talkative but as soon as you put a canvas in front of them they just focused in and became submerged in their own work,” Jacome says. “They are very visual people so they understood and enjoyed it. The entire process was essentially participatory.”

Four years on from the earthquake, the threat of rape remains commonplace for many Haitian women. A UN report last year noted that the number of rapes reported monthly had fallen to 31 from 45 a year earlier, but called for greater efforts to address gender-based violence.

Jacome hopes his photos will serve to raise awareness about KOFAVIV’s activities and help the organization secure much-needed long-term funding. But he also believes “Survivors for Survivors” will stand as a lasting testament to the women’s work.

“In Latin America we have a long tradition of dictatorships and violence and one of the things that we have present in our minds is the concept of historical memory, so for me there was also an issue of documentation and allowing people to document their own experiences,” he says.

“These women have a very eloquent interpretation of what happened. They are people who have been on the ground and who have taken matters into their own hands. This is hopefully going to add a little grain of sand to the country’s historical memory.”

A version of this story was originally published on the CNN Photos blog on 10 January, 2014.