Today’s post is not going to be very light-hearted. I have photos to share and the creation behind them, but they touch upon a subject that is important to me and is also not always an easy one to address.
Peer abuse. AKA bullying.
I am a survivor. From the age of 6 through the age of 13, I was mentally and physically abused by my peers on a nearly daily basis. In first grade, a kid broke my collar bone by shoving me on rocks. In second grade, a sixth grader threw basketballs and dodgeballs at me as I cowered in the tower of a playset. In fifth grade, my entire–yes, entire–class would take turns finding ways to humiliate me. Seventh grade became the culmination of it all. I call it my year of hell, and I don’t use it lightly. I was thrown into lockers, yanked backwards onto the cement by my ponytail, had my homework stolen, got threatening phone calls and death threats, was stalked and chased around the quad by a mob, and–in the final act–I had the crap beaten out of me by a boy who had once been my friend. I had no one to help me. Most of my teachers turned a blind eye. The principal insisted I was provoking my tormentors. This was almost nineteen years ago, by the way. There was no social media to exacerbate it. No internet. That did not mean I was safe when I was at home. There were still calls, and someone actually spray painted my driveway with “DIE STACY.”
Things changed for me when I started martial arts and went into home study. By the time I graduated high school, I had skipped a grade (after almost flunking 7th) and I had my second degree black belt. I had the fledgling beginnings of self-respect and confidence. Yet . . . it was not until two years ago that I actually realized I had worth. That I had friends who liked me for me. That I was, surprise, popular. So how does this tie in to my photography and the images I will share? Two words: B.R.A.V.E. Society.
The B.R.A.V.E. Society is a non-profit founded by Lisa Ford-Berry after her son, Michael, committed suicide on his seventeenth birthday as a result of relentless peer abuse. To quote B.R.A.V.E.’s mission: B.R.A.V.E. is a solution focused organization that centers on transformational resiliency. Our vision is to create awareness that demands accountability while calling for action; in order to empower children with the resilience necessary to become confident and caring adults.
I met Lisa purely by chance on Facebook and I was interested in helping because they were local to me, and the subject was obviously important to me. I went in expecting to do a few photos here and there, and somehow I became the Creative Director. I handle all of the art related issues for BRAVE, and among those issues are indeed quite a bit of photography. I have turned out some of my best work over the year that I have been with BRAVE, and I think that has a lot to do with how powerfully the subject touches me. The two images I am about to share are a bit apart on the spectrum, but they hold great meaning. I will warn you now that the second image has strong language and deals with suicide as a subject matter. You have been warned.
This image has become an iconic one for B.R.A.V.E. and I’m going to honestly admit that it was not at all planned. The hands in the frame belong to Lisa and a boy named Giovanni. We were doing a shoot with Giovanni since he was becoming something of a youth voice for B.R.A.V.E. We were standing around chatting, and I noticed him playing with the wristband where Lisa was wearing it. We’ll call it an artist’s flash of insight. I think my exact words were “Oooh! Ooh! I have an idea!” I just loved the look of the adult hands and the child hands sharing the ideal of being brave. I shot it black and white and restored color to the band only. The result was an unintentionally powerful image that has graced a book cover, multiple websites, and was even seen in the background of an interview with Lisa on KCRA (local TV news). As a note to my fellow artists: always trust those insights.
The next image is part of my BRAVE-centric series called Words Can Kill. You have been warned.
This image, and the others in the series, are in fact posters that I have created. (You can find the rest of my B.R.A.V.E. work here.) The content and emotional intent are obvious, so I will talk about the technical details and history only. The concept for the project came from something I heard someone say. A variant on the old ‘sticks and stones can break my bones’ saying. He amended it to say that words could do more than hurt, and I thought about all of the suicides we hear about that were caused by peer abuse. Few of them were physical abuse. It was words. Electronic and verbal. Words that cut and gouged and dug in. I have my own internal scars from the words flung at me two decades ago. I decided to channel that into imagery that might–just might–make someone think twice. This particular image was shot with natural light that I emphasized by overexposing the frame. The words were digitally added in Photoshop once I realized that carving them was simply unrealistic. Here’s the final poster version.
Some of these (and the others in the series) have been displayed on campuses, and we have postcard versions that have been brought to events and distributed. I’ve watched people start crying when they see these images, and that tells me that I’ve done my job.
If you’re interested in learning more about B.R.A.V.E., visit us at www.bravesociety.org or www.facebook.com/bravesociety/. If you’re in the Greater Sacramento Area, you might also consider coming to our second annual conference to be held October 12 at the Capitol Christian Center. There will be tons of valuable information available for adults and children alike, and all of it is free.
Allow me to close off the posts for the week with this thought: Next time you see someone being bullied or abused, remember that you have the power to change things. Say something. Do something. Be B.R.A.V.E. You can make a difference.