Sex assault survivors find voice, empowerment through photography

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April is Sexual Assault Awareness month - a topic that's difficult to talk about - but some survivors are telling their stories through pictures.

So much can be said in a photograph, and for survivors of sexual assault it can be a story they've never told before and are now empowered through a picture.

"This is an example of a darker moment, our participant called it inside out," said Laura Sinko about one photo showing a young woman hunched over on a deck outside in the rain.

Another photo shows a pair of shoes on the grass with flowers at the bottom of the frame.

"And she was looking at the flowers and she realized you know, there is some hope and that she really can heal," Sinko said.

Sinko is a nurse specializing in trauma for her PhD at the University of Michigan. She surveyed hundreds of women in Washtenaw County who experienced unwanted sexual advances or assaults while in college.

Nineteen of those women agreed to photograph and document their struggles and steps forward in the aftermath. An exhibit of 60 photographs are about to go on display this week in Ann Arbor, entitled Finding the Strength to Heal.

"We had all of these wonderful stories and photos and it really touched me and changed my life," Sinko said.

Sinko wanted to share these survivor stories with other survivors, the people who love and support them and the nurses, therapists and service providers who help them.

"A lot of times we don't let women tell their stories and they go voiceless," she said. "And I think through photography it's a way to not only express their feelings, but also really legitimize and validate their own experience."

An experience too many have to live through and live with. It's estimated one in four to one in five women deal with unwanted advances or sexual assaults as undergraduate students in college.

Courtney Burns is the project manager for the exhibit.

"This is a really good opportunity to understand what they're going through on a day-to-day basis after having these experiences," she said.

Experiences that are now an exhibit - and an opportunity they say - for women to know they are not alone and that these experiences are not normal and that survivors are strong.

Sinko has worked with enough women to know struggling doesn't mean you're weak - together, she says, healing can happen.

"We can create a more healing world - men and women - women - we can't do it alone," she said. "So I hope both men and women come to this event too, because it's important."

It is a free event on Thursday, April 11 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens, 1800 N. Dixboro Road, Ann Arbor. For more on the exhibit, go to