Wanted to share what my husband Greg has been working on, in collaboration with The Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center and his documentary photography students at Wheaton College. Their work will be exhibited in the coming weeks at Schneider Gallery in Chicago. Here’s an excerpt of the statement that Greg wrote for the exhibit, which opens this Friday, January 20th:
Established by volunteers in 1987, Chicago’s Heartland Alliance Marjorie Kovler Center transforms the lives of individuals recovering from the complex consequences of torture. The Kovler Center provides medical, mental health, and social services; trains and educates locally and globally; and advocates for the end of torture worldwide.
The quilts in the exhibit depict survivors of torture. The Kovler Center draws upon community resources to empower survivors of politically sponsored torture to use their strengths to regain independence and control over their lives and restore personal integrity.
Approximately 350 individuals from 60 countries are served annually with culturally sensitive and specialized care. In part because of the diversity of the clientele and the paradigm of “triple trauma” (trauma from torture, from migration, and of acculturation), the Kovler Center not only embraces, but encourages alternatives to traditional Western interventions. They continually seek effective ways to support expression to facilitate healing.
We have discussed possible photography projects for years. However, the perceived confidentiality needs of the survivors made conventional documentary approaches impossible. The quilts represent a reconceived approach. Instead of a traditional documentary project, too often cementing images of individual victims, we defined an idea that we could approach visualizing a community of survivors. We devised a collaborative group project to create dialogue and understanding, and that could display people with dignity and beauty. We decided that posing torture survivors for photographs might reiterate the problem: someone exerting control over them. Instead, we designed a method so each person could depict themselves in ways that offered various degrees of self-expression, autonomy, and anonymity. On a basic set, we placed a computer monitor next to the camera so the subject could see each image in front of them as it was made. Most importantly, we gave them a remote control button so they could make their own images—self-portraits. We wanted the survivors to see themselves in community, and in solidarity with case workers and other service providers. So the staff of the Kovler Center participated as well.
After making photographs until they were satisfied, the survivors were invited to choose two photographs that they liked the best. The images were cropped into squares and printed onsite. The photographs were then cut into strips and then woven back together. The editing and weaving processes allowed the participants another way to alter their identity, as needed. They could control exactly how they would appear. Finally, the 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, offering various combinations of students, survivors, and Kovler Center staff at any given time. The quilt was reinforced and finished at Wheaton College.
The finished quilt is an example of a non-traditional intervention, one that proved 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 own hands, determined how to pose their own bodies, and decided when and how their image was to be recorded.