Heartfelt Exhibition gives a Voice to Survivors of Abuse

Liz Arcus

Inside a picture-framing shop in Shepparton’s Fryers Street hang 11 black and white images.

The exhibition doesn’t show any faces; only torsos fill the frames. Every shot has the person’s hands in it and all the images are of women.

Below each picture is a written note, the black ink standing out on the stark white mount board.

“I love things that are personalised,” a voice says, “Their handwriting is reflective of where they are at in their recovery.”

The voice belongs to Liz Arcus, the photographer behind the project. She tells me this information in a dreamy voice, her mind obviously wandering and seeing things that are not visible to me as I stand next to her.

I gaze at the photos and let Liz’s voice guide me into the depths of the exhibition.

The project is called Hear my Heart.

Liz created it with Dianne Watson, a counsellor from Relationships Australia to give survivors of abuse a voice whilst still maintaining their anonymity. The result is a beautifully revealing exhibition about a confronting and sad topic, inspired by events that took place in dark places.

Liz’s motivation for creating the project came from an equally dark place; she too is a survivor of abuse.

Twenty-six years ago when she was 15, Liz was in a place she shouldn’t have been, accepting a strawberry daiquiri from three men she shouldn’t have.

Hours later she woke up handcuffed to a motel bed and to this day she can’t remember how she escaped.

She never reported the crime, but she is ok with that. At the time she was young and scared. It was a challenging period of her life and not the last time she experienced abuse. Liz blocked it all out and didn’t seek counselling until years later when she attended a course with Relationships Australia.

The course ran for eight weeks. Liz went for five years.

Some experiences are hard to revisit.

But that’s something that 11 women did over summer in two workshops run by Liz and Dianne.

The women started by brainstorming words that reflected how they were feeling deep inside.

Hurt.

Guilty.

Quiet.

These were some the words that filled the heart shaped pieces of paper as music played and inspirational quotes were carefully shared between the women.

“Some of the women hadn’t looked deep within their heart before,” Liz says, remembering how she only began to heal when she stopped running and looked inside herself.

All the words were put up on a whiteboard and the women chose one that they felt most connected with.

They wrote that word on a white piece of material and ironed it onto a black shirt that they put on, the word snug against their heart.

Then Liz photographed them.

Liz is used to intimate photography shoots. As a professional photographer, she strives to get her subjects at their most natural and will often shoot people for anywhere up to eight hours. She becomes part of their day, blending in and capturing life in her unique style.

As each of the women stepped in front of the camera, Liz invited them to close their eyes and think about how their heart was feeling. When they were ready, she asked them to place their hands wherever they felt reflected this. No two women put their hands in the same place.

The following week Liz returned with the mounted photos and the women wrote a message below the photo. They knew their messages were to be viewed by the public and the women wanted to share some of the recovery that they had experienced, to inspire others who may be hurting in the same manner. They wrote in silence.

“They were very clear about what they wanted to write. When they stood back and looked at the images together it was so powerful. There were tears and lots of emotions – some cried for the first time.”

The photos are still making people cry. They are also making people write.

small notebook sits on a wooden chair below the photos in the picture-framing shop. A handwritten note inside the cover invites people to contribute to it. There are many comments praising the project, but the most powerful are those from people of all ages who have experienced abuse and have found a sense of solace and inspiration in the black and white of the photos and words.

“I never expected it to reach as many people as it did, or touch people in so many ways,” Liz smiled. “The audience has also become part of the process and project. It’s a place of healing”

While not expected, this hearing and acknowledgement is what Liz lives for.

“The most important things in life to me are to be respected and listened to,” she tells me, “and in turn to listen and show respect. This is what drives me to work and live in the way that I do”

With Liz taking the exhibition to No to Violence Day in Melbourne and a conference exploring the healing power of art in Los Angeles, the number of people touched by the project is destined to grow.

While Liz may have drawn on a dark part of her history for her inspiration for the project, it’s a happy part of her that drove her to complete it. Liz’s dad has a simple aim; to make someone smile every day.

Liz tries to do the same.

Hear my Heart is at David Stradling Framing, 90 Fryers Street, Shepparton until May 27. To view the work online and other projects by Liz, visit www.lizarcus.com. If you would like to speak to someone about abuse or sexual assault, contact Relationships Australia on 1300 364 277 or call the National Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Helpline on 1800 200 526.

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