The Matthaei Botanical Gardens hosted a photography exhibit Thursday titled “Finding the Strength to Heal: A Journey of Rebuilding Amongst Violence.” The exhibit, a product of Rackham student Laura Sinko’s dissertation, told the stories of women who survived sexual violence as undergraduates through pictures, quotes and videos.  

Attendees perused different rooms of the building, each with a different focus. One room played a video on a loop highlighting the journeys of four participants in the project, while another, titled the self-care room, held crafts and stress balls. The conservatory itself was used as the resource room, where information booths from various University resources including Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center, Counseling and Psychological Services, U-M Police Department Special Victims Unit, Office of Institutional Equity and University Health Services sexual assault nurse examiners were stationed throughout the plants.

Attendees followed arrows in a winding path in the main photography exhibit room, accented by twinkling lights and calm music. Photographs and quotes from survivors were organized on a series of panels, each corresponding to a different theme. The first row was made up of general themes of the healing process, the second row focused on darker and more vulnerable moments within the process and the final row consisted of more specific day-to-day ups and downs.

LSA freshman Elizabeth Williamson said the setup of the exhibit succeeded in showcasing the highs and lows of the recovery process.

“The thing I liked most about the event is how the survivors led us on a journey through their recovery,” Williamson said. “The winding exhibit really shows how recovery is not a linear path but has many twists and turns.”

Sinko said her project was inspired by her time as an undergraduate student and her desire to give a voice to women not supported by their communities.

“I witnessed a lot of these unwanted sexual experiences, and the sad thing was I felt a lot of women weren’t being supported, they were more just being ostracized, because it’s not convenient to be upset about these things, especially when their perpetrators were men in fraternities or men in positions of power socially,” Sinko said.

Sinko said the Finding the Strength to Heal project came out of her dissertation study, in which she reached out through surveys to undergraduate female students who have survived sexual violence. Participants were recruited through both SAPAC and Michigan Medicine, so the 24 survivors who volunteered to give narrative interviews are undergraduate students of universities throughout southeast Michigan.

The project focused on female survivors, but Sinko noted she would like to expand it in the future.

“We had survivors take a survey online — female survivors only is what we focused on, just because we thought that being a woman in society, you could navigate the world differently, potentially, than any other gender, so starting with women,” Sinko said. “I’d love to expand to men or other genders in the future.”

The women were interviewed about their healing journeys, and 19 who volunteered to interview again were asked to take photographs of their day-to-day lives depicting moments of healing and moments of darkness. They were also asked what advice they would give survivors in the middle of their healing processes and what healing means to them.

Sinko said after publishing a scientific article, she wanted to do more to make the material she had collected from the interviews accessible to the public.

“This exhibit is a product of wanting to disseminate all the photos, all the advice, all the stories, to help people actually use research,” Sinko said. “Research can kind of be inaccessible, so we wanted to make it so that students can actually get something out of it, also so that service providers can get something out of it to learn what their clients might be looking for in their healing journeys.”

Sinko said the event was aimed at three main audiences: survivors, supporters and service providers.

“I hope as a survivor, you can navigate the space and see the light at the end of the tunnel and see the journey,” Sinko said. “No matter if you’re stuck, if you feel like you’re doing great, — you could at least take something away … and maybe just validating your experience. One of my participants said, ‘Oh everyone says you’re not alone, but sometimes you have to really see it to believe it, and it’s hard to just hear that message and know that it’s true.’”

Social Work student Ori Benoni, a member of the event’s planning committee, said she was pleased with how the exhibit came together.

“I think it’s really magical and it really speaks to how powerful this subject matter really is,” Benoni said. “The fact that so many people came and are really touched — I think it’s really beautiful.”

Sinko said she hopes to conduct the study again with college-aged women who do not attend universities, looking for similarities and differences, and to create more exhibits in the future.

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