CNN Photos

Empowering Haiti’s rape survivors

Haiti is a very easy place to go and get a dramatic photo, says photographer Felipe Jacome.

“It has great colors, great light,” he said. “If you live in New York and you want some photos in a harsh environment, you can literally go there for a couple of days, stick your camera in someone's face and leave.

“But taking photos mindfully is extremely challenging.”

Jacome, an Ecuadorian, originally went to Haiti as a humanitarian worker a year after the January 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 220,000 people and left about 1.5 million others homeless.

But frustrated by periodic invasions of “platoons of journalists” seeking stock images of photogenic desperation and devastation, Jacome set out with his camera to explore a society he had found to be more resilient, resourceful and self-reliant than was typically recognized.

The result is “Survivors for Survivors,” a series of elegant and dignified portraits profiling some of the women working for KOFAVIV, a grassroots organization offering sanctuary and support to survivors of rape and sexual violence.

KOFAVIV, the Creole acronym for the Commission of Women Victims for Victims, has assisted thousands of women since its launch in 2004. It has garnered significant media attention in the four years since the earthquake, with Malya Villard-Appolon, one of the group's co-founders, recognized as a top 10 CNN Hero in 2012.

According to Refugees International, reported incidents of sexual violence tripled in the aftermath of the disaster, when many of the displaced were living in insecure camps.

Many of the women featured in Jacome’s photo series are themselves rape survivors. But the portraits aim to challenge their characterization as victims living in the shadows, forever defined by the violence perpetrated against them.

“The idea was to go beyond victimization and to show that they are not just victims,” Jacome said. “They are mothers, they are community members and community leaders. These women are extremely empowered, they are extremely strong and they have done a hell of a job.”

To encourage their participation in the project, the women attended workshops in writing and painting. The results are the delicate images, decorative splashes of color and handwritten testimonies that embellish Jacome's portraits.

"I gave them very simple guidance to write their messages on the lighter parts of the prints so that it's visible," Jacome explained. "I sat with every woman individually, and the questions that I posed to them were: What is your message? What do you want the world to know? What is most important to you? Some of them talk about their rape experience, but some of them don't even mention it.”

Many of the women chose to paint flowers, plants or other patterns inspired by nature.

“We began from a simple exercise of what colors the photos evoked in them,” Jacome said. “Haitians have a very symbolic culture; they have a common understanding that red is passion, green is hope, purple is sadness and so on. What I think is remarkable is that this group of women that have been through so much would paint with bright colors and often express hope and happiness.”

Jacome hopes his photos will serve to raise awareness about KOFAVIV's activities and help the organization secure much-needed long-term funding. But he also believes “Survivors for Survivors” will stand as a lasting testament to the women's work.

“In Latin America, we have a long tradition of dictatorships and violence, and one of the things that we have present in our minds is the concept of historical memory,” he said. “So for me, there was also an issue of documentation and allowing people to document their own experiences.

“These women have a very eloquent interpretation of what happened. They are people who have been on the ground and who have taken matters into their own hands. This is hopefully going to add a little grain of sand to the country's historical memory.”

- Simon Hooper, Special for CNN