Interview of Paola Rodriguez by Sophie Pellegrini
**Trigger warning: Abuse/Assualt**
Tell us a little bit about yourself, Paola. Where are you from and what do you do?
My name is Paola Katherine Rodriguez. I was born in Miami, Florida, and spent most of my life in between Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and Brooklyn, New York. I recently graduated with my third degree from Florida International University, majoring in fine arts with a concentration in photography. I am also the founder of the photography series, Broken Free.
What is Broken Free?
Broken Free is an ongoing project that aims to raise awareness on all forms of victimization, such as domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault, while empowering survivors to speak out. The stories of each survivor are revealed through a series of portraits, some containing handwritten anecdotes.
How did you develop the idea for the project?
The idea came about in September 2013, a year after creating my first self-portrait ever. I named it Distorsionada, which means distorted in Spanish, and this photomontage was a reflection of who I was as I was growing up. I myself am a survivor of child abuse, domestic violence, relationship abuse, and sexual assault. As I was starting to find healing through therapy and the arts, becoming more involved in photography, it occurred to me to start a project in which I can interact with people who have gone through a similar situation as mine, giving them a chance to release anything that they may carry inside after dealing with such hardships. My boyfriend Juan, as well as two of my professors / mentors, helped me in coming up with the ways in which this can be done, and thus, Broken Free was born.
Tell us a little bit about the process… For example, how do you find the subjects for the photographs? How do you choose the words that accompany each image?
Since the beginning of the project, I have photographed and worked with eighteen survivors, from 19 to 46 year olds. Thirteen of them were fellow FIU students and alumni. I usually find participants through the Broken Free Facebook page or social media as well as through flyers and word of mouth. My former professors have promoted the project more than anybody. Until now, I haven’t ever had to personally ask anyone if he or she wants to be a part of it. Everyone that’s a part of this project has participated on his or her own accord; they reach out to me and ask if they can participate.
I photograph survivors either in their homes, in the place where they feel the most comfortable, or at the location where the event occurred. I not only photograph them but also their intimate space and anything pertaining to their experience. We take turns photographing one another while sharing our personal experiences. Once I print the photographs, I hand them to the survivors, and they are invited to express any thoughts or feelings about their experience by writing on the photographs. Some people usually leave a few photographs without writing, while others feel that they need to express themselves on every photograph.
Have you always been interested in photography?
I have been photographing since the eighth grade, using the camera as a tool to convey not only what I see, but also to portray the ways that light can describe an object, place, or person. I want to say that the love for photography runs in my blood. My father was a very skilled photographer at one point in his life. My sister has been doing both portrait and landscape photography since she was sixteen. And my mom uses her phone camera to take “selfies” and pics of everything she sees!
What is it about photography that suits this project?
I feel that photography allows for awareness and mindfulness, being able to notice what others might not. It freezes a moment in time, making a memory permanent and even a physical object. A photograph, whether as a standalone image, a series of images, or a combination of image with writing, can provide the viewer with a narrative. I’m interested in how the combination of writing and image juxtaposes the survivor’s past with their present, how the writing then becomes more like a diary entry, allowing for intimacy, openness, and vulnerability, providing insight as to where each person stands in their healing process. I’m interested not only in the documenting aspect of photography, but also in the therapeutic aspect. I believe that these photographs can help survivors overcome their trauma.
What’s been the hardest thing about this project?
For me personally, the hardest thing tends to be the planning of the shoot, working with people’s time, and rescheduling when they are not able to meet up. I don’t like to nag and be persistent, but I’ve had to do so a few times, reminding people of their responsibility and commitment to this project. I have each person sign a release form prior to the interaction, to avoid any legal or personal issues. So far, two people have resigned from the project. Although I felt bad about it, I don’t hold it against them. This project is about freedom of expression and of choice.
As for the project itself, I believe the hardest thing is the “credibility” of the work.
In terms of the image, most shots are candid and taken as the person is speaking or doing something. I avoid portraying actual abuse, fresh wounds, or anything that is too harsh. I feel that doing so would be dishonoring survivors, adding more to their plate. I also feel that it would then desensitize anybody that is viewing the work. When the photographs contain little to no explicit content, they tend to be more powerful and successful.
In terms of the writing, there have been viewers who have expressed how the writing is not necessary, because of how cliché it tends to be or how it leaves nothing to the imagination of the viewer. My stand on this is that each person is free to write whatever it is that their hearts desire. I don’t want to take away the freedom of finally being able to speak out, and to express their experience, something that we survivors weren’t able to do during the relationship. I have no right to edit, filter, or manipulate what they write. Their writing is as honest as it can be. By “honest,” I mean untainted and not modified. The person who writes is in control of the veracity of his / her statement. Some people may feel distant, detached, or insecure, and will write an inspirational quote or a general message, while others may be more open and trusting, sharing every single detail of their experience. Hence, the writing depicts where each person stands in terms of their healing process, and thus, I don’t have a problem with the writing. However, I do believe that some photographs have a stronger image-text connection. Either the writing is short and yet on point, or the person “broke the rules” and made a list or even drew on the image. Not just the content but even the style, size, and the position of the writing can tell a lot about the person. If there were any editing to the writing, the purpose of this project would be defeated.
I don’t necessarily aim to please the audience with this project; what is more important to me is the feeling of liberation that is now in each participant, the feeling of “I’m being heard, understood, and acknowledged.”
What is/are your goal/s with this project? What do you hope to accomplish/say/express?
With Broken Free, I have been exploring the ways in which photography provides and promotes engagement and healing. The project aims to help survivors rediscover their identity, to help them understand that they are not alone, to be able to turn their negative experience into something positive, to allow them to express anything they feel they should have said then, or must say now—to speak out and break free. It is said that violence thrives in silence. To me, it is important for all of us to break the silence. It is also important for people to realize that nobody is “immune” and that this can happen to anyone, not just to women, but to men as well.
Where do you hope to see this project go?
As far as it can go. Right now, I aim to photograph as many survivors as possible before leaving Miami. I plan on moving back to Santo Domingo very soon and will continue the project over there, since domestic violence is unfortunately a present issue. I’m also planning to photograph in Puerto Rico, too, sometime within the next two years. Then from there, hopefully I’ll be able to obtain a grant that will allow me to travel to places that have a high rate of victimization. My guess is that this project will take about eight to ten more years to complete. The series of photographs will then be published in a book. Maybe several volumes, actually, since this is such a long term project. I hope to also revisit previous participants within five years, and photograph them again, to show how far they’ve come along, and to continue this form of therapy with them. Helping survivors see how they look or how they now portray themselves after all that they had to endure, encouraging them to write down what was once bottled up inside so that they can now see it outside of themselves, being able to read it over and over… Having them look at the photographs of other participants. Not feeling alone anymore and becoming empowered to help others who are facing similar, if not, the same issues. The participation of these survivors has started this ripple effect and maybe and hopefully it is through them, through the viewers, and through anyone who knows about Broken Free, that we’ll be able to eventually end abuse and violence for good.
Do you have any advice for individuals who have faced abuse?
This is tough, since this is always easier said than done. But I will say what I wish I was told or would have known, when I was facing abuse:
Abuse is NOT normal. It is not love. A person that loves you will not hurt you, pressure you, or manipulate you; a person that loves you will love you for YOU. You are entitled to express and do what you think and feel. You are worthy of love and anything that the Universe provides. Nobody is allowed to tell you otherwise.
If and when facing abuse, don’t hesitate to seek help and support. Do not be afraid to speak out. Never doubt or question yourself. Abuse is abuse no matter what. Remember that you are not alone and that you are loved by many. You will be rescued. You will get out of it. You will overcome it. You will survive.