[EXCLUSIVE] Sexual Harassment, Bullying & Abuse Survivors: These Malaysians Show The Impact of Words Through Powerful Images
*T/W: Article contains images that some may find disturbing. Reader discretion is advised.
If you know of Joanna Joseph, you know her story. The 23-year-old Malaysian model made headlines after she shared how she overcame fat-shaming and suicidal thoughts, her incredible weight loss journey and then again when she spoke about facing sexual harassment and bullying for 11 years. Suffice to say, she’s a survivor, a woman of strength and perseverance and an icon. Now, in collaboration with a celebrated African photographer known as Sunkey OG, she’s using her platform to help others who have also experienced pain and trauma find a voice through a series of powerful images, dubbed the “Warrior” series. Speaking to Likely, Joanna says,
“This was basically a way for them to share their stories. I believe that every. single. person out there has a story and it really does take a lot of guts to share that story. This was more than a project on bullying, this was inclusive of stories from people who experienced sexual harassment, abuse in relationships, of toxic family members. A lot of them told me that they have never shared their stories before and that this was going to be the first time that they were going to talk about it, that they were happy to meet other people with their own stories.”
What inspired you to start this project?
I’ve always been someone who looks up to people who have survived. Be it survived a war within themselves, with their families, with their friends, with the public, and so on. Sunkey OG and I wanted to include people who have survived, who are still surviving and who are real. No models, no pretence. The people you see are people that reached out to us after we put out posts on Instagram, Facebook, Whatsapp and so on. The Warrior project consists of people who are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons. You also see a lot of melanin. At the moment, a lot of people are talking about colour (especially now with the Black Lives Matter movement). During this movement, you see how people still talk about how “dark-skinned people are ugly”, how they are “terrifying”, and “scary”. In Malaysia especially, there’s a lot of racism going on, you know, everyone is just hating on everyone. These women and men are all beautiful, beautiful people and they are so rarely given the chance to show just how beautiful they are because they are judged so quickly based on the way they look.
How did the concept come about?
Sunkey OG (whose real name is Olasunkanmi Ogunade) has been a great friend for quite some time but this was the first time we worked together. he, too, understands the weight of judgement – being African, people have judged him based on his skin colour and where he’s from – without giving a thought for all that he is. He’s been working hard to succeed, to spread love and to make a difference. So, instead of doing a basic shoot, we wanted to do something different. At first, we wanted to get a makeup artist to get the words drawn on them but I thought that that would not be personal enough. That’s where the idea to do a workshop came about. Before we commenced with the photoshoot, I requested that the people involved pair up (whether or not they knew each other) and they were required to bring mascara and lipstick. What happened was, all of these pairs, had to write on each other.
For example, if it’s me and you, I’m writing on you while asking you your story as you are opening up. So if you’re telling me, “someone called me fat” or “a slut” then I’ll write it on you while you’re telling me. This is also a means of opening up, you know. Everyone vibed and were talking so openly; they said afterwards how the opportunity brought them both gratitude for the solidarity they got with each other and for the space to talk about the negativity life and people have thrown at them.
Then, within the safe space that we had, we put them in situations where they had the same words thrown at them. Of course, this was done with everyone’s consent and to the extent that they were comfortable with. Everyone involved was very sporting, they didn’t complain despite us having pulled their hair, screaming at them, stepping on them. But because they were so open to sharing their stories beforehand, they were able to show their raw emotions – there were actual tears and pain, but then, at the end of it all, there was love and comradery through that shared experience of pain.
What were some of the issues the series highlights?
Well, some of them include…
” Have you ever felt socially pressured by those around you? It can be by your friends, family, partner and even by society through all that it says you can and cannot do.
Sometimes, all you want is to do what you enjoy doing. It could be singing, modelling, dancing, writing, cooking, dressing up – but everyone has something or another to say about what you do, what you love. Words hurt. So much negativity being thrown at you. Depression sets in.
Everyone around you expects so much from you, but when you try to rise up, they don’t allow you to be yourself. They expect you to be a ‘you’ that they craft, that they want you to be. You are forced to conform to society’s norm. Sometimes, it causes you to want to stop living – what’s the point when life is not the life you want to live? Because you feel that life isn’t worth it anymore. What is life, if you can’t live the way you want to?
But.. wasn’t this life given to you? For you to sing, model, dance, write, cook, dress up – for you to live the life you love. Do not give in to what people say. Do not listen to their comments, as difficult as it is. Words hurt. But, its time to take those worse and rewrite the empty pages of your life with the words you want to live by. Do something that you’ve always wanted to but feared. Stand up for yourself! Stand up for those around you. Spread as much love and light, because you are touching someone’s life indirectly by being the best version of yourself. Most importantly, love yourself. That’s the best weapon you can have.”
Let’s talk about how men are always told that they should “man up”.
“They say that ‘men are weak if they cry’. That they are supposed to bottle up their feelings just to put on a ‘macho font. That, should they show that they have emotions, that they are human, they will be ridiculed and made the butt of jokes.
Stop right there.
Men FEEL. They CRY. They are HUMAN. As much as a woman goes through pain and heartbreak, men go through it too. They go through depression but they are forced to do it in private, where they lock themselves away and scream their feelings out.
Society needs to stop setting unrealistic expectations of what a man should be. They need to stop expecting a man to do everything. It’s okay to go dutch on dates when she asks for it, it’s okay to say that no, you can’t fix a sink, it’s okay to still be building your career and working for what you want.
The strongest community is one that supports one another. It’s one that tells their partners/ best friends/ brothers/ husbands that it is OKAY to talk about how they feel. That it is OKAY to cry. That it is OKAY to rant.That it is OKAY to take some alone time and build themselves up. At the end of the day, aren’t we all human?
What the world needs is less judgement, less finger-pointing, less blaming. Start today. Walk up to your brother/ best friend/ boyfriend/ husband/cousins, tell them that THEY matter. Tell them that you will BE THERE. You never know if they’re fighting a war in their heads and hearts. You might just save a life.”
“When we were little, we cried for the smallest of things. When we scraped our knees, when we were face to face with needles, when we lost our favourite colour pencils, when our best friend said “I don’t want to be friends with you anymore”, and the list goes on.
But as we grow up, we realise there is so much more to pain then we thought we knew. The pain of living with a broken family, the pain of being in an abusive relationship, the pain of being emotionally blackmailed, the pain of watching a loved one go through hell without you being able to do anything, the pain of the death of a pet/ a loved one, the pain of being divorced, the pain of sexual harassment…
Most women and men rarely talk about pain. What if when we open up, all we hear is, “Stop overreacting! I’ve gone through more in life than you!” or “What you went through is nothing compared to what others are suffering through right now. You should be grateful”.
But, my darlings, pain is PAIN. It can never be measured through comparison to another person’s pain. My pain may be different from yours, heck, we may be going through completely different things right now. BUT, I FEEL. And my feelings MATTER. Even if it doesn’t look or seem to be a huge deal, I am FEELING IT. And the same goes for you. To the world, what we go through every day might seem petty and ‘normal. But each individual feels differently. My pain might be greater than yours, and your pain might be greater than mine, but the whole point is we FEEL what we FEEL and NO ONE can tell you how to feel.
Don’t run away from your pain. Don’t numb it – remember that the numbness that you self-inflict is only temporary. The only way to heal is to feel. You can do it.”
What do you want people to realise by the end of this project?
I just want people to understand that bullying is something that can be prevented. All of these pictures are so powerful because what you see is raw emotion. Emotions that people go through, experience and live with because of words that are said to them or actions that are done to them. This series is meant to educate people that, while we grow up and come across many people in life, we need to see past their smiles. We are all battling something each day and, more often than not, that battle is masked with a smile. Some that hide their cuts behind long sleeves, some that fidget in their seat or pick their nails because of anxiety, some that smell of alcohol, because they were busy drowning their painful thoughts away. There is nobody that goes through life without problems. Which is why we need to understand that we need to be kind. The world is a cruel place, only because we forget that we are not the only ones who experience negativity. When the individual is focused on rising up above everyone else, rather than rising with everyone else, you get a world where everyone is self-centered and ignorant.
This is why it’s good to always remember to keep an eye on the people around you. A simple, “Hi, how are you today?” could mean the world to someone. After all, mental health is extremely complex and often difficult to identify, which is why we’ve lost so many people to suicide. People are so convincing and easy to believe because of the mask they wear on their face – like an actor that has perfected his/her craft.
This is a visual and a message for the public to open their eyes to the impact of words and why it’s important to stand for and with one another. It’s important to check in on the people that matter to you. And it’s important to be there for them during tough times because you might just save a life by listening. We at Live to Inspire, want you to know that YOU matter. And that you are someone who brings joy to the world.