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Photo exhibit highlights warning signs of dating violence

April 19, 2019

In the midst of frantic Bowdoin spring, a visitor to the Blue Gallery in David Saul Smith Union may be prompted to pause and reflect on the nature of relationships this week.

“Focusing on Dating Violence,” currently on display in the gallery, is a photography exhibit created as the capstone project of the Office of Gender Violence Prevention and Education’s (OGVPE) Leadership Institute, a training program led by Lisa Peterson, associate director of Gender Violence Prevention and Education. Eleven students were selected to participate in the course through an application process in the fall.

The students chose to focus their final project on dating violence, using the medium of photography. Because the students were all relatively inexperienced with the form, they worked closely with Professor of Art Michael Kolster, who teaches photography. They structured the project on the Domestic Abuse Intervention Project’s “Power and Control Wheel,” a model of the dynamics that drive abusive relationships.

The exhibit consists of scattered photos, capturing signs of physical violence, while also addressing issues such as manipulation, coercion and stalking, which are far too common on college campuses, Peterson said.

Curated and shot by the student participants in the course, the images convey specific scenarios of aggression and exploitation. They also probe the role of technology, economics and psychological manipulation in dating violence.

Despite their lack of experience in photography, students overcame the steep learning curve and successfully captured themes related to dating violence.

“Those are concepts that are even difficult to describe verbally, so to show them visually is very challenging,” Peterson said. “But the opportunity is that it’s a different entry point to the conversation.”

For leadership institute participant Chanel Matthews ’21, the project addressed violence prevention in a new and compelling way by visually conveying important warning signs.

“When you can really see the photos, see the people in them and the expressions on their faces, there are so many things that people will take away and relate to,” she said.

During the institute’s weekly sessions this year, participants studied the drivers and dynamics of gender violence, with a focus on strategies for prevention. The fall was focused on preventing abuse at the community level, and students heard from professionals in violence prevention, including representatives from the Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine and Through These Doors, and Claude Mellins, a professor of medical psychology at Columbia University.

In the spring, Peterson explained, the focus shifted to a broader scope.

“We look at the public health lens of the work, trying to understand what prevention looks like on a population level, really digging into different strategies,” she said.

The participants worked diligently to balance creativity with effective communication, while being cognizant of the experience of visitors impacted by dating violence.

“You want to be able to get into some nuance … but also be sure that there’s no unintentional harm caused by the work being misinterpreted,” said Peterson.

Peterson, nevertheless, recognizes that walking through the gallery may not be possible for everyone. But for those that feel they are able, it invites further conversation. There is a reflection station at the exhibit’s exit, a space for students to leave anonymous responses to the images and the questions they pose. The station also offers community resources and information about how to get involved with next year’s Leadership Institute and other OGVPE initiatives.

Peterson hopes that conversations about dating violence will continue beyond the week-long exhibition and is devising plans for expanding programming around abuse prevention.

For Matthews, the exhibit is cause for reflection on how gender violence manifests itself, even at Bowdoin.

“It’s about recognizing that one size doesn’t fit all for anything having to do with gender violence or abuse. There’s such an array of experiences that people have,” she said.

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