Deafening Sound: An Important Look at Gender Based Violence

All images by Annie Flanagan. Used with permission.

“I don’t know how your mind changes after being raped,” says Annie Flanagan when asked about the mental impact of their college rape. They continue, “that’s fucking impossible for me to pinpoint and not so simple for words.” As artists, we have the opportunity to channel our pain into creativity. So, to process their trauma, Annie picked up the camera. Years later, looking to connect with people who shared a story similar to theirs, they began the project, Deafening Sound. Following the lives of women trying to recover from abusive relationships, the project highlights a distressing reality that is difficult to digest. But this is important work and it teaches us about the lasting effects of domestic abuse.

These individual stories will leave you heartbroken and frustrated. However, after a decade of creating Deafening Sound, Annie is more hopeful. “I’m excited for the direction this work is now going because it fits into a national conversation and urgently needs to be addressed.”

Editor’s Note: For those curious about why we’ve written the piece this way, Annie has asked us to refer to them as they.

An ash tray from a tourist trap in Biloxi, Mississippi collected in April of 2015. (Biloxi, MS / April 2015)

Phoblographer: Because of how emotional this project is, were there times when you felt you could not continue?

AF: Short answer, yes. Definitely. Long answer, about two years ago it just became too much. Within a year two of the women I had been photographing passed away. I was having trouble publishing the work and was confused with where the work was going, what the intention behind the project was and what purpose it was serving. So, I stepped away for a bit, pursued other projects until I was ready to dive in again.

“On average, women leave seven times before permanently leaving.”

Phoblographer: In the project you explain that after being the victim of rape in college, photography has been a method of healing. In what manner does photography help with the healing process?

WE GREW UP WITH GUM IN OUR HAIR // A self-portrait.

AF: It was this unintentional way I dealt with the pain and curiosity of emotions around my rape. I became interested in shared experiences around sexual assault. And self-portraiture became a way for me to slow down and step back while I was having anxious moments.

Phoblographer: You follow the journey of your best friend, Hannah, as she deals with PTSD and recovery from an emotionally abusive relationship. What impact do you think this project had on your friendship?

Hannah.

AF: Hannah and I grew up together and I’ve been photographing with her since I first picked up a camera in 7th grade. We spent a lot of high school getting high and doing photoshoots — getting stoned and frolicking in the snow and shit. But, documenting her recovery, it was how we reconnected after being essentially estranged for two years. So, while the focus of the work tends to anchor on her abusive relationship and recovery from that — before that, photography was foundational, this way we had fun together and spent our time being teenagers.

“For two years we had no contact because Hannah was in an abusive relationship and neither of us knew how to handle it.”

Also, not at all unique to my friendship with Hannah, is the space that photographing and interviewing allows for. When you set that time aside, ask all the questions, even of those you know really well, you still learn things that are otherwise hidden or don’t come up, or you think you understand because you are close with someone. I have done this with multiple people in my life, and each time I am surprised how much I learn and comes up.

WE GREW UP WITH GUM IN OUR HAIR // A excerpt from Hannah’s journal, listing the pros and cons of staying alive after her five year abusive relationship.(Washington, D.C. / 2010)

SWEET CRUDE // You know what’s nice? Charlotte asked, Being able to get in the car and go to the store…without asking. Here, Charlotte rests outside a shelter in Williston, North Dakota on August 26, 2013. Charlotte moved to Williston that winter to seek work with her ex-boyfriend. (Williston, North Dakota / August 2013)

Phoblographer: Looking at this from a photographer’s self-care perspective, because you’re exposed to such terrible stories of pain, violence, and desperation, in what ways do you keep your mind healthy? In other words, how do you ensure you don’t get so lost in it that psychologically it takes over you?

AF: I would not describe this work as terrible stories of pain, violence and desperation. They are realities that are a result of our lack of prioritizing health care, our inability to educate police forces while expecting them to fill the role of social workers, our ability to totally ignore rural areas and our ability to throw around the work trauma but not actually heal from it — how all of this impacts an individual’s reality.

“Yes, they are painful. Yes, there is violence. But those words simplify all that is going on.”

But, this concept of self-care is pretty new to me and is only in the last year or so something I am prioritizing. I have my people that understand how working on this topic impacts me. They can hear it in my voice when I am tired, or frustrated. Hannah has told me countless times “you always get like this, it will work out.” It is quite easy for me to keep going, to be making the work, it is when I stop or that there is a pause, that is when the emotions come up. On a simple level, I make sure to eat as healthy as I can and I exercise as much as I can when I am on the road. I try and see natural beauty spots — I have the mountain sides, streams or meadows I like to park by to clear my mind. I just started seeing a therapist for the first time, so we will see how that goes.

PORTRAITS // Jessica, moments before boarding a bus home to Minnesota. Jessica came to Williston months earlier to be with her ex-boyfriend. (Williston, ND / August 2015)

MY WATER CHOKES ME // Shirley, 68, at her home in Sidney, Montana. During the course of her four-year relationship, Shirley was severely strangled twice by her then-boyfriend. In the last six months she has lost over 30 pounds. Over the course of the last two years, she has lost the ability to speak or swallow, as a result she cannot consume water and constantly drools. (Sidney, MT / August 2016)

Phoblographer: In all of this is a common denominator – violent, abusive men. As a person who is so involved in this subject, how do you keep positive and see the good in your opposite sex?

AF: I don’t consider the common denominator to be men — the common denominator is patriarchy and misogyny. Those words are not synonymous. I also don’t know if I keep positive most of the time but I am lucky enough to be surrounded by people who are willing to talk through experiences and are great listeners and don’t tolerate perpetuating misogyny — or any other forms of oppression. So, yeah, my friendships keep me sane and feeling good in this world.

HEY, BEST FRIEND! // An empty heart is tattooed on Brittney’s back. (Antwerp, NY / June 2014)

Phoblographer: One of the strong messages I get from Deafening Sound is strength. Was part of the objective of this project to show that, even when faced with extreme adversity, women will rise up and survive?

AF: While I definitely think understanding the nuances and complexities of abuse and its impacts on survivors is important, I did not set out with any intentions for this work. I believe in suspending all judgment and showing up and listening. But, I pretty quickly became interested in the systems in places that make it challenging, at times impossible, for people to access health care services and crisis shelters. I hesitate to cast some as strong because I fear it implies that others, particularly those who stay in abusive relationships, are weak.

“And I guess I gravitate less towards summarizing personality qualities and more towards understanding the systems and cycles of abuse that enable this violence.”

WE GREW UP WITH GUM IN OUR HAIR // Hannah and Joe sleeping before Hannah’s doctor appointment. This was the 10th different doctor she saw in attempt to try to understand why she was losing all of the hair on her body.
After she left her abuser she suffered from extreme PTSD and began pulling out all of the hair on her body. None of the doctors she visited were able to help her through her PTSD. (Washington, D.C. / March 2010)

MY WATER CHOKES ME // Shirley’s door, and the precautions she has taken to ensure her ex would not enter. While they were living together, her ex brought her to her family’s plot in the town graveyard, threatened her with a machete, and pulled her feet out from under her. She fell back onto her sister’s grave. He told her that she would soon wind up there. Shirley was found dead outside her home less than two months after this image was made. The cause of her death is unknown. (Sidney, Mt / August 2016)

Phoblographer: Once the project was complete and the final images had been selected, how did you feel about it and what role do you hope for it to play in the wider discourse of the topic?

AF: I have a hard time admitting this work is done. The only time I have selected a final image was when I needed to make selections for grants and funding. That said, it does make me feeling things to watch a project grow — especially when some of the women have passed away and when you photograph with some people for years — that is meaningful to me.

“According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 7 out of 10 psychologically abused women display symptoms of PTSD.”

As for the role and wider discourse, I think figuring out what we can learn from all this is what is most important. When I talk about the work, I want to make sure to encourage people to talk to their children — let your children know that if they experience assault that they can talk to you, be clear about it. One of the common fears I her that is consistently echoed is that someone’s father, or powerful man in their life, will retaliate. Let your the youth in your life know that you will listen, and not act out on their behalf. And then just listen. Talk about consent. Talk about the shit they see on TV. For a while I felt like my work had to reach a certain level of impact — like policy change type shit. But now, I feel grateful when someone lets me know that they went home and talked to their family after they viewed the work. I really just want this work to result in people having conversations around their dinner table.

A child rests on a summer day in Williston, North Dakota. Studies show that nearly 4 million children between the ages of 3-17 are at risk of exposure to domestic violence each year. (Williston, ND / July 7, 2013)

The cause of Shirley’s death is listed as Hypothermia. Advocated consider this a secondary cause. The primary cause — why Shirley, who barely left her house, was outside before dawn in the beginning of winter — is unknown. Here, Shirley’s recently buried body lays next to her sister. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 72% of all murder-suicides involve an intimate partner; 94% of the victims of these murder-suicides are female.
(Sidney, MT / October 2016)

You can see more of Annie’s work by visiting their website.

Dan Ginn

Dan Ginn is a content writer and journalist. He brings with him five years' experience writing in the photographic niche. During that time he has worked with a range of leading brands, as well as a host professional photographers within the industry.