Honoring stories/Consuming tragedy: Covering Take Back The Night as a photographer

Amelia

Amelia Meman, ’15, is the program coordinator in the Women’s Center. She has worked in the Women’s Center as an intern, a student staff member, a volunteer, a part-time coordinator, and now as a full-time staff member. Throughout this tenure, Amelia has attended every Take Back the Night (and is looking forward to attending many more).

Among the fraught ethical tensions that anyone negotiates in their lives, there is one that the Women’s Center constantly must work through:

Are we honoring stories of trauma or are we passively consuming tragedy?

This is a conflict that comes up most often when we begin planning and setting up for our sexual violence-related events. We have to ask ourselves during Take Back the Night (TBTN): is this an event that is empowering for survivors and victims? Or is it spotlighting stories that are shocking and uncomfortable for an eager audience? Are we listeners observing moments of healing or are we spectators in awe of what trauma can be?

Credit Jaedon Huie26

Now, we realize that we can’t control how participants are taking in the material we offer, but we can try like hell to build a context to our event that encourages folks to act as witnesses to a difficult and powerful process. Hence this blogpost.

Take Back the Night is an emotional and incredible event. As a staff member and an alumna, I have been to every TBTN since it was renewed in 2014, and every year, I am aware of the way the survivor speak out shifts the gravity in the room. I know there are tears and tense muscles and people holding one another–partially because I’ve been in that same position. I know that in the march that follows the speak out, I yell so so loud with this big chorus of powerful people and it is the closest I come to righteousness. The catharsis of shifting the emotional weight in my heart to my lungs and into the night air, it’s a feeling that you don’t soon forget.

That said, I’ve also been behind the camera for many of my TBTN’s and I know, as an artist, what lengths we can go to in order to get that shot that distills the moment as if the chant could echo through whatever gelatin or pixel displaying utility you’re using. Get that shot. Capture that moment. Frame it. Click. Shutter. Stop.

I get it.

But just as the Women’s Center frets about building a moment of witnessing rather than consumption, we must also ask our photographers and our artists to consider how they’re documenting this world.

As we get ready for another Take Back the Night, we meet and Jess is beleaguered: “Just please don’t be that guy running and hanging off of light posts with a camera in my face,” referring to the antics of some eager photojournalists who took the 2018 Take Back the Night march by storm. People with cameras ran in and out and through and about the march, and it led us as organizers to question whether or not this was the sort of event we wanted to organize.

Were we getting people together simply for the right Instagram grid?

Were those who were brave enough to tell their stories being minimized to the portrait of tears and traumatization?

Did these folks weaving and mending their way through the march even know what it was that brought us all together and why our voices were high with urgency?

Are we staging tragedy for people to consume? Are survivor stories a tragic movie montage–to feel things that we aren’t typically used to feeling?

There’s a responsibility here, as a narrator or a creator, to honor the folks whose stories we are trying to enliven. We teeter on that tension I spoke of earlier, between exploitation and empowerment. So as we move into another TBTN and another year of difficult publicly told truths, I hope that we can learn how to honor and respect the stories that are shared among us.

 

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Some simple questions for all of the photographers out there, looking to document things like Take Back the Night and other important movements in our world:

Why are you taking pictures?

Where are you posting them?

If you had to write a caption, what would it say?

Who are you taking a picture of? Are they in a state you would want to be captured in?

Do you understand what this event is about and the goals?

How can you ensure that your creative work builds off of organizer goals?

Did you ask to take the picture? If you didn’t, should you?

Ultimately, this issue is one of exploitative objectification versus humanizing empowerment/embodiment. Viewing real human conflict, sadness, trauma does things to us. It might help us through our own shit. It might provoke a piece of ourselves we’ve never been in touch with. Either way, let’s make sure that in our reception, we are viewing, listening, etc. from a place of equal footing, rather than from the top down. Reach out, not down to the folks who have different experiences from you, and if you plan on taking their picture–hold up your mirror first.

This year, for Take Back the Night, the Women’s Center is assigning press passes to photographers. We hope this is a way to hold artists and journalists accountable to our mission, and create a firmer understanding of the context that brings us all together. If you’re interested in acquiring a press pass, email us at womenscenter@umbc.edu.

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Further reading/viewing/listening:

7 with VII: Ethics in Photojournalism, Q&A with photojournalists Ron Haviv, Maciek Nabrdalik, Stefano De Luigi, Davide Monteleone, Ashley Gilbertson, Ed Kashi and Arthur Bondar

A Thousand Stakes: Photojournalism and Exploitation, Teresa Mathew

The Colonialism of Photojournalism, Clary Estes

Inspiration porn and the objectification of disability, Stella Young at TEDxSydney 2014

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Feminist Friendships

Program coordinator Amelia Meman reminisces about her feminist friendships and analyzes how these relationships foster empowerment and powerful networks.

This Women’s History Month, the Women’s Center was inspired by feminism’s legacy of collective action. While feminism is very much based in the personal and individual, it is also a movement built through the camaraderie, collective consciousness, compassion, and connections between people. That’s why, this March, the Women’s Center is celebrating feminist friendships. That’s also why I’m writing this blog post.

Every time I come to think about this theme, I feel all warm and fuzzy inside, because I immediately think of the bonds I made at UMBC that have continued on. More on this later, but I’ll tell you this much: nothing brings you together, like the hot crucible of simultaneous existential crises via The Patriarchy. Our angst-ridden mental toil aside, describing a friendship as “feminist” might feel weird to some people, but I wonder what it means to those it resonates with.

For me, it’s not about the friends who encourage me to burn my bra and always validate my decision to not shave–although they also do that. It’s also the friends who affirm me and remind me that I am a person with power who deserves good things in the world. My feminist friends go to rallies with me and talk Butler with me, but they also are the first to watch Neighbors 2 and they’re the best at recommending sci-fi and fantasy novels.

The personal is political… and the political is personal

I think that all of my relationships are political. This is probably by virtue of being a feminist and a philosophical thinker, but it’s also because my friends are my political allies. We are constantly thinking about the political power that comes with being women, being queer (AF), being trauma survivors, being white and/or people of color, being (dis)abled, etc. and being radically together. We’re friends who empower each other to live when so many other things in this world act to kill us. We’re constantly navigating privilege and oppression, and we get a lot of things wrong. We teach other, call each other in. We are committed to the process of constantly learning how to be better humans to one another and all of the people we interact with.

Does anything scream friendship more than this group shot of the Great British Baking Show judges?

So when I say that the personal is political, I mean that things we like to keep in private (i.e. whether or not we’re having sex, what kind of sex we’re having, birth control, abortions, survivor status, etc.) are personal experiences that are also–with feminism–political. Rather than continue to make the prudish world of vanilla, purely procreative sex comfortable, feminists talk reproductive justice, use the words “vagina,” “penis,” “vulva,” “anus,” etc. Those things that people would rather sweep under the rug? We dig those out and we burn the rug.

Just so, the political is personal. This, for me, is feminist friendship. My unity and belonging with other feminists is tied, not just to our affinity for one another as funny weirdos, but also to our political mindset. As we dance, we move toward liberation. As we laugh, we banish the silence pressed into us as women and femmes. As we eat together, we feed each other the love and power we deserve.

The political is personal, because my liberation is tied to theirs, and we both know that as we watch the latest season of The Great British Baking Show.

Shine theory

So as we move throughout Women’s History Month and think about all of our herstorical sheroes who give us life (often literally), think about those friends that are around you who make you shine brighter. Whether that’s your mom, your professor, Oprah, think about the women who inspire you.

Take a breath, and think about your best memory with that person. How did you become friends? What do you all do best together? How do you feel when you’re around each other?

Seriously take like 15 seconds to meditate on that.

Alright, now you can come back to me.

Didn’t that make you feel shiny?

In the Women’s Center, we like to talk about shine theory. Jess is the one who introduced me to this concept a while ago (see her awesome UMBC Women Who Rock series), but basically, shine theory is a lens through which we can think about friendship. Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow (of Call Your Girlfriend) coined the term “shine theory” in an article on powerful women as best friends. Friedman wrote: “when you meet a woman who is intimidatingly witty, stylish, beautiful, and professionally accomplished, befriend her. Surrounding yourself with the best people doesn’t make you look worse by comparison. It makes you better.”

Friedman and Sow add that in its simplest form, shine theory is this: “I don’t shine, if you don’t shine.”

Feminist friends, to me, push you and support you so that you can shine as bright, if not brighter, than them and we all get a little better for it.

GWST-ers 4 Life

I would be remiss to not note that the thing that brought some of my best, most steady feminist friends together was our journey through the UMBC Gender and Women’s Studies Department. We were knit together through a shared affinity for feminist politics, and I know I was able to find myself through them. Not because they showed me a self I wanted to be, but because they allowed me to actually BE the person I always wanted to be.

It wasn’t all hearts and rainbows and radical self-care quotes from Audre Lorde. It was a lot of shit. We went through heartbreak together, we grieved together, we powered through classes like beleaguered Weather-people in a hurricane. In queer theory, we read Michel Foucault’s interview, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” in which he lays out this idea of queer community:

The notion of mode of life seems important to me. Will it require the introduction of a diversification different from the ones due to social class, differences in profession and culture, a diversification that would also be a form of relationship and would be a “way of life”? A way of life can be shared among individuals of different age, status, and social activity. It can yield intense relations not resembling those that are institutionalized. It seems to me that way of life can yield a culture and an ethics. To be “gay,” I think, is not to identify with the psychological traits and the bisible masks of the homosexual but to try to define and develop a way of life. (p. 137-138)

Being “gay” or “queer” or, in our case, “feminists,” is not about defining who we are, but about creating a way of life that suits our needs and that is, potentially, radical. When the institution is so often your oppressor, molding new culture and ethics through friendship becomes a way of also creating new futures and pathways that the institution did not initially have open to you. For example, I don’t know where my self-confidence would be without my therapist and the power of my friends, but I know that the impacts of sexism, racism, ableism, etc. were limiting my self-confidence, and when I learned about myself as someone who was strong and capable of loosing that sort of weight, I was able to achieve more and better. I have a job, I’m pursuing my (very high) educational goals, I’m publishing this blogpost; this is all enabled through this alternative way of life that teaches me that I have power, I am power, and that my friends and I disrupt oppression.

Feminist friendship, shine theory, all that glorious glowing goodness that brought us together–it created power.

So the next time you think about your friends, your shiny people, your feminist sheroes, think about the power you all cultivate and bring forth by being your badass selves together. Think about how that power can grow with you and the friendships you share. Think about what your perfect world would look like for you and your feminist friends–and then make it. 

More resources, if you’re interested:

Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life”

Dan Willey, “Gay Hair”

Gaby Dunn, “It’s A War Out There: How Queer Female Friendships Can Save Us All”

Cori Wong, “Feminist Friendship” TEDxCSU

Make feminist friends and build up your network at our Women’s History Month celebration on March 28th from 6 pm to 8 pm in the Skylight Room! RSVP via myUMBC!

 

To my feminist mentor, Megan Tagle Adams

A reflection by Amelia Meman on her feminist mentoring relationship with Assistant Director Megan Tagle Adams.

Megan and I in the NWSA photobooth.

Megan (right) and I in the National Women’s Studies Association (NWSA) photobooth.

With Megan’s departure from UMBC (today!), I feel the Women’s Center is saying goodbye to a real social justice champion on our campus. Someone who was constantly striving for excellence in our institution. More than this, though, I feel I am saying goodbye to someone who has taught me what feminist mentorship—in its best iteration—can be.

Traditional models of mentorship are often paternalistic and hierarchical. Relationships are based on a transactional relationship between a mentor–older, more experienced in a particular professional setting, more “successful”—and their mentee—a younger novice looking for their niche, to expand their professional network, and to build on their skills. Continue reading

Supporting survivors past April

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This past April was our most powerful yet. In recognition of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the Women’s Center coordinated the annual Take Back the Night event, which 265 UMBC community members attended (click here for a photo round-up). The Clothesline Project reached another 183 people, and 10 new shirts were created by survivors of interpersonal violence.

 

 

The Women’s Center’s mission to support survivors extends beyond April. This year, the Women’s Center has trained 103 students, faculty, and staff in our supporting survivors workshops. Jess and Megan have also devoted over 25 hours of 1-1 support meetings for survivors and those dedicated to supporting them.

As this school year ends, please help us continue cultivating a survivor-responsive campus. We are only $450 away from making our 25th Anniversary GiveCorps goal for the 2016-2017 school year!
Give today and help a survivor access the support they need. 

Writing as a woman: A conversation

In recognition of the other month-long celebration that is April’s National Poetry Month, Women’s Center Special Projects Coordinator Amelia Meman recorded a discussion on writing as a woman with her two best friends. Check out the video below, and join the conversation!

Writing as a woman.

It’s something I think about fairly often, because it brings up issues of worthiness, knowledge-making, developing identities, creating dialogues and rhetorical communities, and communicating experience. Writing is, in many ways, the convergence of the private becoming public–y’know, that old feminist maxim. Writing as an act and later as a product contains multitudes, especially in its intersections with identity.

That said, I was eager to talk with two of my best friends, Susie Hinz and Kerrin Smith, about their experiences as writers, as woman, and as women writers (or alternatively writerly women?). A video of our conversation is below. We talk about the intersections of identity and writing, getting over feelings of unworthiness, working through writer’s block, and many other writing-related things.

Susie is a UMBC alum who is working at Maryland Humanities and is also curating a fantastic blog (and possibly publishing a novel in the future). Kerrin is a poet in the Creative Writing and Publishing Arts MFA program, and you can catch updates on her published work (and her life) on her Twitter.

BMO - I hope Im good at this

This is how we generally feel about writing. (Thanks to Susie for this picture.)

A note: Our discussion is extremely limited in terms of “what it means to be a woman writer,” and we want to acknowledge this. We all have particular aspects of privilege and oppression that affect our identities (gender, creative, and otherwise), and this conversation stems from a particular place of privilege. It’s my hope that this discussion, though limited in terms of perspective, is still insightful and helpful to those watching.

Women in Politics Roundtable Round-Up

16665235_1240042186074587_3406555264375312519_oThe Women’s Center’s Spring Roundtable series has begun! On February 14th, we hosted the first of our three-part roundtable “Underrepresentation of Women in…” series. This roundtable was on “Women in Politics” and focused on the lack of women in the political sphere and the establishment.

For this discussion, our panelists were Political Science professor Lisa Vetter, Language Literacy and Culture student Colonel Ingrid Parker, and student staff member Kayla Smith.

The discussion opened with a question about gendered communication and how to express femininity in a workspace that’s male dominated. Kayla and Colonel Parker both agreed that being a “chameleon,” or being fluid in how they present themselves based on their audience, has worked for them in the past. 

The conversation then turned to Hillary Clinton’s presidential loss. The suggestion was made that the glass ceiling was now higher than it had previously been as a result of someone as qualified as Clinton losing to someone as seemingly unqualified as President Trump. People in politics may be more scared to back women running for office because women don’t seem to get the votes to take office. Therefore the goal of making a woman president is even more elusive. Furthermore, after learning that some women need to be asked more than five times to run for office, there was some concern that Clinton’s loss would discourage more women from entering the political sphere for fear of disappointment; however, Colonel Parker reminded everyone that the next step should be to stay hopeful and push forward no matter what happens. 

When Jess Myers asked about the silencing of Elizabeth Warren on the Senate floor during the confirmation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Kayla pointed out that the silencing of Elizabeth Warren was really the silencing of Coretta Scott King. Kayla went on to explain that, because her feminism is intrinsically connected to her race, it’s impossible for her to ignore the ramifications she faces in the establishment due to being a black woman. 

When the discussion was opened up to the audience, a student asked a question about coping with the effects of mental health when looking at barriers to women in politics. Colonel Parker spoke about the benefits of finding coping mechanisms like eating well, spending time with family, and working out. Kayla suggested finding supportive groups of women to help and uplift you in the face of adversity. Women’s Center Assistant Director Megan Tagle Adams added that it isn’t always enough for their to be more women in a space but that they should also be supportive of women excelling instead of engaging in “mean girl” tactics.

Another audience member asked Kayla what her opinion was on changing the establishment to include women and people of color to which she responded, “It’s important for people to be educated. They need to learn that our government and political system is built on white supremacy, racism, and sexism. Nothing will change until people understand where we started and that those things still play a major role in our system.”

Overall, the subject of women’s underrepresentation in politics is vast and complicated and while we barely scratched the surface in this hour long discussion, we did our best to open the dialogue and get people talking and thinking.

Want more information? Below are some links further discussing women, the establishment, and politics.

So has this discussion fired you up? Are you interested in running for office (public, school, or otherwise)? Have you heard about Elect Her? Elect Her is a leadership program that encourages and trains college women to run for student government and future political office

There is an an Elect Her workshop on March 11th from 10:30-3:30 in Fine Arts 011. You will learn how to figure out what your message and platform is, how to craft a communication strategy that works, and you’ll hear from campus and community leaders about what it takes to win. It is going to be a great day!

If you have questions or want to RSVP, contact Dr. Kate. (drabinsk@umbc.edu.)

 

A Time to Resist + A Time to Take Care

amelia-meman-headshotA reflection written by Women’s Center Special Projects Coordinator, Amelia Meman

So here we are. Another day in this brave new world.

Are you exhausted yet? Emotionally, physically, psychologically?

If you’re not–congratulations! That’s really good and you are a sweet glowing angel.

If you are, though, you’re not alone and you are also a sweet glowing angel.

deadI’m tired, too. For all of us feminists, social justice warriors, and snowflakes, this is a tough time. The stream of executive actions and questionable cabinet appointments have rocked our communities and have malignantly affected some of the most vulnerable groups in the U.S. The fights we’ve been engaging in throughout every administration have been exacerbated and fear is alive more than ever. 

Seeing the reaction from social justice activists has been heartening for me in many ways. The women’s march was awesome and huge (though not without its fair share of criticism from Black women, the trans community, and many others). Other demonstrations against the refugee ban and the massive uptick in people contacting their elected representatives to demand accountability has shown us that massive swathes of the public have been activated to resist in a great variety of ways.

This work is both vital and neverending. Making an impact is difficult, exhausting work. It involves massive amounts of human energy. What I’m ultimately getting to is this: are you taking care of yourself right now? 
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