A Year Photographing Newport Women’s Aid – by Jo Haycock

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It’s hard to believe that back in March we were celebrating International Women’s Day at the Riverfront in Newport. A coming together and sharing of relationships, culture and everything empowering womanhood.  There is nothing more liberating than wandering around the space, experiencing all the greatness and talent that these communities can give when they unite in one great space. From flashmob choirs and dance routines to film festive launches and craft drop-ins. As well as taking part in drama workshops and listening to project talks. Campaigning to end domestic abuse is as much part of the day’s theme as learning to express and celebrate yourself in whichever way you choose, whether that’s through your birthing choices, your artistic voice or standing tall within your own community. This is the talk I gave that day, of a year I spent being shown what hope and resilience looked like for these incredible women…

When I was first commissioned by Newport Women’s Aid, I felt strongly about telling a real story through photographs. One that showed a different side to the usual despair and bruises images, associated with showing what domestic abuse looks like. I wanted to tell a story more about empowerment and choice. About how a group of women there had fearfully but courageously walked out of their ‘safe’ and secret domestic war zone, to break that secret. Many taking their children with them, some not able to. They’d taken a massive first step in honouring themselves with a new beginning.

Like many people, I initially thought of Newport Women’s Aid  as providing a helpline and refuge in a time of crisis.  They do, however, I quickly realised that there was much more going on behind the scenes to support them further into a safer life, beyond that first crucial phone call. This became a year-long photographic project for me observing and interacting across some of the empowering groups offered through Newport Women’s Aid.

“When I said I was going to leave him he locked me in my room. Then it was my birthday and we had some friends come around. So I waited until they all got really drunk and fell asleep. That’s when I left. That was on my birthday.”

The Freedom Programme (devised by Pat Craven) were sessions each covering the typical characteristics of the perpetrator, the abuser. Were the women were able to drop in, listen, realise and share their own experiences. I found this an overwhelming experience, seeing the women recognise their own abuser. I couldn’t take my camera out of the bag during the early sessions, it was very emotional.

I joined in with Thursday coffee mornings. Not your regular type of coffee mornings I might add. Here they learned self defence, practiced yoga and got lost in the art of origami. These were mindful, connective and creative spaces for them to explore themselves and become the women they know they really are. Often humorous and light, a chance for them to disconnect from the horror of where they’ve come from.

“Sometimes I still hear him talking in my ear but these days I say, no chance mate, no more.”

I remember one time during a cup cake decorating session, while they discussed their summer reading. One of the women turned around to me in the corner of the room, and asked if I’d read Fifty Shades of Grey. It was a euphoric moment for me as a documentary photographer – they knew I was there and felt safe with me being among them, they trusted me.

The women here are not the only ones that have been affected by domestic abuse. Their children suffer too, with equal loyalties between both parents. Huge behavioural challenges and struggles with expressing what they feel and what they can do with these bottled up emotions. I got to experience a part of the Hands Off group ran through Newport Women’s Aid. It gave each child the chance to voice their own feelings in an environment that was nurturing and encouraging. A truly beautiful part for me was witnessing them write a letter of hope for the next child (they’ll never meet) who will take part in the Hands Off group in the future.

“Yes means yes and no means no”

The legacy of this project continues for me, as I have taken part in the annual Million Women Rise march in London. A peaceful and creative protest, seeing females join together from around the world to sing and chant messages, focussing on ending violence against women. I also continue to use my craft by photographing awareness days, conferences and events around this topic. Helping to visually tell a story and celebrate how far some of these women have journeyed. Most importantly, it has opened my eyes wider, especially as a mother to a young daughter, to the responsibility we all have in raising strong, aware and compassionate children. In educating them to understand what a healthy, loving and equal relationship looks and feels like.

As featured in JUNO magazine, a community for mindful family life.

https://www.junomagazine.com/

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