The Invisible Scars of Loss and Acceptance
Through Sina Niemeyer’s traumatic memories, Nilofer Khan begins to understand what goes on in the survivor’s mind, and how society reacts to it.
You may know a young girl who will face an incident that might change her life. Somebody’s decision will act as the catalyst that might severely affect her. She will weave several webs of self-blame, anger, confusion, and guilt around herself, which will slowly consume her reality like a black hole devouring the stars.
Sina Niemeyer went through such an incident when she was 11-years-old; she was sexually abused. But as a child, you don’t really understand these things. She didn’t either. When children face traumatic situations, it affects them more deeply than it would to an adult. Years later, she began to realise what had happened. It shattered her. She wanted to talk about the incident that robbed her of the chance of having a normal life, but she was afraid. To overcome her fear, she would stand in front of the mirror and practice; imagining that she was talking to an audience. But she realised that words alone would not express the breadth of her angst, fear, guilt, and the need to move on. She decided to narrate her story through photography.
I saw her project during the 2018 Indian Photography Festival, Hyderabad and instantly identified with her work. The gradual unravelling of her experience, one photograph at a time, deeply touched me. She also published her work as a book titled Für Mich. The meaning of these words struck a chord. Translated into English, it simply means ‘For Me’.
The opening image in it is of an 11-year-old Sina, unaware of what might hit her next. Flip a page, you’ll come across disfigured photographs that would make you wonder why she did that. Turn another page and you’ll see her first diary entry, helping you to put the pieces together. I also noticed that the colours red and black have often appeared in the book, signifying her anger and grief, feelings that linger around in her narrative.
As a girl fond of nature, Sina photographed objects she discovered, such as the ripped fragments of butterfly wings. It indicates a part of herself that needs mending and closure. Across her visual narrative, Sina’s present peeks through the curtains of her past. Her self-portraits, shot against a dark background, are moody, yet abstract, as she partly reveals herself. The little girl is still hiding in between the dried up wounds. When I asked Sina about it, she said, “It’s about reclaiming my body and my free will about my body.”
I came across an article The Silence: The Legacy of Childhood Trauma by Junot Diaz that talks about his rape. He wrote, “More than being Dominican, more than being an immigrant, more, even, than being of African descent, my rape defined me.” This hit me. Hard. Our experiences shape us. We are conditioned in a certain way. Unfortunately, a survivor might be conditioned to protect the perpetrator.
The accused has been conditioned to not accept their mistake; a harsh reality across the globe. When it comes to society—especially in Indian culture—people tend to think about the ‘honour’ of the girl child that has been ‘tarnished’. How can someone’s honour be judged by this?
Sexual abuse with a preadolescent or with adolescent boys is a relatively alien subject. Men tend to hide their abuse more often because they are conditioned to play the role of a protector; and a protector can’t be weak, leading to under-reported cases. Then comes the fear complex of society questioning their sexuality; or what the perpetrator might do even if the cases are reported.
In the midst of all this, how will a child differentiate if the perpetrator happens to be someone trusted? Perhaps someone within the family?
Sina’s experience becomes the basis for her viewers to narrate their own stories, whereby survivors know that they are not alone, allowing conversation around the subject. Her project is a step towards educating others to open up, to move on, to not allow something like this to define a lifetime of choices. It brings a particular stanza to mind from Maya Angelou’s poem Still I Rise, “You may shoot me with your words, you may cut me with your eyes, you may kill me with your hatefulness, but still, like air, I’ll rise.”
The cover of Für Mich has words from her diary, “You taught me how to be a butterfly only so you could break my wings.” The project is Sina’s autobiographic story of child sexual abuse. It shows the viewer what sexual abuse can mean to someone’s life by tackling vague and subtle emotions that are often difficult to analyse with just words. You can purchase the book at www.ceibaeditions.com/store/books/fur-mich/
Since 2014, Sina has been working as a photojournalist. That year, she also won the Canon Profifoto Promotion Award 14/2. Along with photojournalism, Sina continuously searches for new ways of storytelling that push the boundaries of art and photojournalism. You can view her work at www.sinaniemeyer.com
As she gradually identifies and comes to terms with the various issues in society, Nilofer Khan shares her insights here, with you. You can find her photos here and you can write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Better Photography.Tags: A Vignette of Thoughts, autobiographical photo story, better photography, Nilofer Khan, November 2018, Sina Neiemeyer