Project Candle illuminates sexual assault survivor stories


Angela Kerndl

Throughout the month of April, the University of Illinois’ Women’s Resources Center displays an exhibition of photographs by undergraduate student Bridget Hayes. Through her work, Hayes says she hopes to shine a light on the issues of sexual assault and the strength of its survivors.

By Sam Schrage, Staff writer

In a dimly lit room in the Women’s Resource Center, candles line the walls casting light on photos with encouraging phrases written by sexual assault survivors.

Phrases such as “I am not broken; I am brave” are part of the photo exhibition titled Project Candle.

Bridget Hayes, sophomore in Business and artist behind Project Candle, wanted to take away some of the brokenness that sexual assault survivors often feel. She wanted to give survivors a chance to share their stories with other survivors and with those who have not experienced sexual assault.

The exhibition will be displayed at the Women’s Resource Center throughout April in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

The exhibition’s theme illuminates survivor stories through the interplay between the candle, the light and the stories. The project represents the common feeling many survivors go through, and the liberation they feel through sharing their stories.

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“The candle lights up the anonymous stories I got from survivors, supporters or anyone along those lines,” Hayes said. “The candle is supposed to illuminate those words and represent how sometimes the issue can be surrounded by a lot of darkness, but the candle sheds light on it. It’s a beacon of hope and represents the strength of survivors and a future where sexual assault is eliminated.”

The purpose of Project Candle is to demonstrate how each survivor’s story is different, and looks at how the actions of bystanders and peers affects them.

“Some of the pieces feature stories of resilience. Others draw attention to the impact of rape culture and the impact of a lack of social support,” said Rachel Storm, assistant director at the Women’s Resource Center, in an email. “Collectively, Project Candle centers the voices of survivors and presents its viewers with a call to action to address sexual violence rooted in the experiences of survivors themselves.”

Storm wrote that Project Candle shows the unique experiences of healing after sexual assault and demonstrates that no two experiences are alike.

Project Candle is Hayes’ final project for her FYCARE certification class, CHLH 199. After learning about sexual assault and its prevalence on college campuses, Hayes wanted to give survivors a voice and an opportunity to share their unique story without feeling judged or insecure.

“A lot of the time survivors don’t feel like they have a voice and often feel like they can’t speak up about the issue,” Hayes said. “I wanted to give them a voice and give them the chance to share their story without too much pressure.”

The exhibition not only provides a sense of freedom for survivors who have had to privately process their assault, but also supporters who can help reduce the amount of sexual assaults at the University.

“I think the exhibition could be really validating for non-survivors to walk around and look at the photos, as well as for survivors,” said Molly McLay, assistant director at the Women’s Resource Center. “The comfort of the lit images creates a sense of safety for survivors that lets them know they are cared for and loved.”

Hayes hopes her exhibition helps survivors process their assault and gets people talking about the threat of sexual assault, along with preventative measures students can take.

“Women are taught to fear violence growing up, so hopefully this can help people think about the act of sexual violence as well as the threat of it,” Hayes said. “Your words can have a huge impact and standing up to people who are maybe saying things that could be offensive to people who have experienced sexual assault. Everyone can use their voice in a positive way and take a stand for survivors.”

Throughout this month, the Women’s Resource Center will be sponsoring over 40 events pertaining to sexual assault. It Happens Here and Surviving the Mic are just two of the events that provide a safe and healing place for survivors to share their stories and bond with other survivors.

However, survivors are not the only group that are affected by sexual assault. Storm wrote about the prevalence of sexual assault and rape culture on campus, and encourages students to take action collectively.

Preventing sexual assault can be as simple as supporting a survivor, going to a sexual assault awareness event, intervening in a potentially dangerous situation or pointing out when offensive language is used.

“I want to empower the students on this campus to care and realize it is our business to step in,” McLay said.“The way to make this campus safe is to take everything on ourselves, to help each other out, to be on the lookout for behaviors we don’t want to see. My goal is not to simply reduce sexual assault; it’s to end sexual assault.”

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