It was Christmas of 2013 when Susan Carolonza Chanin’s children set in motion a series of events that would change the lives of thousands. Chanin and her husband asked their teenage daughters to find a charity they felt passionate about for their family holiday donation. After discovering startling facts like how an American is sexually assaulted every 107 seconds and 98% of rapists will never spend a day in jail, they chose RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.
These harsh realities opened Chanin’s eyes to the pervasiveness of sexual abuse in our society and she felt compelled to do even more. So Chanin assembled a team of passionate, talented women: Rana Faure, photographer and Mother Image cofounder; Florence Buchanan, Creative Director at creative agency Project Buchanan; and filmmaker Poppy de Villeneuve. With the assistance of a Getty Images Creative Grant, they were able to put in motion a concept created by Project Buchanan called, the “Survivor Series,” a multimedia campaign focused on RAINN’s Speakers Bureau, a group of over 1,500 survivors of sexual violence who volunteer to tell their stories.
“The Speakers Bureau literally helps other people survive and get help. Creating portraits and videos of them sharing their stories became the most important thing we could do to help RAINN,” Chanin said. “Each person’s story taps into how they got help, how they first told someone and in some cases what their legal situation looked like. You’re getting all the areas RAINN helps somebody just by looking at one person’s personal journey.”
The team decided to film and photograph seven different survivors as they shared their personal experiences with sexual abuse. It was essential to RAINN CEO and Founder Scott Berkowitz that the campaign not just focus on the abuse itself, but that it feel optimistic and show how the survivors were not defined by their experiences.
“What was interesting to us was not just their horrific stories of sexual abuse but also their journey afterwards,” Buchanan said. “That’s the nature of trauma of any kind; you have to wake up the next morning and brush your teeth and keep going. What’s remarkable is that these people were strong enough to carry on with their lives and then had the courage and motivation to be on camera and share their deeply personal experiences.”
The actual day of the shoot was incredibly intense and emotional for everyone involved.
“We knew that in telling us their stories, the survivors would be going on an emotional journey. We planned the day so each person felt that what they were going to share with us was respected and valued,” Chanin said. “We wanted to make sure the experience for each person sitting in that chair was really positive and comfortable, even though we were going to ask them to talk about every level of their experience. We were looking to help them tell their unique stories and capture that positive strength that helps them help others. It was a very powerful day.”
The survivors who participated recognized the potential of what they were doing and were inspired by the possibility of helping others.
“One of the survivors asked us if the campaign was going to be on TV and we told her that was our intention. She replied, ‘Good. If I had seen this when I was younger, I would have realized sooner what was happening to me,’” Chanin said. “And at that point we realized the power of a picture or a video of someone saying ‘This happened to me,’ and for a child who maybe has no idea what’s happening to see it and realize this isn’t their fault.”
RAINN launched the Survivor Series Campaign on March 28 and saw an immediate impact. During the first week alone the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which RAINN created 20 years ago, saw an increase of 115% in callers. In the first month, 17,633 survivors had received help from RAINN’s hotlines. To date, the campaign has resulted in a 41% increase in people served and a 3,000% increase in views of RAINN’s YouTube channel.
“Sexual abuse is not just a personal, behind-closed-doors issue. Its effect on families, communities and society are tragic and far-reaching,” Buchanan said. “I know I speak for our entire team that we are proud to be helping RAINN reach even more people out there and expand its vital work.”
This campaign is a small but significant step forward in igniting a discourse about the epidemic of sexual abuse in society and raising awareness about RAINN’s work.
“Initiating change takes time, and this is just the beginning,” Chanin said. “One of the things RAINN says is that when one person comes forward, they’re usually never alone. When you’re a victim you think you’re the only one and you’re questioning everything that has happened to you. We hope this campaign helps people realize that they are not alone.
“Consent is consent, abuse is abuse and until we, as a community, internalize and recognize this, we will not be able to effect change.”