Anonymised portraits: the challenge of representing victims of domestic violence



A year ago, Alexsandro Palombo posted on his Facebook page a new series of images campaigning against domestic violence. He had previously addressed the issue, by manipulating icons form cartoons, such as Disney princesses or Marge from The Simpsons. I had singled him out, because I admired his wittiness, and his persistent feminism in raising awareness for women’s causes. But I regretted the fact that he succumbed to what I identified as a stereotype in the representation of domestic violence: the black eye from a right-handed punch, and the streak of blood running from the corner of the lips.


I had been developing a project in visual representation with victims of gender-based violence and had also departed from a somewhat similar standpoint. My initial idea was to work with women under protection of a refuge, and to visually record the changes observed throughout their transition to build up animated collaborative portraits in painting. A quick sketch using consecutively erased self-portraits was produced to study the idea.


I expected to start with some depressed or bruised portraits and witness a variety of states, until the final resolute expression of independence, watched when they were ready to lead an autonomous life in a different place. It now sounds like I expected their stay in a refuge would allow them to be reborn as free and strong individuals.

Palombo’s series, with the phrase “Life can be a fairytale if you break the silence”, was widely republished. Once again he showed bruised faces, but this time these were real women, and celebrities at that, simulacra of victims obtained through photoshop.


When reported by the Daily Mail, the number of comments rose to 577. The wording was unfortunate: an elaboration on a previous one, “Life is not a fairy tale”, which would be within consensus, it suggested that victims’ lives would magically turn to be ideal if they came forward with a denunciation. However, it is most likely that a victim will be haunted by memories, sometimes be irreversibly scarred, and in many cases suffer from PTSD.

It was not the slogan, though, that caused the greatest negative reactions. Nor the fact that when addressing violence against women Palombo disregarded his models, by not asking for permission to use their images. The comments’ section contained a significant sample of mainstream reactions, showing how the public relates to the representation of domestic violence, with a prevalence of variations around the contents of the top rated ones. Domestic violence begins with control and isolation, having many different manifestations besides physical abuse (even when physical, it is not always visible), which was noted by victims’ alleged friends or family members.

The best rated comment, with 3558 votes, was from an alleged survivor: “This annoys me a little as someone who was in an abusive relationship. (…) I don’t think any of these celebs can truly relate”. The second best rated comment, with 2794 votes, summarised an overall feeling: “This is incredibly insulting”. And the third, with 2516 votes, featured another general complaint: “Why not use real victims? Wouldn’t that speak to the public more than photoshopped celebs?”.

These three instances were all relevant to the work I was developing. First, survivors of domestic violence are not well served by being stigmatised by a stereotype, the image of the helpless vulnerable woman translated into a beaten up face. Second, using celebrities in a sensationalistic depiction appears to glamourise violence, creating an iconography that neither the victims nor the sympathisers identify with. Third, real victims can seldom come forward, shame being one of the causes (as the media tends to represent the phenomena as a family problem, rather than a societal consequence of inequality), and fear being the main one, since between 50% and 70% of homicides occur when victims leave their abusers — and this is why they go into hiding.

Research brought changes to the initial project, namely in the perception of the transition phase. In some cases the service users are euphoric when they arrive in a refuge, happy to have escaped their aggressors, often saving their children as well. Then they start running on empty after the unbearable memories of how much they have been abused begin to sink in. They are isolated and hiding, away from all existing previous ties, being those human, geographical or circumstantial. All of this is not consistent with the expectation of a progression from negative to positive.

I teamed up with two UK-based researchers from Sociology, Benedetta Cappellini and Vicki Harman. This brought upon the project the proficuousness of symbiotic relationships, both in benefiting from their experience in qualitative research, and in the addition of a new strand. Departing from the separation from context and belongings, implied by escaping from abusers, we ended up designing four categories of objects to be represented: loved, lost, hated, and wanted.



The workshops with the service users involve them in the artistic outcome. The objects’ strand introduces them to the drawing activities, and provides the circumstantial portraits of the transition. Being interested in the mechanisms of what is called intuition, which are basically built on informal learning, automatism, and idiosyncrasies, I have been exploring what they have to show through visual output. Art-based research has shown that visual representation can go beyond its common therapeutic and cathartic roles. It can break language barriers, make space for reflection and discussion through elicitation, and be a means for communicating when words would require a degree of intimacy that participants in research withdraw from, particularly if we are dealing with at-risk populations. The portrait of this liminal phase encompasses my observations, my colleagues’ input and analysis, and the contribution of the portrayed women, in the form of art work, active posing, and simply opening up in facial expressiveness.

The sessions provided different solutions to the problem of producing anonymised portraits. Blind contour portraits of each other proved that idiosyncrasy is the first atribute of style, illustrating the inimitable relationship between one individual’s way of seeing and her gesture. I also have them drawing parts of their faces on mirrors that are circulated around the group, resulting in composite portraits, which are authentic in as much as they constitute an actual reflection fixed in pen by each person reflected, whereas recognition is not possible. Finally, I made an animated portrait through photographing the consecutive destructions of faces in a painting, trying to capture the varying ages, ethnicity, features, and the fleeting moods.





NOTE: LIMINAL IDENTITIES is an on-going project which started in Portugal. A pilot-project in the UK, with Benedetta Cappellini and Vicki Harman, will culminate in an exhibition taking place in London, November, 1st, and at Royal Holloway University in Egham, November, 2nd.



1 – Alexsandro Palombo, 2014, from the “No violence against women” series.
2 – Susana Campos, September 2015. “Life changes”, study for project Liminal Identities, GIF. Drawings on paper, digitally edited.
3 – Alexsandro Palombo, 2015, from the “Life can be a fairy tale if you break the silence” series.
4 – 1. “Hated Objects”; 2. “Wanted Objects”. PT chapter of Liminal Identities, 2015. Casa abrigo, Santa Casa da Misericórdia, Baixo Alentejo.
5 – 1 to 4. “Idiosyncratic self-portraits through looking at others”. UK chapter of Liminal Identiites, 2016. Refuge for women, Solace Women’s Aid, London.
6 – Susana Campos, October 2016. Sketch for anonymised composite portrait for Liminal Identities. Paintings on paper, photographed. Photography and stop motion video editing by Valdemar Ricardo Alves.


Susana Campos pinta, ensina e pergunta.

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