Photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu’s Own Journey of Recovery Sheds Light on Survivors of Rape and Sexual Abuse Through Her Project STAND
Photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu has dedicated herself to a lifetime project portraying the individual hunanity of persons who have suffered rape or sexual abuse. Her intent is to beyond the label of victim to show who these people are. The work is dear to her for many reasons, not the least of which is her own recovery from rape. She delivers a message to the world in her pictures and in her words that the hurt survivors feel is real and profound but that healing is possible. She lets survivors, their families and friends, and the public know that the assault or the abuse and its aftermath need not define women. She delivers this message through a support organization she formed, through photographs she takes of survivors, through educational presentations she gives, and through writing she does on the subject, including her autobiography (Stand, published in Japan). She has been much honored for her work. I wrote the following profile of Nobuko several years ago, when she still lived in Omaha, Neb., where she’d come to work for the Omaha World-Herald. She and her family have since moved on elsewhere but her work continues, as does the praise for her efforts.
Photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu’s Own Journey of Recovery Sheds Light on Survivors of Rape and Sexual Abuse Through Her Project STAND
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha City Weekly
Omaha photojournalist Nobuko Oyabu’s work on rape and sexual abuse first made waves in the States. Now it’s stirring things up in her native Japan. On visits there in the last year she’s exhibited her intimate portraits of survivors and given talks about her own story and her subjects’ stories of survival.
She was raped in 1999.
She’s also returned to her homeland to promote her new book, Stand (Forest Press). Published in October, it’s made best seller lists there. The book reveals the trauma of sexual assault through the prism of her personal odyssey and of the men and women she’s chronicled. Her book’s title is drawn from a national project she launched in Omaha to document survivors from across America and in Canada.
Some survivors want to be photographed at the very site they were abused. It isn’t always possible. When it is, it’s an emotional scene. The survivor seeks to reclaim power and control lost in the attack. It’s about closure. In one image a man weeps in the cabin he was molested in as a boy. Some images reveal artifacts of human suffering. A woman shows scars from cuts she makes on herself. Oyabu said self-mutilation is common among survivors as a way of dealing with post-traumatic stress. Another holds a photo of herself as a child made-up as a whore by her abusive dad. Innocence lost. Others choose places and poses that represent their recovery.
Oyabu said Stand is an expression of “how I stood up to the tragedy that happened to me and also of the stands of other survivors. Part of the meaning as well is that sometimes you can’t do anything but just stand there and wait. You can’t always be brave or do something great.”
The fact she’s openly discussing such traditionally taboo subjects in Japan has made her something of a sensation there. Major media outlets in Tokyo, her hometown of Osaka and other cities have profiled her.
“I think I’m the very first person speaking out” on this issue there, she said. In Oyabu’s view Japan harbors, much like the U.S., dysfunctional attitudes about rape and sexual abuse rooted in denial.
“A lot of women tend to be very quiet about it and just suffer silently. It’s really hard for them to be open about it,” she said.
She said a Japanese columnist questioned in print whether she’s actually a survivor after one of her upbeat presentations. Yes, the subject is sober but that doesn’t mean she has to be.
“This particular writer thought that was not appropriate at all. He wrote, ‘I wonder if it really happened to her?’ I wasn’t what he thought a survivor should look like,” she said. “So how should I look? Do I always have to be depressed? I mean, c’mon, I have a daughter. I have a responsibility to make her happy. I can’t be depressed.”
Oyabu said, “It’s kind of hard to attach faces to the issue” amid such perceptions, “It’s kind of hard to see the reality and people don’t really want to see it. But it’s not like all survivors are in depression, stigmatized and bitter. I certainly don’t see myself that way. I’ve found a lot of people don’t see themselves that way.
“If you have a preconceived idea of how a survivor looks, you can never get the real person in the picture.”
Faces of Rape and Sexual Abuse
©photos of survivors by Nobuko Oyabu
Before her own attack, she said, “I admit I had the same attitude toward rape victims. I thought rape belongs to somebody else. I didn’t know there are so many different kinds of survivors until I met them.”
Oyabu’s black and white images express the full spectrum of survivors in terms of education, occupation, income, race, ethnicity, age, shape, size. She said, “I consciously selected these people” to represent they are not just one thing or another. Sexual assault does not discriminate along demographic lines. “It happens to everyone,” she said. Just as survivors are not all rich or poor, black or white, they are not all grim or mad. Many are content, confident, proud, defiant. Count Oyabu among these. Her self-portrait on her book’s cover shows an assertive, ever curious woman poised with camera in hand.
“My resistance was the key for me,” she said.
While large urban papers in Japan gave her positive coverage, reprinting some of her images, she said smaller rural papers displayed a more close-minded attitude and refused to run her pics. She found that “odd” considering her images are in no way graphic but merely portraits. She thinks such reluctance stems from outdated notions that survivors should not be seen or heard — a byproduct of a larger bias that fixes blame or shame on survivors.
“With sexual assault there’s so much gray area still,” she said. “Too many people think it’s the victim’s fault. In this country as well.”
That the blame game should persist in Japan, she said, is ironic given it “is the capital of pornography in the world. There’s so much human trafficking and child porn going on…and somehow the blame is shifted to the victims.” She said sex is right out front in Japan, as it is here, “and yet when it comes to sexual violence people don’t want to acknowledge it,” much less talk about it. Similarly, she said America and Japan don’t want to examine the implications of sex being so pervasive yet rarely discussed at home or school. “Not talking about it,” she said, results in high rates of sexual assault, sexually transmitted diseases, promiscuity, prostitution. This pregnant silence, she said, explains why most sexual assaults go unreported.
“A lot of people are in denial,” she said, “especially parents who grew up in a home where abuse took place. A lot of people have no idea what to say — they just don’t know how to talk about it. Survivors don’t know who to talk to or where to go.”
In lieu of information, she said, some people suffer abuse not realizing they’ve been victimized. She notes a disturbing trend among young people she speaks with who routinely tell her they’ve been molested or raped but pass it off “as no big deal” — as if it’s a rite of passage. “It’s really sad,” she said.
Then there’s the way rape is historically minimized by society, drawing light sentences for actions that have long lasting effects.
Oyabu noted, “One of the survivors put it like this: ‘The rapist gets three to five years, the victims get life.’ And that’s exactly it. It’s not just a one-time incident. For a lot of people it takes a lifetime to get over it. I find it disturbing that society doesn’t see rapists as high risk criminals.”
The reaction her work’s elicited in Japan is not unlike its reception in the U.S. Her STAND: Faces of Rape and Sexual Abuse Survivors Project has been a traveling exhibition across America. Her work with survivors and her personal identification with them and their trauma has made her a sought-after figure. She’s testified before Congress about the issue. She’s spoken to medical, health and law enforcement professionals. She’s presented at women’s and survivors conferences as well as colleges and universities. She’s served as visiting faculty at the Poynter Institute (Fla.) for a seminar on how the media reports rape. She and her work have been part of national awareness campaigns and a Lifetime documentary. She’s written articles for publications here and abroad.
In 2003 she received the Visionary Award from the DC Rape Crisis Center along with comedian Margaret Cho and poet Alix Olsen.
Still, her work is not always appreciated. She said while on staff at the Omaha World-Herald in 2000-2002 senior editors there nixed her doing a photo-essay series on sexual assault survivors. The material, she was told, was too intense for the paper. She said some journalists criticize her for crossing ethical lines as a reporter who documents fellow survivors like herself.
“But if you can use your personal experience to get an exclusive story,” she asks, “then why not use it as a tool?”
Although she defines herself a photojournalist rather than survivor or advocate, her work’s inextricably linked to her experience. Stand centers on the aftermath of her rape — the turmoil she felt and the healing she found. In this light, she said, the images she makes, the talks she delivers, the testimonies she shares serve an educational purpose. “The work of journalism is educating people,” she said. More than anything, she wishes to give survivors names and faces just like her own.
Oyabu was a young, single, up-and-coming photographer with the Moline (Ill.) Dispatch in 1999 when she was raped. She had come to the States only a few years before to pursue her post-secondary education. She wanted to write but found her niche with a camera at Columbia College in Chicago. She went on to shoot a diverse range of subjects for newspapers in the Quad Cities.
Her life and career were full of bright promise when she suffered the ultimate violation and everything grew dark. The rape occurred far from her family in Osaka, where her father pastors a Christian church and her mother teaches preschool. It would be six years before she told her parents what happened. She said, “I didn’t want to worry them too much…I didn’t have the courage to tell,” In the wake of her revelation, she said, “my family has been very supportive.”
The violent act took place at night in her own home. She was sleeping in the bedroom of her locked apartment when the male perpetrator, a former neighbor she didn’t know, broke in using a crowbar. The petite Oyabu never stood a chance. As soon as the stranger left she ran to neighbors and called 911. The cops that caught the case treated her with care on the scene and at the hospital ER they took her to. The medical staff respectfully collected what they needed for the “rape kit” that police and prosecutors use to help convict rapists.
While treated well, Oyabu said she did overhear a doctor ask a nurse, Why is she crying? As she’s since discovered, the law enforcement and medical communities are not always as sensitive as they could be. At a 2005 University of Nebraska Medical Center presentation she told doctors, nurses and students that most sexual assaults are committed by a relative, friend, acquaintance or colleague, meaning victims “take a huge risk even to come out to the ER. You are among the first to respond to these victims when they reach out for help,” she implored the audience, “so please be compassionate to these people.”
Care must be taken with victims, she said, as the trauma of rape is exacerbated by the trauma of examination and interrogation and the suggestion — intentional or not — that somehow the victim’s at fault.
Oyabu provided police a description of her assailant, who left behind the crowbar, his hand prints, hair and other incriminating details. He was caught after only three days. The fact her rapist was captured at all, much less so swiftly, is atypical, she said. The remainder of that year is a blur of counseling sessions, depositions, trial proceedings and attempts to get on with her life. Due to the overwhelming evidence she was spared having to testify. The repeat offender was given the maximum sentence by the judge — 20 years — and is currently serving his time in an Illinois state pen. Again, she said, that is not the norm.
Even with some closure, Oyabu endured flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety attacks and depression. She lived in fear. She rarely let her guard down around men.
The counselor she was referred to at a Quad Cities family services center helped Oyabu work through her emotions. “She made sure I understood that it (the rape) wasn’t my fault. That’s one of the biggest steps for healing.”
A counselor friend suggested she keep a journal. Oyabu said journaling provided a healthy release. Later, her entries proved a key resource for her book. That same friend asked Oyabu to participate in a project that had victims’ harsh self-portraits and words printed on T-shirts. “All I saw was shame and anger on them,” she said. “These T-shirts were faceless. I didn’t belong there — I have feeling and hope. I’m not just a statistic.” This picture of bitter fruit was not the image she had of herself or other survivors, a term she prefers to victims.
“Well, I don’t want to be bitter forever,” she said. “Survivors don’t want you to feel sorry for them or see them as some kind of damaged goods.”
She’d already discovered survivors could be anyone. After her rape several friends came forward with their own stories. “It was really a shock to me all these close friends from college were rape survivors. I didn’t know it,” she said. “I guess my friends didn’t know how to start the conversation about it. Once I was victimized they felt like they could talk now.”
Four of the five women she served on a panel with at the Poynter Institute turned out to be survivors. Smart, successful professionals like her. They’re everywhere.
Oyabu came to Omaha not just for a job but to escape the place where she was raped. “I couldn’t really stay in the same city,” she said. Also, Omaha had a lower incidence of sex crimes. The thought of it happening again plagued her. She wanted to feel safe. But that took time and work. It came with the help of Dee Miller, a fellow writer and survivor in Council Bluffs, and Pastor William Barlowe, pastor of Omaha’s Grace Apostolic Church, where she met her husband, IT specialist Patrick McNeal. The couple have a 2-year-old daughter, Ellica.
Another turning point came when she wrote a letter to her rapist. “As soon as I dropped the letter in the mailbox,” she said, “I felt a kind of joy I’d never experienced. I started to smile and laugh again. I felt like I was totally set free.” Forgiveness is a work in progress.
The next piece of her recovery was her faces of survivors work. When the Herald balked at doing anything she bolted in frustration and liberation. “I was like, Forget them, I’ll do it on my own. She did, too, largely self-funding what became the Stand project. Fees from speaking engagements and exhibits helped.
She said the project’s been “part of my healing, It’s been healthy for me.” She’s met some survivors who can’t move on or can’t find closure — still mired in their pain. “That’s totally understandable. I was there.” She’s met others who dedicate themselves to the cause — working to make a difference with survivors and first responders. Others lead fulfilling lives and careers outside the issue. She keeps in contact with many. For herself, she said, “sometimes I just can’t believe how far I’ve come and how much I’ve done the past six, seven years. I’m alive.”
The prospect of writing about her survival scared her until she found she could divorce herself from the emotion of that trauma. The process was cathartic. She’s now translating Stand for an English language edition to be published in the U.S. by year’s end. Her photo project lay dormant the past few years as she worked on the book and adjusted to motherhood. This year she may capture new images for the project on two trips she’s making to Japan, where survivors who surfaced after her last appearances there requested to be part of her archive. In the future she may revisit her original portrait subjects to further chart their journey of recovery.
Meanwhile, she’s contemplating her next project. Exploring sexual assault in Asian countries interests her. Whatever she does, she won’t be afraid to take a stand.
NATIONAL SEXUAL VIOLENCE RESOURCE CENTER
Nobuko is a honorary board member of NSVRC. NSVRC serves as the nation’s principle information and resource center regarding all aspects of sexual violence.
Clothesline Project of Japan
a project of survivors and their remained families of sexual abuse express their thought in drawing on T-shrits.(in Japanese)
Parents United of the Midlands
a site whose mission to bring light to the darkness of sexual abuse
free resource for victims and their families
Welcome to Barbados
a Tori Amos inspired website for rape and sexual abuse survivors
- Supporting Survivors of Sexual Assault (healthyheels.wordpress.com)
- April Is Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) (kcareyinfante.com)
- The Medical Minute: Sexual abuse can have long-term effects (medicalxpress.com)
- Self-esteem, recovery from sexual abuse (gwizlearning.wordpress.com)
- 39 Million Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (livingstonparentjournal.wordpress.com)
Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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