DAY TWELVE: Violence Unseen Reimagined – arts activism in the time of COVID-19

When the pandemic curtailed the travelling exhibition Violence Unseen, the organisers had to reassess. And they re-imagined and ‘digitally painted’ the images onto cityscapes.

Jo Zawadzka

Violence Unseen Re-Imagined is an online photography exhibition that aims to put unacknowledged and often unseen forms of violence against women on the map.  

The images used in this exhibition were originally created by the photographer Alicia Bruce, then re-imagined and ‘digitally painted’ onto the city landscapes by the visual artist Szymon Felkel.  

Before the pandemic curtailed the Violence Unseen exhibition’s travels, it was displayed in around 40 locations across Scotland, and seen by around 2000 people.  

However, with COVID-19 measures forcing a mass shift to online campaigning in recent months, our travelling Violence Unseen exhibition has taken on new significance and moved online. The Re-imagined exhibition features the Violence Unseen images in public spaces to convey the message that, whilst often hidden, violence against women hasn’t disappeared. In fact, it has been exacerbated by the pandemic.  

The forms of violence against women featured in the exhibition are not new, but some groups of women are more vulnerable to certain types of violence. This is especially true for women who face other forms of discrimination, such as women with learning disabilities, women who sell sex, lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans women, and minority ethnic women. Moreover, we know that lockdown has acted as an enabler for perpetrators and made violence against women even less visible to the public eye, making getting this campaign seen by the public, even more important.  

Alongside the re-imagined images, we will be sharing links to research, articles and projects to help to broaden understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on violence against women. I would therefore like to spotlight three of our images here, as examples of our informative campaign. 

Picture above: Diane by Alicia Bruce/Szymon Felkel. Reproduced by permission of Zero Tolerance

Our first image features Diane Abbott with the backdrop of the houses of Parliament. This image is a significant representation of Violence Against Women in Politics and Elections (VAWIE). VAWIE was extremely prevalent during the run up to the 2017 snap election in which 45.14% of all abusive tweets were directed at Abbott, largely focussed on her gender and her race, largely in the form of threats of sexual violence.

Understanding intersectional discrimination is essential to understanding Violence Against Women and Girls, the different ways violence is enacted, and the varied impacts it can have on people who are multiply marginalised. 

Picture above: Margaret by Alicia Bruce/Szymon Felkel. Reproduced by permission of Zero Tolerance

The second image I want to focus on is of Margaret, very powerfully superimposed onto a Princes Street bus stop. This image discusses disabled women and carer abuse. Disabled women are twice as likely to experience men’s violence as non-disabled women, and 73% of disabled women have experienced domestic abuse. This image is captioned “How are you supposed to get anyone to believe you if everyone thinks he is a ‘Saint’ because of how he helps you?”, emphasising how much abuse towards disabled women goes unseen, diminished, and un-prosecuted.  

Picture above: Mridul by Alicia Bruce/Szymon Felkel. Reproduced by permission of Zero Tolerance

Mridul Wadhwa’s image has been ‘digitally painted’ onto the side of the Scottish Parliament building, thus placing a trans, migrant woman who describes how she is seen by the world as “outsider everywhere”, straight into the political sphere. 83% of trans women have experienced a hate crime, whilst migrant women’s experience of ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ can leave them more vulnerable to violence. This demonstrates another way multiple marginalisation can lead to increased exposure to violence. 

Visit virtual exhibition here

An accessible version can be found here

See also Day 10 Blog by Alicia Bruce

Please note that some of the content in this exhibition deals with sexual violence, abuse and exploitation which some people might find upsetting. Some of the women featured in the pictures are models. 

List of helplines for anyone who lives in Scotland is available here:

Jo Zawadzka is Campaigns and Engagement Office for Zero Tolerance, the Scottish charity that works to end men’s violence against women by promoting gender equality and challenging attitudes which normalise violence and abuse. Their work began in 1992 with a series of mass media campaigns designed to raise awareness and challenge attitudes about violence against women. Today their work continues to challenge the social attitudes and values which permit violence to occur. They take a practical, evidence-based approach targeting primary prevention of violence and promoting change. 

Throughout the 16 Days of Activism, Zero Tolerance will be sharing our seven images across their social media platforms. They will also be available for campaigning purposes – if you are interested in accessing their Violence Unseen Re-imagined resources, please contact Jo at jo.zawadzka@zerotolerance.org.uk.  

You can find Zero Tolerance Scotland on Twitter @ZTScotland, and on Facebook and Instagram @ZeroToleranceScotland. Their website is www.zerotolerance.org.uk

The photographer, Alicia Bruce can be found on twitter @picturemaking, instagram @aliciabrucephoto and her website at www.aliciabruce.co.uk. Szymon Felkel, the arts activist, can be found on instagram @szymon_felkel and at their website at www.saymoonstudio.com.

DAY TEN: Picturing Violence Unseen

Image above: FGM Campaigner Fatou Baldeh (Scotland-Gambia)by Alicia Bruce. Reproduced by permission of Zero Tolerance

Alicia Bruce with Fatou Baldeh

I was the photographer for Zero Tolerance ‘Violence Unseen’ campaign: a photography exhibition to put unacknowledged and often unseen forms of violence against women on the map. It was launched in 2018, 25 years after the original iconic Zero Tolerance campaign[1], shot by the late Franki Raffles. 

The original Zero Tolerance campaign was a ground breaking Scottish public awareness initiative in the 1990s which challenged social attitudes, stereotypes and myths using powerful images and slogans. The campaign had a far-reaching impact across the rest of the UK and internationally.

Taking on this commission was important personally and professionally for me as a working-class Scottish woman, as the mother of a young daughter, as a photographer and as a campaigner.    Violence against women and girls is not a private domestic matter, it’s a human rights issue. Women are attacked verbally, physically, professionally at all levels, in person and online, both directly and indirectly. Ending violence against women should be everyone’s priority. Complacency on this issue is an endorsement.  

Over the past decades there have been dramatic changes to public attitudes around some aspects of men’s violence against women. Yet domestic abuse, sexual violence and other forms of violence against women are still prevalent in Scotland today, especially for groups of women who face other forms of discrimination; women with learning disabilities, women who sell sex, lesbian, bisexual and trans (LBT) and black and minority ethnic women. In response to this, Zero Tolerance has created a new photography exhibition, Violence Unseen, to explore these types of violence against women that remain unseen and unacknowledged by mainstream society.  The exhibition was launched at Stills in September 2018 and has since been exhibited across Scotland in colleges, bus stations, an airport, government buildings and more.

The Violence Unseen Travelling Exhibition: Image reproduced by permission of Zero Tolerance and Alicia Bruce

Before making any images I worked closely in dialogue, research and collaboration with multiple partner organisations including the amazing Shakti Women’s Aid who put me in contact with Fatou Baldeh, a survivor and campaigner to end Female Genital Mutilation.    I attended Shakti’s excellent and harrowing training on ‘Honour-based’ abuse.  

Violence Unseen Reimagined: Image of Fatou Baldeh by Alicia Bruce reproduced by permission of Zero Tolerance

My portrait with Fatou was made collaboratively in her flat in Edinburgh in 2017  where she lived at the time with her two young sons.  The youngest was only three months old.  Having met for coffee a few weeks before and spoken on the phone I was already in awe of her.   In the spirit of photographs made in the early 90s by feminist photographer Franki Raffles, my own personal remit for the new Zero Tolerance campaign was to show women’s strength, dignity and power.      In my role as photographer I’m a conduit for the images I make with others. So  instead of projecting too much of my own feelings or research I’ve reflected on the photograph of Fatou and would prefer to share her words reflecting back on the image we made together.

AB: In my photograph with you I see a grounded and strong mother, activist and professional who takes pride in herself and her boys.  I see a deep and loving connection between you and your baby, a warm, loving home and someone comfortable in her own skin. What do you see symbolically in the photograph?   

FB: “That year was one of the most difficult years in my life. But that picture for me shows; I see a defiant woman who refuses to give up, who refuses to be defined by her experience. Holding my son up was me showing pride as a single mother with a career who faces challenges that so many other women are facing as well but refuses to give up.”

AB: The ‘She Believed She Could So She Did’ picture within our image was so personal to you but also universal.  Can you tell me more about that framed text and what it means to you?

FB: “Those words where inspirational and motivating for me. They reminded me that no matter how difficult things get, if I believe that I can do them or get through them then I will.”

AB: How has the Covid-19 pandemic affected your campaigning?

FB: Due to the pandemic it has been impossible to engage as many women and girls in realising their sexual and reproductive health and rights as I would have wanted to this year. A lot of our work is face to face with communities and the provision of safe spaces for women and girls. This has been severely affected due to Covid restrictions despite the fact that we saw a rise in incidents of SGBV.

AB: Your education in women’s health and in psychology empowered you to make social change, especially for Women’s Sexual Health and particularly for preventing FGM in Gambia. What has been the impact of this in Scotland, in Gambia and internationally?

FB: “I come from a society where many girls still do not have access to basic education. I also come from a family and society that practices FGM. Through education I became aware of the impact of harmful traditional practices and other forms of SGBV. This knowledge and understanding has motivated me to use my voice and platform to raise awareness of FGM and all forms of violence against women and girls. Through this I have the direct impact on protecting girls from harm but also inspiring other young women to join the fight against VAWG. I believe my work in Scotland contributed in putting a limelight on the fight against FGM and the provision of services tailored to survivors of FGM. In recognition of my work and support for migrant women in Scotland I was recently awarded an MBE by her Majesty the Queen.”

AB: If you could have a chat with seven year old Fatou now, what words of wisdom would you share with her?

FB “If I could advise Fatou at seven I would say: have big dreams, think big and go make the world a better and safer place for women and girls.”

AB: Since we met in 2017 you’ve achieved so much returning to Gambia. You have become a CEO of your own charity and received an MBE.  You are a legend!  What’s next?

FB: “I will continue to work for the safety and protection of the rights of women and girls and supporting young girls to realise their full sexual and reproductive health and rights.”

AB: If people reading this could do one thing to raise awareness on the prevention of FGM what should it be?

FB: “Continue breaking the silence around violence against women and girls. Make people aware that violations such as FGM continue to affect girls and hinder their full potential. Only if we continue challenging and fighting shall this harmful practice be abolished.”

Visit virtual exhibition here

An accessible version of the exhibition can be found here

Fatou Baldeh MBE is a Gambian-born activist involved in the campaign to end FGM. She has an MSc. in Sexual and Reproductive Health and was the FGM mapping and network coordinator at Waverley Care in Scotland and a Trustee for Dignity Alert & Research Forum (DARF). She experienced female genital mutilation at the age of seven. 

Shakti Women’s Aid is a Scottish charity that helps black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) women, children, and young people experiencing, or who have experienced, domestic abuse from a partner, ex-partner, and/or other members of the household. Shakti provides training and consultancy for agencies working with BAME women, children, and young people.

Zero Tolerance is a Scottish charity working to end men’s violence against women by promoting gender equality and challenging attitudes that normalise violence and abuse. We work to end violence against women through tackling the root cause of this violence – gender inequality. Tweet @ZTScotland 

Alicia Bruce is an award-winning, working class Scottish photographer and educator.   Human rights, community collaboration and social justice are at the core of her artistic practice.  Alicia’s photographs have been exhibited and published internationally and are held in collections including the National Galleries of Scotland, St Andrews University and UK Parliament.  Her series ‘Menie: TRUMPED’ documents a resilient Scottish community who stood up to Donald Trump.  Her commissioned portfolio features campaigns for Project Ability, Zero Tolerance and Crisis. Awards include RSA Morton Award.    Bruce is a Teaching Fellow and Photography Tutor at University of Edinburgh and eca. 

Tweet @picturemaking

Instagram @aliciabrucephoto


[1] For background on the original campaign and its impact see Katie Cosgrove (2001) No Man Has the Right  and Fiona Mackay (2001) The Case of Zero Tolerance: Women’s Politics in Action? in E. Breitenbach and F. Mackay eds. Women and Contemporary Scottish Politics: An Anthology Polygon at Edinburgh.