Portraits of Healing

By Chantal Barlow as told to Kate Hassett

All photography by Chantal Barlow as part of the Unconventional Apology Project. clockwise from far left: Unconventional Apology Project founder Chantal Barlow and some of the survivors she has documented: Dr Susan Hammoudeh, Peggy Reyna (photographed in honour 
of her daughter Dream Morse), Candida Magallanes, Cristina Jara.
All photography by Chantal Barlow as part of the Unconventional Apology Project. clockwise from far left: Unconventional Apology Project founder Chantal Barlow and some of the survivors she has documented: Dr Susan Hammoudeh, Peggy Reyna (photographed in honour of her daughter Dream Morse), Candida Magallanes, Cristina Jara.
After learning the devastating truth about the death of her grandmother, Chantal Barlow is documenting a “trail of existence” for others affected by domestic violence. Her Unconventional Apology Project is both uplifting and healing.

I grew up in in Austin, Texas, with my mother, father, younger brother and our family pet beagle. Family life was always very exploratory. We travelled a lot as my mum is from Portugal and she has an adventurous spirit. It was important to her that we spent time with our family in Europe and understood the world outside of the American perspective.

We children, including the neighbourhood kids, bonded over my mum’s exceptional cooking. My dad was a source of laughter and ingenuity. He was very good at breaking the ice in nearly all situations.

My brother and I spent a lot of time outdoors exploring and rallying neighbourhood kids to participate in all kinds of activities. He’s always had a fearless and nurturing spirit about him – it’s one of the many reasons we remain close until this day.

I was a teenager when my father told me what happened to his mum at the hands of his father. My grandfather shot and killed my grandmother during a drunken rampage two days after their divorce was final. She and my 16-year-old father had fled their home to escape him, and were running frantically down the street. At least five, maybe six, shots were fired at them both, but the bullets from the handgun only hit one of them and they riddled my grandmother’s body. Unscathed, my father held his dying mother in his arms.

My grandfather did not go to trial, was never fined and was never held accountable by any system of justice for murdering his wife.

After this terrible event, my grandfather “found Jesus” and became religious; newly sober and attempting to be a positive force in his children’s lives after many decades of continuing on his destructive path. He came to cherish his family involvement and used photography to document our growth.

My grandfather was obsessed with taking photographs of every event and every visit with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. There are innumerable photos of him with us as we matured. My grandfather passed away in 2013. When he died, my aunt told me that she had something for me from him. To my surprise, it was his camera.

It was within days that I felt moved to use his camera in a positive way; the Unconventional Apology Project grew from there. It took me a while to process what happened to my grandmother. Knowing the truth about her, and to experience my grandfather in a different context, was
very jarring.

All of the processing is very layered. There is the complete physical understanding that her life was taken, which has had a multi-generational impact on my family. There is a layer that her experience is not an exception; many people from all walks of life experience domestic violence and could be an escape plan away from potentially losing their lives. I put conscious effort into what I can do to focus on actionable things that aid in healing.

Putting myself in a creative environment allows me to explore different paths to healing. Since my grandfather passed away, I
have used his camera as the foundation of the Unconventional Apology Project – I photograph other women who have been impacted by abuse and have been silenced. They deserve a trail of existence; they will not disappear.

In the beginning, participation came from me sharing my plans for the project to my inner circle and those women offering up their story for a chance to help another person who could come across it. Currently, they come forward by sending me a message on my website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, then we go through our screening process.

Breaking the silence

The bravery of the participants is always incredibly moving and special. For some, they have shared their experiences outside
of the project in a non-public way: family, friends, law enforcement. For others, the project was the first time they had spoken about their experience.

We meet with all of the participants before our shoot days, in person or via Skype. This is to make sure we answer any questions about the process, and they can be sure that there is real-life person behind the messages we have exchanged. It also removes some of the mystery behind reaching out to someone online. Most importantly, we talk about their current safety.

I was technically the first woman I shot. I took part in the project to become closer artistically to my own work, find any gaps in the flow of the interview and to be able to speak from the participant’s perspective when communicating with potential participants. It was also a chance for me to tell my own story. The first participant was Lisa Curlee; she is particularly special because she’s a second mother to me. Her involvement came with a huge sense of responsibility I had towards her, my grandmother, my family and future participants. I was just so honoured that she trusted me to know I would treat her words and her portrait delicately. At the end of the shoot, I was relieved that she had great feelings and positive feedback.

All of the stories I hear are painful, but the experience I have with the participants is so much greater than the pain. The wisdom, trust, humour, selflessness and love that is present during the interviews make the experience into something unique and uplifting.

Open dialogue

I don’t believe that we can move forward without open dialogue about what’s happening behind closed doors. So many resources are put into being reactive, which is an absolute necessity, but resources also need to go towards being proactive. Educating young people on healthy behaviours in and out of the romantic context is an important step in breaking the intergenerational cycle of domestic violence.

I try to be mindful about what I attach my time and energy to. Storytelling is an incredibly powerful, ancient tool; it is a form of taking care of and educating those around us. I want to be part of using it for healing and progress, leaving a trail of existence that is meaningful and fulfilling. The project provides both of those things.

I hope that the project can continue to educate, inspire and aid in healing. I would love for the project to have physical permanence somewhere. I am not 100 per cent sure what I want that to look like just yet. I am remaining open about how the project can evolve. Today, I am thankful for proportions of love and fear in my life. Love far surpasses the fear. This is important to me because it fuels creativity and acts as a conductor in all of the exchanges I have.

Unconventional Apology Project

Chantal Barlow has been developing the Unconventional Apology Project since 2014 and is located in Los Angeles, California. The project uses “survivorship storytelling” to share the stories of people who have triumphed over their experience of domestic abuse. For additional information about how the project works and to see more portraits, visit unconventionalapology.com.


If you are experiencing abuse, you know someone who is experiencing abuse or if you are concerned about your own behaviour:
• 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) is a free and confidential national helpline available 24/7.
• Visit au.reachout.com/domestic-violence-support for state and territory-based support services.
• White Ribbon is a worldwide movement of males working to end men’s violence against women. Go online to whiteribbon.org.au for more information on how to find support or how to offer support.


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