PP launch Robyn Harper Sushila Abraham Mayor Sarah Clay

The Pearl Project

The Pearl Project

Photographer Robyn Harper tells us about her pioneering project to empower survivors of abuse


Pictured above: Robyn Harper with Sushila Abraham (Emeritus Mayor for the Royal Borough of Kingston) and Sarah Clay (CEO of Voices of Hope) launching the Pearl Project.

Photographer Robyn Harper joined forces with Kingston based charity ‘Voices of Hope’ and formed ‘The Pearl Project.’ Their aim was to tell women’s stories of abuse through photography.

Nine women were selected from the community to become ‘pearls’ who told their stories and were presented with an award at The Pearl Project Awards Event, where their bravery was celebrated. It is thought that one in three women aged 16- 59 will encounter domestic abuse at some stage, and on average victims experience 50 incidents of abuse before getting help.

Their collaboration has highlighted the plight of several women’s journeys of abuse, and has won them the ‘Outstanding Business Contributions In The Community Award’ at the Kingston Business Awards.

We caught up with Robyn to hear more about this inspirational project.

Where did the idea of merging the ‘photograph with the voice’ come from?
I felt over time that I didn’t want to be just someone who people would pay to take portraits, but that I could be a voice to people and help to broadcast issues where people don’t necessarily have a voice. Stories are powerful and photos with stories are even more powerful.

How did you get into photography?
I’ve always been interested in photography. While I was working in HR for Accenture, I decided to study photography part-time. My job was so busy and I was travelling a lot and after I had my first son 17 years ago, I didn’t want to go back to the ‘big city life’ of commuting and long hours. So I launched my own photography business.

How did the Pearl Project come about?
I was telling my friend Sarah Clay, who is the CEO of the Kingston-based charity called Voices of Hope, about my desire to tell people’s stories through photographs and to be a voice to expose the issues they have faced. She said we should look at how to expose various forms of abuse and expose domestic violence. So we formed the Pearl Project.

Where did the pearl idea come from?
I wanted to do something to with pearls, as pearls are created out of difficulty. They form when a foreign substance, like sand, slips into an oyster and causes irritation. The oyster secretes a fluid to coat the irritant until eventually it forms a pearl. Hence the analogy is that the abuse some women go through can result in the formation of a pearl. Overcoming difficulties can form something beautiful and be a source of hope and inspiration to others.

Was it tricky getting these brave women to speak out?
Telling one’s abuse story is very emotional and can bring lots of memories to the surface. We needed to find people who were ready to tell their stories. But they still needed quite a lot of support in the process.
There was an application and interview process to find the right participants so we knew when we started that these ladies felt strong and ready. They had got to the point where they wanted to raise awareness and help other people.

It was a journey of facing fears, facing the past and facing the future with more processing behind them and more hope in front of them.
All the ladies said how this was a journey of healing for them.

Many of these women have been through so much, yet look so powerful and strong. How did you capture that?
You won’t believe how hard all the ladies found it to have a styling appointment and then a photoshoot! Every insecurity came to the surface. It was a huge obstacle for them to overcome. The fact that they look so powerful and strong is so wonderful for me to see – as they had to feel beautiful, empowered and strong.

In order to do that, they had to feel safe, seen, loved and completely accepted.

For the ladies, the Pearl Project was about overcoming their pain. They all wanted to focus on the hope – rather than being depicted photographically as victims.
It was amazing to see that empowerment.

What did you learn from this experience?
I’m always amazed to learn what seemingly normal everyday people are carrying deep in their hearts. You meet people every day as you go about your daily life, and have no idea of the pain, the stories, the past, the despair that some carry.

Driving home in the snow, having attended carols by candlelight with one of the Pearls who is now a friend, she told me that I must not underestimate the effect the Pearl Project has had. The impact it has on her life was profound, and she is still processing the change that has resulted. She described it as a watershed time in her life. At that moment, I decided that if it was only for her, it was worth it.

What support is there for women in Kingston who are suffering from abuse?
Kingston Women’s Hub is a partnership of local organisations (including the council), and many women who attend have experienced domestic violence, various forms of abuse and/or complex disadvantages. From the safe space that the Hub provides, relationships are forged, trust is built, lives start to heal, restoration and empowerment happens naturally. The beauty of Kingston Women’s Hub is women can access support at any stage and we help move them forward at a pace they can manage according to the difficulties/complexities in their circumstances and/or their capacity.