Healing Through Art: Photographer Stephanie Teng empowers victims of sexual abuse

Stephanie Teng, a Hong Kong-based photographer in her 20s, has been exploring psychology and human nature through her work for the past four years. In the wake of the #MeToo Movement in 2018, Teng began an intimate portrait series that seeks to support and empower victims of sexual violence by employing photography as a form of therapy.  

“I was frustrated at how little an impact the movement had in Hong Kong. Like many other survivors, I shouldered the weight of my past alone for years. I remember watching as my Facebook page blew up with #MeToo status updates,” recalls Teng.

“It was deeply saddening, yet it empowered me to publicly share my story for the first time, which was the catalyst for my own healing. I wanted to provide that same feeling of solidarity for other women, especially in a city where the stigma around sexual violence is so deeply entrenched in the culture.” I wanted to provide that same feeling of solidarity for other women.

The ongoing project aims to break the cycle of victim-blaming by empowering survivors to step forward and heal from their past. By reaching out to friends, Teng connected with six victims across the span of a few months.

The intimate process began with a meeting where they shared their personal stories of trauma and discussed any turning points in their healing journey. Based on the conversation, Teng identified key phrases or sentiments that would inspire the subsequent photography session.

Lasting anywhere from one to four hours, each session took place in a meaningful setting for the victim. In one image, a woman seems to be wading into the ocean, as though running away from something. In another, a woman is hugging her knees to her chest in a bathtub.

“One of the subjects developed claustrophobia as a result of sexual harassment. She recalled the feeling of wanting to wash away the guilt and disgust of what happened to her,” says Teng.

“So we decided to compose an image in a bathtub because it felt small and confined, symbolising how trapped she felt in her mind. I wanted to create a safe space, where the subjects could be the most honest versions of themselves.” 

Teng says it’s been a cathartic experience – both for herself and the victims. Following the photo session, one woman felt empowered to open up to her younger sister about being sexually harassed and realised they both shared similar experiences but had never confided in each other.

Through this project, I’ve been both a participant and the photographer, both an actor and a viewer

Stephanie Teng

Furthermore, Teng says the choice to work in black and white enables her to focus on the subtleties between light and shadow to evoke emotion. It also serves as a metaphor, as these women are finding their path from darkness to light.

“Through this project, I’ve been both a participant and the photographer, both an actor and a viewer, which has helped me see visual storytelling in a more holistic and interpretative way,” says Teng.

“I hope that this ongoing project can continue to help more people feel less alone and help them let go of a piece of their past in some small way.”