Finding My Voice

by Ronni Knepp

I am a part of the Veterans Club here at AAU. It is the only club I’m a part of mainly because it’s the only one that also includes online students. I have somehow found my way into being one of the moderators and “heads” in the club because I’m an alumnus, an online student, and a graduate student. More often then not, I am one of the first to throw up a hand if they need input or help on something that I can still do from long distance. Even though I am no longer active duty military, I miss the camaraderie of it and I find a bit of that within the club. In late September our club president reached out to everyone asking for help. The AAU newspaper wanted to do a special veterans edition for November. He asked for volunteers. This was the first time I said, “I really don’t think I can help, I don’t have much of a story to share.” Other members agreed with me. Honestly, most veterans do not really like all of the focus on them. We don’t feel as if we deserve it or need it. A couple weeks later, in early October, I got contacted by one of the reporters. My name had been brought up and she wanted to interview me for the paper anyway. I gave in and agreed to do an interview over the phone with her the following day. I tossed and turned that night, wondering what, if anything, I could actually SAY about being a veteran at the school. Being online, I don’t really have the privilege of having much of an opinion on “veteran life” at the school. I was nervous that I would even be able to answer her questions or give much input on it in general.

Finally, the call came the following afternoon. We spent an hour on the phone and my story, a very personal one, one I have only ever shared with a handful of people, was going to be published for the entire school and its’ alumni to read. I was nervous. I felt comfortable with the reporter and was confident she would write the article with compassion and sensitivity, but it is still a bit scary to think so many people will know this much about me. While dwelling on the anxiety of the article, I was also fighting with my concept for my thesis. It was not a bad concept, in fact it is still very important to me and I’ll continue working on it outside of my thesis. But it wasn’t enough. I could not find my voice or what I wanted to say for my thesis. My depression and anxiety were hitting rock bottom and my poor therapist and husband felt completely helpless as I continued to struggle my way through each week. Then, two weeks ago I got a phone call from my teacher. She wanted me to focus on a new concept idea and really think of what I wanted to say, and also why I wanted to say it. I was forced to look more deeply into the reason I keep working with PTSD as a concept. It dawned on me the importance was not in how I perceive my situations and surroundings, but on why I was diagnosed with PTSD initially. When it came down to it, I needed to bring awareness to sexual objectification, specifically of women. I needed to be the voice that so many women can’t or don’t have. My story needed to be more than a newspaper article. It needed to be my thesis…

Beyond the Form Thesis Description

Just one month after I was raped while I was in the military, I started my photographic journey at AAU for my AA in Photography. Immediately I was drawn to Formalist photographers and my style developed to mimic their exceptional approach to formal compositions. I had not realized at that time it was my subconscious using photography as a therapeutic necessity to regain the control I had lost. During the BFA, I often found myself working on projects centering around my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), trying to show people how I perceive my world and situations. It was not until more recently that I was forced to sit back and think of why this type of work was so important to me.

After my rape, I was required to go to therapy. I was the only female in my unit and I was instructed not to talk about what happened. My male coworkers consistently harassed me, finding entertainment in triggering me. My military therapist forced me to recount the experience, but I was in uniform and not allowed to show emotions. Eventually, I learned to disassociate myself from the emotional trauma of the assault, repeating the details over and over again as if I was a broken record. I was accused of lying, of initiating it, and even of “being ok” with it. When I could not remember exact details, my therapist rolled her eyes and said I was exaggerating the trauma and that there was “no way she would forget details if it happened to her.” I was even manipulated into not pressing charges against the rapist. Eventually, I just stopped talking about it. After being released from the military, I avoided therapists and never told the whole story even when I did see one… until I found my current therapist.

I still cannot recall the emotions from the rape. I still do not remember specific details. But for once I feel safe talking about it. I can ask questions about my reactions to various triggers, why I am obsessed with formal photographic techniques, and what exactly is happening when I process and compartmentalize other situations that seem much “bigger” then they really are. My photography still leans towards a more formal approach, but even more than showing my experience, I want to help others. The reality of sexual trauma leaving the survivors to feel alone is all too real. Many are told similar things as I was; “don’t talk about it,” “you asked for it,” “it wasn’t as bad as you think,” “you’re lying.” Many women are not in a position to speak out on the topic. And I think it is safe to say that the majority of us feel as if we are only viewed as objects of lust and violence.

My thesis project is not about being a rape victim. It is about harnessing my “gift” to speak on the concept of rape and to show who the survivors really are, who I really am. I am a mother, a sister, a daughter, a wife, a widow, an artist, a student, a veteran, a dreamer… I am more than a sexual object, more than the product of a rape. I am using my voice, both in words and in photographs, to show the world that women are more than our physical appearance. My hope is not only to find self-healing but also to be a voice for many other women who may not have found theirs. Beyond the Form is a fine art photographic project utilizing self-portraiture and still life to make a statement about how women should be viewed. It is an elevated version of “what you think I am versus who I really am.” It will be for women who need the encouragement and support and also for men to realize (and hopefully change) how they view women.

I am a Veteran. I am a Survivor.

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