‘To Shine Through’: Beauty of domestic violence survivors is focus of new photo project


“Conceal to reveal. In life as humans, we face numerous battles that many of us never thought we would see an end to. But those moments in time have created scars that reveal the beauty of self and narrative, allowing you to shine through what had been some of your darkest times. Rock the scars that made you,” says Toya Golden. Photo courtesy of Bryan Thompson

One of the hardest moments in designer Bryan Thompson’s journey was finally admitting what had happened to him.

“The final night was really bad. I remember being hit in the face. And that was one of the scariest things I ever went through. But even more scary than that was releasing that first portrait and telling the story of what happened to me.” 

Last summer, Thompson went back to his favorite place in the world: Provincetown, Massachusetts. The visit was bittersweet, however. Provincetown was the epicenter of pain he endured in a past relationship, where he saw his former partner for who they were. A domestic abuser.

In visiting, he wanted to reclaim a long-lost part of himself and tell his story. Alongside photographer Ben Fink, the duo shot a series of intimate portraits that helped make sense of what was running through Thompson’s heart and soul.

“I allowed myself with the photographer to go there, to that feeling of that night. Being hit. And then feeling those feelings again of it being all my fault. And then also feeling like, ‘No, this isn't my fault. There's a million ways you could have solved this.’” 

Thus, “To Shine Through” was born. The digital project is dedicated to members of the LGBTQ community who have experienced domestic violence, showing their portraits and identifying them by first name. Thompson’s portraits were the first in the series, and as the project’s founder and curator, he aims to chronicle the beauty and light of queer survivors nationwide.

Bryan Thompson is the founder of “To Shine Through.” Photo courtesy of Bryan Thomspon.

“Once I let go, and I let that story be out there, the fear vaporized,” Thompson says. “I hope anybody seeing these portraits … can get to that space, that the scariest thing is your own fear of telling people your story. And once you tell that story, that's where shine comes in. That's where your light comes on.”

“The emotional wounds have taken longer and have been much harder to heal than the physical ones. I had been convinced that the abuse was because they loved me, and over time, I came to believe it. Once I realized the only person who was going to save me was myself, I never looked back. Today I stand in the quiet light of my own strength,” says Shannon, a subject of “To Shine Through.” Photo courtesy of Bryan Thompson

He adds, “You feel your power’s been removed. You feel small. And you feel your light going out,” he explains. “[Art] is about finding that light. I really hope that people see the portraits.”

Since August 2020, the team has photographed at least three dozen subjects and is actively looking for more. Thompson says he’s been overwhelmed by the support the project’s already received. 

It’s even led to a partnership with the Los Angeles LGBT Center to organize a digital and in-person gallery of all the portraits taken so far. An initiative has also been launched to collect donations for survivors of domestic violence. To date, the project has raised more than $5,000 for domestic violence recovery programs at the Center, which is based in West Hollywood.

“To Shine Through” is also collaborating with the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, Michigan to allow student photographers to team up with queer folks in the region to tell their stories.

"We all have the lives we are willing to accept. We can let the words and actions of others tie us down, or choose to rise above the pain and be in charge of our own ropes. In my life, I choose to be a hero. Never a victim,” says Matt. Photo courtesy of Bryan Thompson.

A culture of silence

Domestic violence can be an unspoken truth in the LGBTQ community, says Terra Russell-Slavin, director of policy and community at the LA LGBT Center. 

“So many LGBTQ survivors felt alone. And they felt like this wasn't supposed to happen to them, that they didn't know anyone that this was happening to,” she tells KCRW. “And yet, we know on the service provider side ... that … intimate partner violence within LGBTQ relationships is just as prevalent, and in some cases, even slightly more prevalent for our communities than cisgender heterosexual communities.”

Thompson stresses the importance of reminding survivors that they are not alone. 

“There are no victims in this project,” he says. “Part of why people don't talk about this is [because] they're afraid it will define them. I certainly had that stigma. I've never thought I'd be a part of a voice for domestic violence effort. And yet, here I am, and it doesn't define me.”

Russell-Slavin estimates that between one in three to one in four LGBTQ people will experience intimate partner violence over the course of their lifetime. And up to 60% of bisexual women might be subject to similar violence.

“You have the added hurdles that are created by systemic bias [by] utilizing people's LGBTQ identities. And that includes threats to ‘out’ someone, particularly where people may not feel comfortable if they are not out at work with their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, then they feel uncomfortable. Or they may be kicked out of the house if they're an LGBTQ youth.”

Erica says she hopes “to be seen with love, respect, and dignity.” Photo courtesy of Bryan Thompson.

A journey of healing

Thompson admits his path hasn’t been easy. But he has found a way to reclaim himself — piece by piece — by sharing his story.

“There's a sense of pride that is lost. And I don't mean … boastful pride, but I mean pride in yourself, of self value, that I think gets lost in that moment,” he says. “When you come out of it, there's no anger anymore, vengeance, or desire to see anything bad happen. It's just about stepping away and protecting yourself.”

The project’s name is based on an old saying of Thompson’s grandma: 

“We are not the human beings we live inside of. We are the light that lives inside them eternally. You should shine your light so bright, so that everyone else around you is inspired to shine theirs brighter too. Never dim your light for anyone and never dim anybody else's light. Shine, shine, shine.”

Do you need help? 

Anyone experiencing intimate partner violence or domestic abuse is recommended to reach out to the LA LGBT Center. If it’s an emergency, call 911. 

The 24-hour National Domestic Violence Hotline can also be accessed via text and online chat at 888-799-7233 (SAFE).