Warning: The following images may be disturbing to some readers!
When we die, every one of us wants to leave some kind of mark on this earth. Whether it be through our children or our accomplishments, we all want to be recognized and remembered.
All over the world however, many men, women and children will never be able to create such a legacy. Many become victims of circumstance, old age or violent crimes, and while some unexplainable deaths may be solved, others remain in limbo.
In the US, the term "John Doe" or "Jane Doe" is used in police investigations when the male or female victim's identity is unknown, thus often rendering the crimes committed against them unsolvable. In particular, there are over 2,000 unidentified women nationwide, whose bodies occupy morgues and mass graves and whose records, even today, remain closed amongst files upon files on other unclaimed persons.
Many of their lives can only be confirmed by the remaining presence of their dead body. Who were these people? Where did they come from? Did they mean something to someone once?
Such unanswered questions are very unsettling in today's societies that seem to know everything about their citizens.
A 19-year-old artist from Ireland named Sarah Honan has taken an interest in these Jane Does, attempting to render them immortal through art in a project called BLINK. Having spent over a year poring over hundreds of records of unidentified woman, each who met their end in a mysterious way, she intends to provide these lost women "with the respect, appreciation, reverence and love any of us would expect after we die."
Sarah paints the women from their morgue photographs, many of which she found on the Unidentified Persons Database. Her collection of 18 acrylic paintings shows one subject from each decade, starting in the '50s.
"I realized how many faces there were to paint"
Many have questioned Sarah as to why she would take part in such a morbid project, to which she replies:
"One night, I was in the middle of painting a woman on death row in the states. I thought of all of the victims of sexual and physical abuse, of women deemed disposable by society and was looking for something new to paint. [...] It was only when I discovered the unidentified persons database that I realized how many faces there were to paint and that one simply wouldn't be enough. One became five and five became ten and ten became twenty."
Sarah came to understand that while information varied from woman to woman, in most cases they had suffered incredibly violent deaths.
For example, the following woman was found naked on the street in an industrial area in New York on February 14, 1988. It appears that her hands and ankles were tied when she died:
"No name, no memories, no legacy"
Sarah was so taken aback by many of the horrific experiences of these woman that she was determined to bring their memories back to life in a gesture of respect. She says:
"I think that everyone deserves some form of legacy and in a way when these women died and went unidentified it was as if their slates had been wiped clean. No name, no memories, no legacy. I thought that once I was aware of this information it would be wrong of me to ignore it."
Very little is known about the victims: How could they have gotten themselves in such perilous situations? Who could have done this to them? Where are their loved ones?
The woman below was found naked inside a metal cabinet left on the sidewalk in the Bronx in March 1988. Her head was "wrapped in duct tape and multiple layers of plastic wrap."
Similarly, this woman was found dead in a motel room in Arkansas in July, 1991. She was wearing a pair of white socks, acid wash blue jeans, a black belt and a white T-shirt:
This victim was found in a bag near the junction of Pelham Parkway and Bronx River Parkway in New York in 1991. Although she is suspected to be between 18 and 30-years-old, it is unclear what her age actually is:
On the other side of the spectrum, this woman was found lying away from an urban area in a field in Maryland in July, 1971:
And, while some died as a result of violence, others perhaps just of old age. This woman was found unresponsive outside 145 West 55th Street in New York in 2010. Nobody knows how and why she died:
This lady was also found slumped in a bathroom in a bus station in Las Vegas. She was around 55-years-old and was wearing a white metal wedding ring. However, as she was not wearing any personal identification, her identity remained unsolved and nobody ever came forward to claim to be her partner:
"I built strange little relationships with the women"
Sarah was very determined to avoid fabricating or re-imagining the lives that these women might have led. She says:
"I didn't want to imagine lives or faces for these women that they never had - I thought this would be disrespectful. So I was brutally honest, I represented exactly what I had before me, no retouching or editing."
Having spent over a year on the project, she also found herself socially isolating herself from others to focus on her work. In doing so, Sarah claims to have built relationships with the women she was painting:
"Relationships is the only word I can put on it, my personal feelings for each show in the paintings but I'd be the only one who would see it. They've completely changed pretty much everything in my life. They completely took me off my pre-designed path but because I knew that what I was doing was right, I didn't take up much of an issue with this. I see the importance of every choice, but also recognize that living in fear of making bad decisions is the fastest way to waste your life."
A depiction of an American female
Sarah's project has delved deep into many issues within society, in particular focusing on the role of gender in history and in our lives.
Ultimately however, her work underlines the fear that many still have of violent and sexual assault. In her eyes, this ranges from daily harassment on the streets, to full-blown grievous bodily harm as shown by the women above. She says:
"For me, [the project] speaks to history. [...] It's about every woman who has been stripped of her potential and identity by a society that didn't allow her to have a voice. And these Jane Does, these absolute epitome of discarded identity come to represent all the women throughout history and around the world have been denied opportunities simply because of their gender."
Hear Sarah speak more about BLINK in her video below:
What do you think of Sarah's attempt to create a legacy for these women?