Mainly engaged in narrative and documentary photography, Susan Leurs is a Dutch self-taught photographer. As a child, she was a victim of bullying. When she started working in education, it became clear to her that bullying was still a serious issue, so she decided to do something about it.
In 2016, she began taking photographs of and interviewing victims of bullying.
She called this project “PESTEN” (the Dutch word for bullying). More and more people heard about this project and wanted to participate, including bullies themselves. Her work exposes the serious influence bullying has on the lives of the victims. In her own words, “The people I photograph are either bullied or have bullied someone themselves. My goal is to make people think about what they can do to change this bullying behavior. We are ‘civilized’, but apparently we lack the social skills to accept each other as we are. Think about how you can do something in your environment to prevent bullying!”
Just like Susan, I was a victim of bullying for many years. I noticed from a very young age that there was something different about me. Growing in a small village in Portugal 30 years ago, I never felt like I belonged. While my male friends enjoyed playing with cars, I preferred playing with dolls or trying my mother’s clothes and shoes on. And all that felt perfectly fine, until people started pointing the finger at me. Experimenting with my mother’s clothes and playing with dolls was just a phase, but my range of interests always made me stand out.
This became more obvious when I went to school. For being different, I became an easy target for the other kids. Back then there were no discussions about bullying. I’m not even sure that there was a name for it back then. But the fact is that a group of kids repeatedly and intentionally caused me emotional harm.
I remember feeling alone, isolated, and humiliated. And yet I did not tell a single person what was happening to me. The main reason why I decided not to tell anyone about it was because being bullied made me feel extreme shame and embarrassment. I knew I was being bullied because of something that I was very sensitive about: my sexual orientation. To talk about the bullying would require me to highlight what I believed was my “defect.”
The thought of bringing up my “defect” to an adult felt worse than the bullying itself. Also, I was afraid of retaliation.
I feared that reporting my bullies wouldn’t do any good. Instead, I worried that my bullies would only make my life worse. I naively hoped that, if I kept quiet, the bullying would eventually stop. But, because no action was taken, the problem escalated. Suddenly I was not only being bullied because of my sexual orientation anymore, but also because of a nervous tic that caused my eyes to twitch (“Don’t wink at us – they would say – we’re not faggots like you!”), or even just because I was a good student. At this point, I would be bullied for pretty much anything. This started when I was 6 years old, and it continued until I was 18.
Suicidal thoughts went through my mind countless times. I guess I was just too afraid to attempt against my own life. But let’s not forget about all those who can no longer cope with the pressure and feel like suicide is the only way out.
It wasn’t until I came to terms with my sexuality much later that I took away the power that the bullies had over me. Finally, I accepted me as I am and there was nothing else that they could hold against me. I eventually forgave all my bullies, but I will never forget what they put me through. I cannot forget, because even today I must deal with the long-lasting effects that so many years of bullying had on my self-esteem and on my self-confidence.
If it happened now, I would bring the issue to someone’s attention.
In my opinion, we fear what we don’t understand. I believe that by educating people we can help them understand, accept and hopefully recognize the important value of diversity in our society. And if education is not enough, other actions must be taken. It is important that we don’t ignore the issue, because nothing will ever change if we ignore it.
Mine is one of the many stories that victims of bullying shared with Susan Leurs. So far, more than 100 people have posed for Susan and shared their stories with her. Some are victims. Some are repenting bullies. Together we share our very own experiences and try to create a world in which diversity and inclusion are the rule and bullying no longer exists.
Susan Leurs is still looking for more stories. If you were bullied, or if you bullied someone, or if you would like to host this exposition, feel free to contact Susan Leurs directly: https://www.susanleurs.com/contactme.
Let’s remember what Jung once said: “I am not what happened to me. I am what I chose to become.”
(Mister Senior Netherlands 2018 3rd Runner-Up / Winner Public Choice / Winner Best Talent)