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 still is a serious issue, and 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 her 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!”
Susan’s initiative spoke directly to me. Just like Susan, I was a victim of bullying as a child. 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 or like there was a place for me. I always felt like an outcast. While my male friends enjoyed playing with cars, I preferred playing with dolls. While my male friends played soccer, I preferred trying my mother’s clothes and shoes on. And all that felt perfectly fine, until people started pointing the finger at me and telling me that this kind of conduct was not appropriate for little boys. It turned out that the experimenting with my mother’s clothes and playing with dolls was just a phase, but it was a fact that I still stood out when it came to my range of interests. And 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. As far as I know, there was not even a name for it. But the fact is that a group of kids with more power repeatedly and intentionally caused me emotional harm. I remember feeling alone, isolated, and humiliated. I remember feeling powerless and weak. 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 intense 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. On top of that, 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 end. 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 gay like you!”), or even just because I was a good student. At this point, I would be bullied for pretty much anything. It is important to mention that it started when I was 6 years old, and that it continued until I was 18. I cannot count the times that suicidal thoughts went through my mind. 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 today, I would bring it 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.
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.
(Mister Senior Netherlands 2018 3rd Runner-Up / Winner Public Choice / Winner Best Talent)
Written by: Miguel Martins (Mister Senior Netherlands 2018 3rd Runner-Up / Winner Public Choice / Winner Best Talent)
Cover image: Susan Leurs