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A TV star, a chief inspector: abuse survivors look the world in the eye in remarkable project | Domestic violence

The actor Sam Beckinsale, 55, is perhaps best known for her role as firefighter Kate Stevens in ITV’s long-running series London’s Burning, watched by more than 15 million people. After leaving in 1992, she had roles in numerous television series and stage plays before stepping away from her career. Throughout May, her face will again become familiar to the public as one of a dozen participants in a remarkable project called I Am in Manchester.

I Am is the work of Allie Crewe an acclaimed, award-winning photographer. It grew out of the year she spent as artist in residence at SafeLives, a domestic abuse charity. Beckinsale’s portrait is one of a dozen large-scale photographs taken by Crewe of women and men who have experienced or witnessed family or intimate partner violence (IPV).

They will be displayed at 150 Metrolink stops across Manchester and in the city’s St Peter’s Square as part of the SICK! festival, which examines mental and physical health through the arts.

The portraits convey a mix of fortitude, resilience, vulnerability and strength. A further 33 are displayed online, along with anonymised stories of the participants’ experiences of domestic abuse. This includes sexual, physical, economic, emotional and coercively controlling behaviour. For many of those portrayed, including Beckinsale, this is the first time they have both broken a taboo of silence and shown their faces, as survivors, to the world. Why take the risk?

A woman with her hair in a bun wearing a necklace looks at the camera
One of the 12 portraits in the I Am project that will be on show in Manchester and displayed at 150 Metrolink stops. Photograph: Allie Crewe. Courtesy: SafeLives

“I was lucky enough to have an amazing job and I was mentally and physically healthy,” Beckinsale says. She had discovered at the age of 11 that the actor Richard Beckinsale, star of the TV series Porridge, who died aged 31 in 1979, was her biological father. Her half sister is the actor Kate Beckinsale. “I had been working since I was 15. I bought my first flat at 24. My nickname on London’s Burning was ‘Freehold’ because I bought property, did it up and sold it as an alternative income stream. I had been brought up to be fiercely independent by my mother, who had been a single parent. That’s who I was.”

Then for several years Beckinsale says she was in a coercively controlling relationship. The pattern and the rapid erosion of her sense of self, from “day one”, she now recognises because it is so similar to relationships recounted by others in her domestic abuse support group. “It begins with love-bombing and then it quickly progresses to the point where you find yourself itemising everything that you buy in the supermarket. You are told: ‘If you loved me, you wouldn’t be taking that job or seeing those friends.’

“I didn’t have to be hit, I was so well trained. You are destroyed on every level,” she says. “They push a wholly false narrative to the point that you don’t know which way is up. You may still be walking and talking, but the person you were has been annihilated.

“I’ve been homeless. I have no pension; I’m not mortgageable any more. Security has gone. I’ve lost the skills as an actress I need to keep oiling, and I want to work. I’m not where I could have been but I’m lucky – I’m alive,” she adds. “Many don’t get the chance to begin again.

A portrait of a woman with blond hair and tattoos on her right arm looking at camera
Intimate partner violence (IPV) affected 2.3 million people in England in 2020, of whom 1.6 million were female. Photograph: Allie Crewe. Courtesy: SafeLives

“Even when the cage door is open it’s difficult to step out, but I’m stepping out now by doing this project. Whether there will be a backlash, what the outcome might be, I have no idea. I do feel vulnerable but knowing what I now know about coercive control, if I don’t speak up, my silence is complicit.

“I’m hoping that, through the project, women who believe whatever’s happening to them is all their own fault might think again. They might look at me, and say: ‘If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone. It is happening to me and it’s real.’”

In 2020, IPV affected 2.3 million people in England and Wales – 1.6 million of them female. Three out of four cases of IPV reported to the police result in no further action. Coercive control that leaves no bruises but is part of a process of isolation, mental destabilisation and the dismantling of a partner’s freedom has been an offence since 2015. According to research by the College of Policing, the conviction rate, again, is minuscule.

Beckinsale, along with Chief Inspector Sharon Baker and Crewe, also a survivor of sexual and physical abuse, chose to speak to the Observer to explain why it matters that they are seen and their stories heard.

In 2020, Baker, 43, now professional standards and domestic abuse lead at Avon and Somerset Police, acting without consulting her superiors, made a six-minute video that revealed the five years of coercive control she had experienced a decade before. It was intended for internal police consumption only. When she told her boss what she had done, the initial response was: “Bloody hell! You can’t do that!”

As a result of the video and the attached survey, to Baker’s surprise 138 officers in her force contacted her to say that they too had experienced domestic abuse. That video is now on YouTube, and Baker’s portrait will be displayed in Manchester.

Chief inspector Sharon Baker in a short-sleeved uniform shirt, sits with her hands interlocked near her chin
After Sharon Baker made a video about her story of coercive control, 138 officers contacted her to say that they too had experienced domestic abuse. The video is now on YouTube. Photograph: Allie Crewe. Courtesy: SafeLives

“Six months before I made the video, one of my team had been walking home when she was assaulted by her partner. Police were driving past, saw him battering her and arrested him. I visited her and I was shocked at how she blamed herself. I said: ‘God no, love, no. It’s not you, it’s him. It’s happened to me too.’ We both cried. Later she said it really helped her to think differently about herself.”

Baker explains why she decided to go public with her own experiences. “I hadn’t spoken out before because I didn’t think society or the force were ready to hear that a chief inspector could be a victim. There would have been organisational awkwardness around it. I felt my colleagues would say my job was to keep the public and my staff safe. What would they think if I couldn’t keep myself safe? I felt overwhelming shame and embarrassment.”

When Baker told her partner that the relationship was over, there was an altercation and the police were called. “By the time they arrived, I was a hysterical gibbering wreck while he had dressed and was sitting calmly at the table. I thought: ‘No one’s going to believe me’ – but I was believed.”

A growing group in the force now meet online monthly, committed to accelerating change. The I Am project is the next part of the process. “Those who protect others in senior positions may find it particularly difficult to speak out because they are perceived as strong,” Baker says. She hopes that the photograph of her in uniform, 22 years in the force, on the Manchester metro may help to break that barrier. After the video, she was made domestic abuse lead. She says: “I know the police haven’t got it right. I get that. But I feel now is the moment.

“We’ve realised since the video that our culture in policing wasn’t right for our own staff in our force, so how could we get that right for the public? We are creating a hostile environment internally for perpetrators. If they are scared, they need to be. It’s not good enough for the public and it’s not good enough for you to be part of my team.”

She is married now. “Once you have a healthy relationship, you know what it should be like. When you’ve been at the other end, you feel such gratitude on a daily basis.”

A black woman, with curly hair, hands folded, looks directly at the camera
I Am was developed in partnership with national domestic abuse charity SafeLives and supported by Arts Council England. Photograph: Allie Crewe. Courtesy: SafeLives

Crewe, 54, sees her work as political, feminist, driven by social injustice and the power of transformation. “The men and women in these portraits ask us to confront their gaze, to pay attention to their trauma … A face opens the conversation. We challenge the values of a society that tolerates violence and turns a blind eye.”

Crewe says she was raised in a family in which she was sexually abused by her grandparents and physically abused by her parents. “I was born in 1967. Then, there was no line between a smack on the legs, called discipline, and finding yourself lying on the floor with broken bones. I learned when I was about eight years old that other children were different. You keep the secret of abuse.”

In 2019, Crewe won the British Journal of Photography Portrait of Britain award with the image of Grace, a doctor. What’s remarkable is that while Crewe had always been interested in photography, film and video – working with all three as a media studies teacher – she only became a professional photographer in her 40s, a few years before her win. “I was living a life that wasn’t true to myself. The joy in teaching had gone. I thought: ‘I’ve lived a half life, a careful life, a “don’t fall apart” life.’

“My husband and friends said: ‘You’ve got a safe job, a pension, sick pay – don’t give it up.’ But I’d decided: I want an adventure!”

Crewe’s father died in 2019. “The survivors I photographed made me face my fears. I understood that I needed to forgive, or at least learn how to let go of my pain and anger. I am drawn to these people. My mission is to bring outsiders, other people like me, together to create our own tribe. I want my tribe to refuse to be objectified, to take agency, to confront the viewer. My work is political because it’s about human rights. The right for people to live in freedom, to realise that change is possible. My concern is that, as a society, we turn away from why we tolerate so much violence. It’s that which has to be challenged.”

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