Fort Ord : Beauty

A Photographic Exploration of Modern Femininity

An Interview with Somy Ali, Founder of No More Tears

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Logan Norton: I want to start by hearing a little bit about your history. You were born in Pakistan, what are your early childhood memories of the time you spent there like? 

Somy Ali: I was born in Karachi, Pakistan and my first vivid memory is of my father, a well-known movie director/producer working with actors and models in our home film studio.

I was terribly fond of my father and remember being sad because he was always working late hours. Unfortunately, the only time I would see him is when my parents were arguing over something or another. The arguments would lead to severe violence, which my brother and I were exposed to at a very young age. These incidents took place at least once or twice a week. My brother and I bore the brunt of our mom being abused as she would then abuse us physically and verbally. We were too young to understand what was going on and the fact that our upbringing was far from normal. 

In addition to verbal and physical abuse, we suffered sexual abuse by a housekeeper when we were between the ages of 4-8. However, in spite of all the terrible circumstances, as adults we feel that things still could have been worse. I am also certain that No More Tears is a result of what I experienced as a child. 

LN: You moved to the US at the age of 12, what was that transition like? Did your family move with you? 

SA: Initially, I moved from Pakistan to Miami, FL to live with my half-sister, Hina, she was 19 at the time. She took care of me for a few years until my mom and my younger brother moved to America.

The transition was extremely difficult as I was bullied and picked on by many in school due to my strong Pakistani accent. In order to fit in, I took to drugs and a toxic group of friends. At 13, I was brutally raped and beaten by a 17-year-old boy that told me he was in love with me. Following this incident, I fell into severe depression and found a new set of friends and new drugs. Things got so bad that at 15, I decided to leave the U.S. to get away from it all.

LN: You later made a move to India that lasted for eight years, tell us a little about that time and what prompted you to return to the US. 

SA: In order to escape my troubled teenage life in the U.S., I made up my mind to pursue a crush I had on an Indian actor. The crush prompted me to move to Bombay city to find him and I ended up attaining a career in the Bollywood film industry. My career and relationship with the actor lasted eight years, however, after the breakup, I decided to move back to U.S. to focus on my education.

LN: When you returned to the US you completed degrees in psychology and journalism. Did you know at that point that you wanted to work with women who had suffered abuses? Was that always something that you felt drawn to?

SA: I definitely did not have any concrete plans to start a non-profit, but I knew that I wanted to help women and children that were sexually and physically abused. It was after graduating from college and working on a short film about a rape victim from Pakistan, Mukhtaran Mai, I decided to register No More Tears (NMT). I was trying to figure out an exact mission for my organization in October of 2006, when a woman residing in my neighborhood knocked on my door asking for help. She was originally from Bangladesh and was a victim of severe physical abuse. Thus, NMT’s mission literally knocked on my door. In November of 2006, NMT was approved as a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization with a mission to rescue victims of domestic violence as well as human trafficking.

LN: How, if at all, has that mission changed over the years? 

SA: The goals remain the same, rescue and empower. The resources have increased in terms of our service providers. I did not want any victim to be placed on a waiting list so I knocked on the doors of private attorneys, doctors, psychologists, and numerous others that would aid in empowering a victim of sexual and physical violence. It is because of all of these service providers that agreed to work with NMT, we have been able to rescue 407 adult victims and 1002 children. NMT offers everything you can possibly think of from legal help, medical assistance, jobs, driving lessons, basic needs, housing, and education. The first victim we rescued graduated with a Ph. D in pharmacy from the same university I obtained my bachelor’s degree. We believe in teaching them how to fish, not giving them handouts or a temporary fix.

LN: Tell us a little more about what No More Tears is doing today? 

SA: NMT continues to do the same as it has been doing since the first rescue in 2008.  There is a significant demand to assist domestic violence victims and unfortunately, this isn’t an issue that will be eradicated with time. We continue to help as many victims as we possibly can, considering our constant struggle with funding.

LN: I am not surprised to hear you say that funding is a constant struggle for the organization. How does that affect the operation of NMT?

SA: Our biggest issue is that of funding as we lose donations and grants to big non-profits that have the professional decorum. We, on the other hand, do not believe in the necessity of an office or staff. Since NMT provides transportation to victims, we are 99 percent of the time on the road. It doesn’t make sense to pay rent for an office space while that money can save another life.

All our donations go directly towards the victims’ services programs. I do not take a salary as the founder and president and we solely run via the aid of volunteers, board members and supporters. While we aren’t that young, we believe in operating in a grassroots manner, this is the only model that has worked for us, in spite of its uniqueness and unconventionality.

We also face the issue of victim blaming, as people are unable to ascertain why a victim can’t just walk out of an abusive situation. There are numerous obstacles for an abused woman, man or child. Many victims we work with are brought to the U.S. from various countries around the world. They can barely speak the language and they do not have any financial means to support themselves. Their abusers are their controllers. Thus, a typical abuser will not file papers for the victim, keeping them undocumented and unable to work. In many instances, the victims are afraid to get deported and lose their children that are born in the U.S.

In certain cultures, the families do not want them back home as there is a strong stigma attached to divorce. There is also a realistic fear of being murdered if the victim decides to leave the abuser. We have far too many reasons why a victim can’t leave rather than why they can’t just walk out. However, many are unawares of the intricacies in being in an abusive relationship, thus reluctant to donate.

LN: Somy, I want to thank you for sharing your story with us and for all that you do to help these victims. I am excited to be partnering with No More Tears on the Fort Ord Beauty project and I hope that it will be a useful tool for raising awareness and money for the fantastic work that you are doing. Thank you so much for your time.

SA: Thank you








A Welcome from Logan

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Hello Everyone,
First off let me thank you for checking out the blog. Make sure you click through the website and see what this Fort Ord : Beauty project is all about. I want to give a little background on how this project came to be, where it is at currently and where it is headed but before I do that let me introduce myself.

I was born in Grand Rapids, MI where I lived until 2008 when I moved to Monterey, CA. Before this move my only experience with photography was the occasional snap shot at a party or family picture. As I began to spend more time hiking and exploring the beautiful coastlines around Monterey, Santa Cruz and Big Sur I decided to buy a camera so my friends and family back in Michigan could see the amazing places I was going while they endured the horrors of winter. It took very little time for me to become completely enamored with the entire photographic process. In many ways, photography became a way for me to deal with the loneliness of having moved all the way across the country to a town heavily populated by retirement age people and short on social activities. I threw myself into photography in a way that I had done with very few other things in my life. It was an escape, an inspiration to get myself up, out of the house and into the beautiful nature that surrounded me.

My early photography was almost exclusively still life and landscape work that incorporated very little, if any, human elements. As my interests progressed I began to recognize that I was drawn to human images in a way I had never recognized. In many ways I think it was my background in social science, combined with my own extremely social personality that led me to take such an interest in capturing the human form. I began looking for interesting people around me to photograph and started studying the portraiture of both historical greats and the current generation of creatives. I tried to understand what it meant to actually capture the essence of a person. I wanted to find ways to create artistic images that didn't involve heavy levels of manipulation but instead presented an authentic expression of the uniqueness of each person photographed.

As part of this process, I did a shoot at an abandoned tank garage on the old Fort Ord Military base in Marina, CA. The building was an absolutely incredible backdrop filed with natural light from a wall of windows and covered with graffiti. The floors were littered with things left behind by the military and things brought in by others over the nearly 20 years since the base closed in 1994. The images from this session stood out to me as having a little something special that seemed to be missing in many of the other portraits I had done.

An image from that first Fort Ord Beauty shoot.

An image from that first Fort Ord Beauty shoot.

Three weeks after this first Fort Ord shoot, I was in the area and decided to drive by this fantastic building. I was shocked to find that it had been torn down. This was the moment the Fort Ord Beauty project was born. I was struck by the finiteness of this unique landscape and all of the great image opportunities it presented. I knew I had to shoot as much as I possibly could in the locations that remained.

I started with the idea that I would represent femininity by featuring models wearing soft, flowing material with light, neutral colors set against the rough backdrop of the abandoned spaces. After a few shoots following this theme I realized how limiting this stereotypical approach to femininity truly was. I was asking women to represent femininity in ways that didn't coincide with their own experience of it. I was subjecting them to a gender profile that was not representative of each of them individually.

Having come to this realization, I knew what the focus of the Fort Ord Beauty project would be; the aim is to create an exploration of femininity in all of it's variety, diversity and uniqueness. I expanded my reach to include women of all ages, sizes, ethnicity and social backgrounds. I now ask each one of the subjects to choose wardrobe options that they feel most accurately represents their own personal form of femininity, their own style. Many of the women have told me that they found this both difficult and enlightening as it forced them to consciously assess how they relate to the concept of femininity.

So where does the project stand today? As of yesterday I have photographed 38 women of the project goal 100. I have a very busy couple of months ahead of me but I am really enjoying this project. I want to thank all of the amazing women who have participated thus far. One of the most interesting parts for me has been meeting people from different backgrounds, hearing their stories and getting their perspectives on femininity.

Thank you for checking the project out. Make sure you go look at the amazing work the team at No More Tears is doing! You will be hearing more about them very soon on this blog.

Also check out Little Film Lab and all of the fantastic services they offer photographers. Without their partnership I would never be able to make this project nearly as beautiful.