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The Jane Doe Project: Portraits of forgotten women

The Jane Doe Project: Interview with Artist Sarah Honan

The Jane Doe Project: Portraits of forgotten women

anna magnowska

Artist Sarah Honan spoke to PRN about BLINK, her project to memorialise and honour forgotten women whose mortuary photographs she has turned into compelling portraits. These 'Jane Doe's' are from the Unidentified Persons Database, and have often been the victims of abuse and violent death.  

February 14th 1988.

February 14th 1988.

In a modern world where an individual's identity can now be defined by endless selfies, status updates, timelines, tweets and instagrams, the idea of being an 'unidentified person' may appear to some to be an alien concept.  In death we hope not to simply disappear, but to be immortalised through memory, family, legacy - or at least by name to speak of. For some women, however, their fate was to be logged as a 'Jane Doe' alongside a mortuary photograph of their often battered faces, and the date they were found, in the case files of the Unidentified Persons Database

Click on images to enlarge. All images courtesy of Sarah Honan.

Artist Sarah Honan decided to pay homage to some of these forgotten women with a beautiful and haunting collection of portraits which she recently exhibited in Waterford, Ireland. Honan is self-taught and says of herself; "I don't really think of myself as an artist, I just saw something that I felt a very visceral need to respond to and painting happened to be my way of expressing that."  As someone interested in feminism and the representation of women in society, she says the idea to paint the women came to her one night when she was searching for something new to paint that differed from "painting the same beautiful faces over and over."  When she found the Unidentified Persons Database, which holds details on over 2,000 Jane Doe's from within the US, Honan felt she had found her subject. She says; " when I found all of these Jane Doe's and all of these horrific stories that weren't being discussed I knew this would be my contribution to the feminist dialogue."

Sarah Honan outside the BLINK exhibition. 

Sarah Honan outside the BLINK exhibition. 

The paintings have now been seen by tens of thousands of people all over the world, and as result have given these forgotten, mistreated, battered, abused and sometimes murdered women a legacy. Honan says of this; " on a basic level I just wanted these women to be seen, to be given attention and get some recognition that they lived and are not forgotten. I wanted to have a legacy built for them both by taking the time to paint them and by the public taking the time to look at them." To look at them may not be easy, but Sarah's work asks vital questions not only about identity and legacy, but also about how we react to images of death in a society so obsessed with images of the perfect life.