Dead but not forgotten: Artist Sarah Honan gives dignity to women lost & unidentified inside the U.S.

Sarah Honan with Lys Anzia – WNN Interviews

Art exhibition of Sarah Honan's work called 'BLINK'
Two women look at a public art show in Waterford City, Ireland created by Irish artist Sarah Honan in an art project called ‘BLINK’ that documents the ‘forgotten women’, the ‘Jane Does’ inside the United States who have lost their life to violence. They have done so as no family member or next of kin has stepped forward to identify them or claim their body. These women who come from a diverse group represent all ages and races who’s death has been one that has garnered little respect inside the U.S. Giving honor and respect to these women is something artist Sarah Honan is dedicated to and now working to accomplish. Image: Hayley K. Stuart with wallpaper and window signs by Suirdzign

(WNN) Waterford City, Ireland, WESTERN EUROPE: No matter how much we might want to know who these women are; who’s art portraits have been captured in an art project called BLINK as a powerful memorial by 19-year-old Irish artist and woman’s advocate Sarah Honan; we may never know the majority of these women’s names. We may also never know the names of their children, their brothers and sisters, their parents, or the names of those they have secretly loved during their lifetime.

Seventeen of these eighteen women hold life stories that to date have stayed a mystery. But all of them have one thing in common. Most have died from violent crimes or situations of hardship causing them to become invisible to society. One woman was found slumped over in a stall in a ladies’ restroom inside a Greyhound Bus Terminal with no identification. Another was found dead as she was discovered by a passing motorist in a cornfield.

This is what Sarah Honan is working to undo. Her special goal is to bring dignity, remembrance and a sense of the individual as ‘real-people’, ‘real-women’ back from what society has unjustly called “the nothings.” And what Sarah strongly in an instinct for human rights calls, “these disposable women.”

“They are the forgotten women,” she outlines as she formally describes her art project BLINK.

“We believe these women deserve better,” she adds. “Each of these 18 Jane Doe’s represent every woman throughout history and across the world who has been stripped of her identity, her potential and her value,” Honan continues.

The women painted by Honan who have died under personal violence have without doubt fallen on hard and unknown circumstances.

“For the first few weeks it was fine, working on one canvas at a time. Then the other 24 [which now publicly is 18] came. And then I sketched each face onto each canvas using charcoal pencil for dark spots so that once paint was applied the sketch would peep through better. Then I hung them all around the room, the size of which meant that these black and white morgue images wallpapered my living space. This was when I realized how daunting my task was,” said Sarah in her diary as she worked day to day on her art project.

While men are most often killed by someone they do not know, women on the other hand are most often fatally attacked by someone they do know, outlines the U.S. Department of Justice. But detailed data statistics on women at the bottom of society commonly do not show up in police crime reports, especially with reports covering crimes committed in urban areas of poverty, high crime and marginalization.

When Scripps Howard reporter Thomas Hargrove worked on an ambitions report to document homicides in America from 1980 to 2008 he discovered that FBI (U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation) records did document 525,742 police homicides, both men and women, inside the U.S. during those 28 years.

These numbers were not a complete or accurate total though. It was only considered by Hargrove at the time to be approximately 93 percent of the total. This was due to police department oversites along with witnesses and/or victims who refused to report the crimes.

“According to the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Report, local police reported that about 33,000 homicides of women remain unsolved,” said Hargrove following his detailed study.

In spite of ongoing controversy a majority of police officers working inside the U.S. today still prefer to use the gender neutral word “homicide” instead of ‘femicide’ to define cases in the murder of women. According to the U.S. based Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) the word femicide is defined globally as “the gender-based murder of women” or “the murder of women because they are women.”

U.S. American author Carol Orlock first used the term with personal plans of writing a book anthology on violence against women. But this project was never begun. Later Sociologist Diana Russell who had heard about Orlock’s use of the term coined it in the public in 1976 when she testified as an expert before the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women in Brussels, Belgium.

As U.S. state and federal law enforcement agencies shy away from formally using the term femicide, experts in the field are now beginning to recognize that domestic violence and fatal violence events against women in all global locations, including the United States, are in fact a form of femicide that cannot be denied.

“One group of women who might be at increased risk of intimate partner femicide are pregnant women, as an examination of police and medical examiner records in 11 U.S. cities showed,” the United Nations agency World Health Organization (WHO) outlined in a November 2012 report.

The tragic experience of all 18 women depicted in Sarah Honan’s art project BLINK includes strong issues of femicide. This is especially true as these cases have gone unsolved along with no individuals, except the sister of 16-year-old Tammy Jo Alexander, have come forward to identify the bodies.

A woman’s gender along with her ethnicity and rank in society has much to do with the amount or intensity of gender-based-violence and danger she can face.

Native American Indian women are on the top of the list of women who now face mortal danger in the U.S. African American women also list high in the number of murdered women across the country. They are followed by ethic, indigenous and immigrant women next. At the bottom of the list are women in the U.S. who are classified as Caucasian.

“According to a 2013 global review of available data, 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. However, some national violence studies show that up to 70 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime from an intimate partner,” outlines a UN Women Fact Sheet covering data on ending violence against women.

But it is the culturally marginalized women, Native American indigenous women, ethnic women, and/or women who live at the very bottom of U.S. society who face the highest rate of de-humanization after they have been murdered or killed, as police reports can be filed without proper documentation.

In her work to research and artistically depict the 18 forgotten women who’s faces were photographed as part of police reports, artist Sarah Honan deeply wants to give dignity to these women. As their bodies laid waiting for identification in criminal agency morgues or cemeteries across the United States, the definition of femicide as mortal violence has become an artistic map that works to save the women for Honan.

In a detailed one-on-one interview with artist Sarah Honan, human rights journalist, founder and executive editor for WNN – Women News Network Lys Anzia asks about the tragedy women face when they become forgotten and what we can do today to “remember” them.

Unidentified/unnamed woman UD1950Morgan
This ‘Jane Doe’, placed in a unidentified file without a name as UD1950Morgan was discovered by an individual while mushroom hunting along U.S. Route 522 on May 10, 1950. She is the woman who has been unidentified the longest in artist Sarah Honan’s current list of women. She also will most likely never be identified. She can be honored and acknowledged now though in our modern time, shares Sarah. Image: S. Honan

Lys Anzia for WNN – Women News Network: The history of women who faced violence but who’s bodies never were claimed shows the graphic and critical marginalization of women who often live and exist at the very bottom of U.S. American society. What made you want to begin your project for BLINK? Tell us how you began with the idea and what happened as you worked on the project.

Sarah Honan:

Thematically, I’ve been interested in feminism and the representation of women in society for years. I’ve always wanted to have a voice in that conversation but I didn’t know whether I had anything new to say.

I always painted for leisure and only ever spent a few hours on portrait but when recovering from an illness I realized that if you find something that you have passion for you don’t lose interest so I became curious to discover whether there was a database for unidentified persons in the U.S. and there was.

After finding over 2,000 case files and hundreds of harrowing faces I knew one portrait would never be enough so rather than a personal endeavor it became a project.

When I found all of these Jane Doe’s and all of these horrific stories that weren’t being discussed I knew that this would be my contribution to the feminist dialogue.

WNN: Your artwork shows such a start and lonely image of these women. How did you come up with the images?

Sarah Honan:

Every woman included in Blink. had a morgue photo attached to her case file. Some may seem exaggerated-even slightly unrealistic-but in reality I was also shocked to discover that death isn’t the same as sleeping.

In death faces change, and features become distorted, especially when violence is involved.

I did not alter what I saw before me and this was a difficult choice to make because I had to ask if this was the way I would choose to be remembered? – Broken and Bruised? And of course it isn’t but my only other choice was to re-imagine the photos and hence the women but rethinking will never be accurate, it cannot be truthful.

I thought imagining a face that these women may never have had would be, in a way, disrespectful. And so, I chose brutal truth rather than retouched imagination.

WNN: Can you share what your process was in getting the coroners reports? Your stark depiction of this brings to us such a reality of the life of women who have too often been forgotten.

Sarah Honan:

As I said, there are over 2,000 public case files but only a few hundred with photos, many are only digital reconstructions. So I sifted through over a hundred usable cases, looking at photos and reading their files.

This may have been the most difficult stage in that it was the first. I felt physically ill for the first few weeks, completely apathetic. Choosing who to include was done on a combination of case file and photo, some photos seemed rather generic in comparison to others whereas their case file was quite detailed and interesting.

Some case files were very perforated but the photo was exceptional.

WNN: In your work it looks like you got to know these ‘Jane Does’ who died in dubious circumstances before their time. Was this an emotional journey for you?

Sarah Honan:

Insanely emotional, there just wasn’t any release.

It also was incredibly private and isolating.

I think that’s why I formed these relationships with the women. When you’re sitting around at a family dinner and everyone is discussing their work this wasn’t the kind of thing that anyone wanted to ask about and I didn’t necessarily want to talk about it for fear of making other people uncomfortable, which is understandable.

But this brutality and violence became a normality for me which is scary. It’s only now, in retrospect and after seeing people’s reactions, that I understand exactly how unhealthy it was. But in living it, I was consumed.

People became worried I wouldn’t finish because I would take breaks that lasted weeks but what they didn’t realize was that I couldn’t do both.

I couldn’t live a normal life and paint these portraits simultaneously. So I would spend weeks at a time painting 14-16 hours a day and having minimal social contact and then go back to normal life again when my energy had been zapped.

woman with case file number M04-02424
This woman with case file number M04-02424, who is estimated to be somewhere between 20 to 30 years old when she was killed, was found with her body wrapped between two parked cars on a New York city street in North Harlem. A quick and cursory listing in the U.S. national list of unidentified women has her race listed as “White,” but she is obviously “Black” and was severely injured before her untimely death. Image: S. Honan

WNN: Do you feel that the art pieces you created worked to liberate their soul in a way? Can you tell us a story here? You’ve mentioned your work for BLINK has been created to stand in the world as a memorial for these women.

Sarah Honan:

Definitely. Well that was my goal anyway. No one would want this to be their legacy but at least it’s some form of a legacy.

It both acts as a kind of funeral for the individual women but also allows their tragic deaths to bring attention to wider issues. I want the portraits to speak both to the individual and to society as a whole.

Many of the women were always enigmas to me, maybe through lack of evidence in their case files I could never get a grasp on who they were or why this may have happened to them.

One homeless woman Jane Doe [who’s death was documented by coroner reports in] Jan 30, 1994 had a strong presence for me from the beginning. This elderly woman was found wearing layers and layers of clothing in a [local] warehouse was [only] known to residents by talking to herself and drinking as they thought she may be mentally ill.

She may have lived the violent lives that the younger girls lived or she may have simply been allowed to fall through the cracks because of a mental illness or alcoholism.

Either way she was nothing to society.

Painting her I felt like it was an apology; apologizing for every homeless person I may have judged in the past as I apologized for society too.

Now when I’m waiting for a checkout in a shop and there’s an elderly person talking to the cashier instead of wishing they’d hurry up I think that this may be the only human contact that person will have today.

WNN: In the BLINK project you’ve mentioned that it is hoped it will give much more attention to the treatment of women within society. So often the United States thinks its own treatment of women has been ‘better’ than other countries, but these true stories and the art that comes from these atrocities against women beg to differ. Do you feel that women living at the bottom of society are much more vulnerable to this kind of violence? And to their being invisible, marginalized and unseen? Tell us more about this.

Sarah Honan:

This is difficult because women in developed countries such as the U.K., U.S. and Ireland are treated better than in the developing world.

But when it comes to female representation in government we are ranked 65th, 84th and 92nd respectively. This is below countries such as South Sudan, China and Iraq.

The problem is that legally we are equal but in the court of public opinion and the media [U.S.] American girls are more exposed to women whose ‘power’ lies in their sexuality and physical appearance than within their intellect.

Girls are far more influenced by pop culture ‘icons’ than Hilary Rodham Clinton or Wendy Davis. Whereas the atrocities women face in the developing world are simply unimaginable for us because they don’t even have legal rights. They are genitally mutilated, trafficked and forced into marriages where rape isn’t a crime. And almost all of this falls within the parameters of the law.

Anyone living at the bottom of society is hugely vulnerable because it all comes down to choice. If a girl’s only two choices are to continue living in an abusive home or to run away and take that risk there is no right choice.

Victimization from childhood leaves young adults knowing no different and therefore more likely to fall into abuse throughout their lives. If you grow up feeling worthless it would take an unimaginable amount of power to find self-worth on your own.

I always think of Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the White House Project, saying “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

I grew up in a loving diverse home and saw women in a variety of roles on television, except [in] politics. Politics never even crossed my mind as a career path. People who grow up in the circle of abuse know nothing else and so they often expect nothing else.

The marginalization and invisibility of these women is not just an issue in the U.S. but a global one.

It is easier to ignore what is happening at home and abroad when it comes to the inequality of genders. Our lives would be easier if we didn’t face up to how society has failed these women and the countless others internationally but it doesn’t make it less real.

We all regret that these horrific things have happened but we also like to think of it as very far removed from ourselves; that what happened to these women could never happen to us; when in reality with the unfortunate culmination of life choices any of us could be any of these Jane Does.

WNN: It takes courage for women, especially women inside the United States, to look at the portraits of these forgotten women. What message would you want to give them today about the work you’ve put together on this important art project with BLINK?

Sarah Honan:

It’s certainly difficult to acknowledge this but in a certain way the U.S. is commendable for having this database because the issues surrounding these women’s deaths are universal but the U.S. is the only country who has database.

The lists of Jane Does from other countries may be far longer. But on an individual basis as American women, yes it does take courage to look at them.

It also takes courage to talk openly and honestly about the project.

Domestic or sexual violence advocacy campaigns generally retouch the issue or address it in a less brutal fashion. Whereas with Blink, although we’re talking about the same thing we’re talking about it in a very explicit way, it takes bravery to admit that whether you like it or not this is reality and you just have to deal with it.

Just because it makes you uncomfortable or is not particularly optimistic does not mean it should be ignored.

I want women to be able to speak freely about the struggles and fears they have about gender issues without being labelled as a man-hater or ‘FemiNazi’.

Unfortunately fear of rape or sexual assault is actually a daily factor in women’s lives that we don’t acknowledge.

We have to think about [this] when walking home, getting a taxi or being alone in a situation with a man we don’t know. And I think that there’s a certain stigma around speaking about these fears yet we are expected to be more aware of our personal safety than men.

I want women to be proud of their feminine voice and remember that we don’t have to conform to the way the world and society have developed, which is around men’s thinking, because they are the ones who have run it throughout the ages.

Difference doesn’t mean inequality.

And so we should remember the women of Blink and all the other Jane Does throughout history as women whose identity and potential has been lost. For their sakes, as well as our own and our children’s, we should embrace everything it is to be a woman and value our gender difference as a badge of honor rather than succumbing to societal pressure.


Outlining the process in the prosecution of crimes against women on the local and international level, former Director of the United States Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women Cindy Dyer has also acted as liaison between the U.S. Department of Justice and Federal, State, and International governments on crimes involving violence against women, Here she addresses all forms of violence against women and the important facts as she outlines what advocates for women, as well as criminal justice staff, must do everywhere to stop the violence. This video is a November 14, 2014 TEDx youtube release.

For more information on this topic:


Irish artist and writer Sarah Honan currently lives in Waterford City, Southern Ireland, UK. Working predominantly by painting portraits in acrylic on canvas Sarah also has a strong flare for textiles. Currently, along with her most recent work on the art project called BLINK, Honan’s work is strongly centered around women, the human rights of women, the feminine and social challenges and needs facing global women today.

Human rights and social justice journalist Lys Anzia is the founder and executive editor of international award-winning WNN – Women News Network. In addition to WNN her written and copyediting work can be seen in The Guardian Development Network, Thomson Reuters Trustlaw, AlertNet, Vital Voices, The Nobel Women’s Initiative, and many other publications.


©2015 WNN – Women News Network
No part of the text in this article release may be used or reproduced in any form without prior permissions from WNN. All other media is copyright of the owner(s) and may not be used or reproduced without their permissions.