Shelby Zismann seems older than 17 as she talks about processing the two-year relationship where she experienced emotional abuse.
One of her photos, framed on the wall of student-run Noble Street Gallery at Canyon del Oro High School in Oro Valley, shows a young woman holding a knife, looking at her poised arm, its hand in a fist. Her body is marked off and labeled, like an animal ready for butchering. But the labels brandish words like love, compassion, creativity and thoughtfulness.
"I put so much of myself into this relationship that I really lost myself," she says. "I gave away pieces of myself, but I thought I was compromising."
Complaint Box is an activist art show, put on by CDO's third-year photo class. Zismann's photo series is about the unhealthy romantic relationship she eventually got out of. She's co-president of the photography club, comprised of all the students in the advanced class. Her ex, with whom she experienced the emotional abuse, is her co-president.
When she told her ex that she was doing the photo series on their relationship, it created a dialog that led the other high schooler to look at their actions and work on doing things differently. Her ex also apologized, and it helped Zismann let go.
Photography teacher Lee Street says the teens started brainstorming what to do their projects on by writing down their complaints, whether they be personal or societal. This list ranged from suicide to someone leaving the last swallow in the milk jug.
Street worked with them on their concepts to go beyond the literal and the cliche to using metaphor in their work. A young woman in one of Zismann's photos wraps her arms around a man. The side of her face morphs into thin air, representing the struggle Zismann felt, trying to be supportive while floating away.
About half the class decided on topics that had personally affected them, and others chose issues that affected people they were close to. As they talked about these tough issues, they developed a support system.
"Everyone's got their back," Street said. "Nobody's going to make fun of them."
As the students created compelling art, Street treated them like adults. For a father of a 12-year-old, it's not always easy to talk about domestic abuse or teenage sex, but he said if he talked down to them, they'd sense it, and he'd lose their trust.
"The conversations we have, they're exactly the same conversations I would have with my wife or my friends," he said.
The students' work tackles gun violence, domestic abuse, gender identity, relationships and divorce.
Student Alexis Carter's photos feature a young woman who looks sad and vulnerable, yet fierce. In each photo, she has handprints in different places on her body—her face, neck, back and arms—all places where Carter's aunt hit her before eventually being arrested four years ago.
"When she brought my mom into it, I decided it was enough," Carter says. "It was time to defend myself and the people that I love."
Her aunt was living with them, and Carter hid the frequent abuse, covering up bruises and wounds that would eventually become scars because she felt an allegiance to the relationship with her aunt. Carter says creating the photo series brought her peace and some closure—not complete closure, but it helped. She hopes the series speaks to people with similar experiences.
"People can go through things like that, but they're not alone," Carter says. "They can get through it, be stronger for it and come out on top."
Zismann is documenting everything that goes on in the class as an intern, having already taken the class. She's creating a yearbook-style book of the students holding round tables to conceptualize their ideas and putting together the gallery shows.
She said the other eight students in the class, mostly seniors, chose topics they're passionate enough about to make a statement.
One piece in her series is a photo of her from when she was in the difficult relationship. It's ripped into pieces and placed in a frame. You can see her eyes and her smile, looking torn, like smiling through tears. She says she's no longer that girl. She learned to stand up for herself, to ask for what she wants.
Within the safety of the class, these teens were allowed and encouraged to process their experiences—the pain, injustices and mistakes. And they were not only accepted but applauded for talking about the trials they endured.
"It helped me portray what I was going through," Zismann says. "Putting this out there and letting everybody know this happened to me, I feel lighter."
Check out the students' art at instagram.com/cdo_nsg.