Social Justice

'I saw my arm melting': Acid attack survivor on hope, making change and new Rankin campaign

Renowned photographer Rankin, who recently shot a 75th birthday portrait of King Charles exclusively for the cover of The Big Issue, has launched a new campaign. His star Patricia Lefranc shares her story

Acid attack survivor

Patricia Lefranc holding a photograph of herself before the attack. Image: Rankin/ McCann Health London

Patricia Lefranc remembers the doorbell ringing on 1 December, 2009. A man was stood at the door. He said he had a package for her. As she opened the door, her attacker immediately threw liquid over her and she fell to the ground. It was an acid attack.

The man came towards her, shook her all over the place and kicked her. She says: “I saw more was coming and I pressed the elevator button but then I changed my mind. I wanted to try to look for help outside and I crawled on my arms. And then I saw my right arm melting like a soluble aspirin tablet and there my attacker was in front of me again.

“He grabs me by my long hair, wraps it around his wrist and blocks my legs. He lifts my face and throws this liquid at me again.”

Lefranc managed to get outside and find help. She was conscious when in the ambulance and when she was in hospital she learnt that her attacker – a man who she knew and had been in relationship with – had thrown sulphuric acid over her.

She was in a coma for three months, remained hospitalised for nine months and had to learn how to live again. Her attacker was tried and sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Patricia Lefranc had to go on a journey to accepting herself after the attack. Image: Rankin/ McCann Health London

Lefranc, who is now 59 and based in Belgium, is now starring in a new campaign by acclaimed photographer Rankin in collaboration with Acid Survivors Trust International (ASTI).

ASTI has found that 710 acid attacks were recorded in England and Wales last year, compared to 421 in 2021. The total economic cost of all the attacks to UK society in 2022 was more than £44million.

Rankin has created a Look Book, typically a guide to latest styles and fabrics, with Lefranc as his model. The Tear Couture Look Book aims to highlight the role the fashion industry plays in the ongoing fight against acid attacks.

“Corrosive substances are routinely used in the dyeing, printing and finishing in fashion industry,”  says Phil Patterson, managing director at Colour Connections, who has been working at the intersection between the textile industry and influential retail brands for more than 20 years.

“There is a significant opportunity to improve how they are transported, stored, dispensed and handled within factories to both reduce the risk of injury to workers and to reduce access to those substances that could be used in premeditated acid attacks.”

Acid attacks cause instant damage, disfigurement, pain and long-lasting medical complications for victims like Lefranc.

Lefranc has supported ASTI in previous work and immediately said yes to taking part in this new campaign. Image: Rankin/ McCann Health London

“My life took another turn,” she says. “It took me time to accept myself and ask myself the right questions about what to do now.”

But then Lefranc found a real purpose in campaigning for other survivors. Lefranc was invited to events across Europe, spoke on TV, helped future doctors and psychologists write their dissertations, gave conferences on women’s violence and participated in a documentary film which toured the world and received awards.

“It was unthinkable for this to have happened in Europe and people were certain that my attacker was Muslim,” she says. “This made me angry because I found their sentence inappropriate and above all cliché. I replied to them that the fact of having been attacked with acid had nothing to do with religion or a country. My attacker was Catholic and Belgian.”

Lefranc wants the fashion industry to be more careful with its use of acid – and to put the products on labels. Image: Image: Rankin/ McCann Health London

She also wrote a book Vitriolée!, which helped her process her attack. And she has worked closely with Jaf Shah, the executive director of ASTI, to keep on raising awareness, which is how the new campaign with Rankin came about.

“I always answer yes to Jaf from ASTI,” Lefranc says. “He always does extraordinary work and through his actions and the things he does. It helps people around the world who have been attacked by sulphuric acid. The idea being photographed by Rankin, I immediately said it will have an incredible impact.”

Rankin said something that Lefranc will never forget. He said: “Patricia, when I photograph you look through my eyes as if you were looking behind a window.” She found this to be a “magical phrase” and she was immediately put at ease. And she knew that it would be going towards helping other acid attack survivors across the world.

Speaking about why the campaign is important, Rankin says: “Acid attacks are so linked to the fashion industry and the way we produce textiles and I think it is important as a photography campaign because Patricia Lefranc’s story is one that people should hear.

“She is a victim of an acid attack and has gone on to become a campaigner and I think that her story is very empowering really to other people who may have suffered in the same way that she has and I think that she is very brave. She showed me things, parts of her body (injuries), in these photos that she has never done before and I am humbled to get to take her photograph.”

Lefranc alongside acclaimed photographer Rankin. Image: Rankin/ McCann Health London

Rankin has had an esteemed career photographing some of the world’s most famous faces. He recently shot a 75th birthday portrait of King Charles exclusively for the cover of The Big Issue. But Lefranc stood out to him as special.

He added: “I am really impressed by Patricia. She is one of the most amazing people I have ever photographed and I have photographed a lot of people. I wanted to show through the photographs what an acid attack really looks like. People tend to turn away from pictures of people that have gone through this awful situation and I also wanted to show the extent of the attack.

“I have learnt that resilience and being able to go through something like that and then to be able to turn it around and into something that you campaign against, and trying to get people to talk about it is beyond any bravery I have seen. So I have learnt to be humble and to feel very lucky that neither myself or anyone I know has had to go through this and that the fashion industry needs to take some responsibility for these incidents and how they are linked.”

There is hope that campaigns like this will raise awareness and put pressure on the fashion industry to change.

Shah adds: “The textiles industry has grown enormously over the years, providing valuable working opportunities for millions of people across the world, especially so in the global south. With its enormous global footprint, it has the resources to help prevent such devastating acts of violence. All that is needed is the will.”

Lefranc had power to choose which pictures would be published. Rankin scrolled through all the photos and she had the final decision on the ones which would be in the book.

Lefranc says: “My internal emotions are quite mixed, because seeing me also reminded me of the day of that someone tried to attempt to assassinate me, it passed quickly because I thought directly of the good cause the book would do.

“Above all, it will, I am sure, remind other victims that they not alone, that we are all together and that we are all extraordinary, because despite what happened to us, we are all here, standing and alive and that each of us can do something to make change. It is by taking small steps that we can change things.”

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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