About a year ago, when the #MeToo movement was starting to proliferate, Philadelphia-based photographer Rachel Wisniewski noticed a pattern across her social media accounts. Seemingly all of her girlfriends were sharing #MeToo stories, while men were responding with comments that revealed shock at the prevalence of harassment and assault. Women would leave comments, too. Yet, while their tone held sadness, rarely did they voice surprise.
"I noticed a lot of people downplaying their experiences of being a victim and wondering if they should take stock in them, or just shove them away in their memory, and I didn't feel that was right," she said
As a victim of harassment herself, with such memories dating back to middle school, the 24-year-old Wisniewski wondered, how could men be so clueless?
And so she brainstormed ideas of how she could get the men in her life to understand the pervasiveness of sexual assault. Soon after, she launched a project that would be picked up by media outlet Vox, helping her to not only awaken those within her own social circle, but men far and wide. (She'd like to exhibit the photos other places but has no concrete plans.)
>> To check out more photos from the series, visit vox.com.
Wisniewski — who has freelanced for the Inquirer — began photographing survivors of all ages and backgrounds, juxtaposing each portrait with a picture of the individual holding an image of herself at the age she first remembers being assaulted or harassed. Wisniewski hoped the concept would promote instant empathy.
Wisniewski pairs each photo with a caption containing three simple details: the age of the person when the incident happened, the general location, and the relationship the woman had with the perpetrator. In an interview, she told of her intentions and goals for the portrait series.
So what was the final trigger that prompted you to take action through your photo work?
When #MeToo first started to really resurface, it seemed like a tidal wave hit social media. The shock I was seeing among the men made me realize how normalized certain situations of harassment have become. Like, "Oh, I was assaulted at this college party" doesn't come as a surprise to men, but when people were telling stories of instances that happened when they were younger, I saw it prompting responses like, "Oh my God, you were just a kid. How could someone even look at you like that?" I was compelled to make the men in my life realize that both of those situations are common, and neither one should be normalized.
Before I even started taking pictures, I had informal focus groups with men in my life, grabbing a coffee to see where their ignorance lay in this situation. Through many discussions, I came to the conclusion that men have more sympathy for children than grown women. I mean, that's to be expected, because children will need your help more than an adult woman would, but I wanted to provoke more empathy as a whole, so I set out to use youth as a starting base to kindle that.
Kids obviously come across as innocent.
Exactly. If you say, "I was 14, and it was my teacher," there's automatically going to be less questioning from the listener. Show a sweet-looking, middle-school-age girl and it's hard for anyone to look at her and question if she had asked for this.
I was worried that if I primarily showcased scenarios like party environments or a woman harassed on the street by a construction worker, the series wouldn't provoke the empathy needed to get a conversation started. Instead, those situations often elicit questions like, "How much was she drinking?" or "Well, what was she wearing?".
But I presume you want the empathy that you provoke to eventually extend beyond youth and to individuals who become victims as an adult, too.
I'm hoping that this will be a catalyst. By showcasing this first instance or first memory, I want to show that this is something women have been experiencing for as long as they can remember. But it happens at all ages, and given the frequency, we should be shocked by this at any age.
How many women have you photographed so far?
I've photographed 19, all from Philadelphia or the surrounding suburbs. For right now, I'm staying in the area because it's a self-funded project, but I'm hoping eventually I can open it up to anyone, no matter where they live.
And what ages do they span?
I didn't actually ask them their current ages, but I would guess early 20s to early 60s. I'd like to expand outside of that range, but it gets tricky. I want to make sure that everyone knows what they're agreeing to, and with younger individuals there are issues of consent and not wanting to put them in a vulnerable situation. With women who are older, I've noticed that a lot of them are quicker to downplay situations — either refuse it every happened or just don't want to chat about.
How did you find the women within your portraits?
I started out just posting on social media — in my own friend groups and then in some larger groups, like the Fishtown Facebook group. I had some friends share the post. So most of the first 19 subjects are people I personally know, or friends of friends.
Did this create any shocking situations for you — having someone close to you open up about a situation in which you were never aware?
I think that the most surprising person was my mom. I actually got a small grant to work on this project in January of this year, and was scrambling to get the five photos needed to apply for the grant. So I said to my mom, "Hey, I don't know if this ever happened to you, but do you have any memories of being harassed or assaulted?"
She pretty quickly started talking about this teacher she had in middle school who was really creepy and would make comments to her and some of the other girls. For me, this kind of thing has been happening for as long as I can remember, but the first memory that I could recall of being harassed was also when I was in middle school, by my bus driver. Like my mom, I remember questioning if I was reading into it even though I was uncomfortable.
Was it challenging to hear your mom open up about that, and then also share your story with her for the first time?
I think that it was a little bit of a bonding experience — that we've both been through this and we're both surviving after.
It was definitely challenging imagining her in a state of vulnerability, because she's one of the strongest women I know, and she always stands up for what she believes in. But this kind of situation doesn't discriminate, and it was sad to realize that she's not immune to this.
She immediately asked why I didn't share my story with her when it happened. As with a lot of kids, I was nervous and hesitant because I was young and my bus driver was this older authority figure in my life.
Now that the #MeToo movement has progressed in the public eye, have you found it easier to find people who want to share their story?
Women are wanting to open up more about it, but I think that men, unfortunately, are closing off even more. There's this idea that men are at risk of their lives being ruined, like with the Kavanaugh situation. It's hard to admit that you screwed up, so I don't think anyone wants to look back at their past.
I knew this project was going to make men defensive, so that's why I wanted to make the captions as vague as they were — so that men couldn't immediately cast doubt.
Tell me more about the thought process with the simplicity of your captions.
The age of the incident, of course, is very shocking — it's hard to think that someone could do something to a 6-year-old or even a 12-year-old. And then the location makes it relatable — everyone's been in a school gym, everyone's had a teacher, most people have spent the afternoon at a neighbor's house. I wanted to create this idea that the perpetrators aren't people lurking in the shadows. These are everyday people. It helps to emphasize the fact that likely there is someone you know that has either been a perpetrator or a victim.
I also didn't want the women I was photographing to be questioned. They were very brave to come forward with these experiences in the first place, and I didn't want doubt cast upon their stories. There isn't much room to ask questions when the description is kept vague.
And in filling in the blanks, people tend to assume the worst, and I really just wanted to use this series to provoke empathy. As with thriller movies, suspense is often the best tool for creating fear or emotions — seeing the shadow before even seeing the actual monster.
So your hope was for people to imagine the stories for themselves?
I don't think it's necessary for everyone to picture the worst possible situation for these subjects, but I didn't want the viewer to be comparing the different stories and be minimizing anything that happened to these people. That's also why I didn't distinguish between harassment or assault in this project, because I didn't want anyone that I was photographing to think that their story wasn't "bad" enough to be counted. No matter how small it is, it's not right.
So I simply let people use their own imagination to do the work to inspire the empathy.
Would the women often open up and share a larger story with you?
I photographed everyone in their homes. When I showed up, I was very clear that only the three pieces of information would be shared with the public, and while people could share more with me, they didn't need to. Some people seemed really relieved by that, while others definitely delved into details and shared much more.
And so what was that like for you?
I was happy that they felt trust in me, but it has definitely required a lot of self-care as a result on my part to hear all of these things and still be trudging onward. It's a lot of emotional weight, and I don't have a psychology background to know how to deal with it all. Even though it's difficult, it's important that people continue to feel inspired to share what they've went through.