“People have a lot more compassion for children than they do for grown women.”
This is what Rachel Wisniewski had in mind when she began photographing people victimized by sexual misconduct. Inspired by the Harvey Weinstein rape allegations that exploded into the national consciousness a year ago, Wisniewski, who is 24 years old and based in Philadelphia, documented survivors outside of the high-profile Hollywood cases.
For Wisniewski, #MeToo was an opportunity to document the millions of stories of sexual misconduct that go unreported and unnoticed by the media. She chose to photograph each participant in two ways: first, a current portrait of the survivor, and second, an image of them holding a photograph of themselves at the age when they were assaulted. The pairing is an attempt to jar viewers into feeling empathy.
12 years old. My house. A family friend.
Along with portraits of each survivor, she collected just three pieces of information about each person: their age when it happened, the location where it happened, and the relationship they had with the perpetrator.
The sparseness of their stories differs from many of the highly explicit accusations that have emerged from the national #MeToo movement. Wisniewski says this was a crucial difference: “In good horror movies, the scariest scenes are not when you are actually seeing the monster, but the suspense of seeing the shadow or the sound of it, and filling in the blanks with your own mind,” she said.
The lack of detail also protected each person from the questioning and skepticism so common when stories of sexual assault are told. “As much trust as they were giving me by telling me their stories, I wanted the audience to give them that trust back,” Wisniewski says.
21 years old. My date’s house. My brother’s friend.
That trust is often broken when survivors tell their stories in real life. When Wisniewski told her own story of assault to a close female friend, she found herself defending against the claim that what happened to her wasn’t “bad enough” to count. By removing the details of each experience, Wisniewski hopes that both male and female viewers of her photographs will remove any assumptions of the “correct” assault or harassment experience and simply empathize with the survivor.
She has traveled around the greater Philadelphia area and has photographed 19 participants so far, including herself and her mother. Their inclusion wasn’t planned at first, but as Wisniewski went further into this project, her conversations with her mother eventually delved into their own trauma. The fact that they had both had these experiences showed Wisniewski how common assault and harassment really is — especially when perpetrated by someone with a close relationship to the victim.
12 years old. A bus. The driver.
13 years old. My school. My teacher.
Ultimately, Wisniewski wants the photographs to speak to the complicated relationship between trauma and memory. “Trauma is stored in your body for years,” she said, referencing the book The Body Keeps The Score by psychologist Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, which inspired her project. “It can affect your mental state, your body, the way you view yourself and inform yourself. It speaks to how important it is to try and interrupt this cycle of systemic trauma in the forms of harassment and assault.”
11 years old. A family member’s house. A family member.
6 years old. My neighbor’s house. My neighbor’s son.
11 years old. A family vacation. A town local.
19 years old. A party. A stranger.
13 years old. High school parking lot. My teacher.
19 years old. A party. My classmate.
14 years old. The school gym. My classmate.
Rachel Wisniewski is a documentary photographer based in Philadelphia. Beyond photography, she is passionate about volunteering, traveling, and food. You can see more of her work here and here.