Rolling Stone got it right. Nothing emerges more clearly from Lyra Bartell's "I Stand with Survivors" project than the simple fact that rape and sexual assault are serious problems at the University of Virginia [UVA] and that the university yet to adequately confront them.
In these portraits -- there are now hundreds of them -- Bartell asked people at UVA to complete the phrase "I/We Stand with Survivors Because..." on a whiteboard and to stand with it in front of her camera. Her goal was to encourage people to show their support for survivors of rape and sexual violence and their opposition to the culture that ignores, dismisses, and, at its worst, condones rape. Over 250 people at UVA have participated. (Bartell, who graduated from UVA in May 2014, has since expanded the project to other universities.)
All photos copyright Lyra Bartell. Click on any image to see a larger version.
"Rolling Stone got it right." That's an odd thing to say. Few if any articles published in the United States this year have received more damning criticism than "A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA".
The article's author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, made several fundamental journalistic mistakes. She focused her attention on a single person -- "Jackie" -- and the brutal gang rape that she said that she had endured at UVA. She didn't fact check "Jackie's" story. She didn't interview "Jackie's" friends or the alleged perpetrators. That is, she let a sensational story get in the way of good reporting. Someone on Twitter called it a "cosmic fail," and that sounds about right to me. (You can read a compelling critique, here.)
Everyone involved has suffered because of Erdely and Rolling Stone's disastrously bad journalism. (We'll never know exactly what happened on the night "Jackie" described to Erdely. I urge you to read a letter from one of "Jackie's" close friends that was published in the Cavalier Daily, UVA's student newspaper, and a Cavalier Daily article, "In retrospect: Jackie's friends re-examine Rolling Stone narrative".)
Erdely and Rolling Stone have also done tremendous damage to the cause of preventing and prosecuting rape and offering support to survivors. People have called the entire article a hoax, using the holes in "Jackie's" story to deny that rape and sexual violence a pressing social concerns -- at UVA and beyond. And that brings me back to "I Stand with Survivors." The women and men in Bartell's hundreds of portraits testify to the truth that was buried under Rolling Stone's incompetence and sensationalism.
Bartell was kind enough to agree to answer a few questions about her project. What follows has been lightly edited for length.
* * *
John Edwin Mason: What motivated you to make an artistic statement about rape and sexual violence at UVA [University of Virginia]?
Lyra Bartell: I began this project about sexual violence at UVA because of the Rolling Stone article. After reading it, I immediately thought of my many friends still at UVA who are survivors of sexual violence. I was also thinking of Jackie, of course, and the horrible retaliatory storm that was bound to unleash because she had the courage to come forward.
I didn't set out to create an "artistic statement." I set out to gather honest expressions of solidarity with survivors. But since I usually equate expressions of raw honesty with "art," I don't separate the two goals.
Most importantly, however, I set out to provide an open, communal space for individuals to express their individual reasons why they loved, supported, and believed survivors -- a living, growing, multi-faceted message of encouragement for survivors.
I wanted to do something simple so that it would be replicable elsewhere, and something that required me to be physically standing somewhere (at least to begin with). My continued presence standing with a whiteboard was a form of peaceful protest and hopefully an encouragement to other survivors.
I also wanted to do something that left space for people to share their individual stories or connection to sexual violence, but that would leave it as an option so survivors could still participate even if they did not want to self-identify as a survivor.
Although all of the media frenzy created by the Rolling Stone article was important in forcing UVA to take action, it also forced survivors to be constantly reminded of events that are often the most traumatic experiences of their lives. I knew that concern for the well-being of survivors on campus in the aftermath of that article was going to be severely neglected. So, I designed this project to create an inclusive platform to encourage survivors and let them see how many people believe them.
A more personal reason is that I also experienced multiple forms and instances of sexual violence while at UVA. Besides a few individuals who cared deeply and supported me through my recovery, I didn't feel that many other people tried to understand what I was experiencing. I suppose it was too uncomfortable to discuss since it involved someone in my friend group, so it was generally just ignored. It left me feeling very alienated though, as if I would never be able to relate to "normal" people again. I'm motivated to do this project out of a deep desire to prevent others from experiencing the same sense of isolation and hopelessness that I felt when I was recovering.
JEM: What inspired you to use photography as a medium?
LB: After I read the article, I spent about two hours painting to calm myself down, then I grabbed my camera and set out to Charlottesville at midnight and came up with the idea of "I Stand with Survivors" on the way there. Photography seemed to be the best medium to use since I wanted to be inclusive of as many diverse voices as possible. I wanted to create something visual, both on social media and in the physical world, something participatory, and something connected to specific people instead of de-contextualized, abstract messages. I also wanted it to be as direct a form of communication as possible from supporters to survivors.
Portrait photography has always been my favorite genre. It allows you to be intimate with a stranger for a brief moment of connection before you both go your separate ways. I was probably inspired to use the whiteboard from both the #WeAreAllUVA campaign and "Project Unbreakable."
JEM: You use the word "peaceful" to describe the project. Am I right to think that you wanted it to be non-confrontational and as inclusive as possible?
LB: Yes, this project wasn't meant to be confrontational. I do think there is a need for actions that may be more controversial, such as the Slut Walk and other protests. I took part in those. However, I wanted to offer a platform for people to speak on a subject that almost everyone agrees about -- that we should support survivors. I wanted to do something that would be healing to the community and remind everyone that the main goal of our activism should be to help survivors. There have been some confrontational messages that I do not filter, but I tried to frame the project to be an open platform for others to speak.
JEM: Have people who participated in I Stand With Survivors said anything about the project to you, beyond the thoughts and emotions that they expressed on the whiteboard? Have you heard any response from people who have simply seen the portraits, on Facebook or elsewhere?
LB: Yes, I've had quite a few people reach out regarding the project. It's all been extremely encouraging. People have written to thank me, saying that they felt such a relief to finally identify as a survivor and to be greeted with support. Others have told me that it was incredibly healing to be able to help others by sharing their stories. Many people have written to say that they scroll through the photos when they're feeling overwhelmed and need a reminder that they're loved and are not alone. Beyond the whiteboards, many people tell me their stories in person, even if they don't write a message that would indicate that they are a survivor.
I was pleasantly surprised, when I went to the University of the University of Mary Washington and Virginia Commonwealth University, that quite a few people came to participate in the project and had already seen the photos online. Really, I haven't had any negative reactions to the project. Everyone has been supportive.
JEM: As you know, Rolling Stone has backed away from many of the claims that it made in its article. Do you worry that people might begin to feel that the entire issue of sexual violence at UVA is a hoax? Is it possible that I Stand With Survivors will take on a new role -- to serve as a witness to the reality of the problem?
LB: To be honest, I was frightened of that at first, as were most other advocates whom I spoke with. However, the vast majority of people believe that something traumatic happened to Jackie regardless of the details. They tend to be angry with Rolling Stone for the way they handled the situation and for their poor journalism. Most people also think that the focus shouldn't be on Jackie's case alone, since there are so many other cases like hers. So, no, I don't believe anyone will think it is a hoax. People may believe it is overblown, but not a hoax.
From the beginning, I was hoping the project would also bear witness to the number of people affected by sexual violence directly and indirectly, both to help survivors and to show the general public how widespread the problem is. I think that's part of the reason that growing the project slowly on social media is so effective. People are connected to the individuals holding the messages and will often write comments of support to their friends in the photos. This personal connection is part of what makes the project so powerful.
I Stand with Survivors' ultimate goal isn't to focus solely on Jackie, UVA, or even college campuses. That's only one part of a large spectrum of gender violence that should be addressed, and I hope to expand it to other areas. I have plans to move to South America, so I'm going to see if I can continue this project there. I'm tentatively planning to photograph in hostels in different South American cities, since they're international microcosms. I'd also like to work with local organizations that are concerned with gender violence and learn how they address the issue.
* * *
Some further reading for those of you who are interested.
UVA President Teresa Sullivan has outlined plans to promote student "safety."
A coalition of UVA student leaders have drafted proposals for preventing rape and sexual assault at the university. They're good.
Ten years ago, The Hook, a local newspaper that has since folded, published an article that should have gotten our attention at UVA. Sadly, "How UVA turns its back on rape" did not.
Rape and sexual violence are not unique to UVA, of course. Jessica Luther's well-reported story on a rape and its aftermath at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga is very much worth reading.
Just the other day, the New York Times Lens Blog, published "Surviving Rape in the Military", about another powerful photography project.
Update, 22 December 2014: Rolling Stone has just announced that it's asked the Columbia Journalism School "to conduct an independent review... of the editorial process that led to the publication of" the story on UVA.
* * *
I welcome your comments about "I Stand with Survivors." I won't post comments that stray into debating larger issues or into incivility. This isn't the place for that.
* * *