On a November afternoon, I sat in the library, stomach churning. As a fourth year at University of Virginia, I had experienced countless stressful hours there before, pounding out papers and powering through exams, but this nausea was different. Earlier that day, Rolling Stone had released the now-infamous article that described a gang rape at a U. Va. fraternity in unforgettably graphic detail. Around me, the atmosphere had turned bleak. I could sense that the students were reading it, too.
The days that followed carried me on a wave of anger and confusion. Earlier that fall, Hannah Graham’s disappearance had rocked the University community. In the aftermath of Graham’s death, the media revealed that the man accused of murdering her had previously been accused of sexual assault at both Liberty University and Christopher Newport University. As I yelled chants during protests and passed vans sent from CNN and “The Today Show” on my walks to class, I kept turning that detail over in my mind. Although seeing U. Va.’s normally quiet campus erupt into vocal protests felt surreal, the thought that U. Va. might have enabled repeat offenders to live without consequences felt anything but radical.
Within days, members of the faculty and student body had mobilized to respond to the Rolling Stone story. As finals began and we all attempted to finish the semester, my trips to the library took me past a woman who I remembered from U.Va.’s first-ever SlutWalk, where her passionate speech had moved me. Day after day, I saw her waiting patiently in the library, camera and whiteboards poised for action, ready to snap photos of willing participants. A few days later, the photos began surfacing on my Facebook newsfeed. Every time I checked back, the page’s fans had multiplied, from 100 to 1,000 to, now, an audience of over 2,500.
Her name is Lyra Bartell, and she is a woman on a mission. A recent U. Va. grad, Bartell has expanded the scope of her project from an impulse to create a space for dialogue into a global, multilingual effort to reduce the stigma surrounding discussion of sexual violence and offer messages of compassion to survivors and anyone whose life has been affected by sexual violence. Armed with a camera and a compassionate heart, Bartell has met hundreds of people willing to stand in solidarity with survivors by sharing their thoughts and stories.
The photos are powerful. For the most part, participants lock eyes with the camera—and by extension, the viewer. They are also ephemeral pictures, relics of fleeting moments of deep, interpersonal connection. Recently, we talked about Bartell’s plans for growing the project, as well as some of the most memorable encounters she has experienced so far.
LD: What made you decide to embark on this project? When did the idea transform from a spark of inspiration into a living reality?
LB: After I finished reading the Rolling Stone article, “A Rape on Campus,” I spent an hour crying, an hour shaking with rage, and then I jumped in my car and drove to Charlottesville in the middle of the night. I knew I wanted to do something very visual that would remind my many friends at U. Va. who had experienced sexual violence that they were not alone, and I came up with the idea of “I Stand with Survivors” on my drive there. In the morning, I bought a whiteboard and spent the day standing next to a trashcan in the university’s library, inviting people to share their messages and stories, and I just kept doing it everyday until the idea started to spread and people began seeking me out to share their messages.
LD: Any project that assembles participants has a lot of room for unpredictability. What did you expect, and how has that changed over time? What were you most prepared or unprepared for?
LB: I expected to face skepticism and hostility at first, but people have been nothing but supportive. Strangers have brought me coffee, students have stood with me for hours…it’s been beautiful. Well, everyone except reporters, who have this bad habit of shoving microphones in your face and pointedly ask for gruesome details about “your rape” as if they were inquiring about your pet dog. I was also unprepared for the courage and compassion people have consistently demonstrated in sharing their stories in the hope that it might encourage someone else to keep holding on and fighting to recover. Many individuals who did not indicate that they had personally experienced sexual violence on the whiteboard told me their stories in person—stories of unspeakable pain and trauma, but also of healing, hope, and the resolve to survive. Being trusted with all of these stories has been profoundly moving, like being submerged in the ocean of raw human experience that we generally pretend does not exist. It’s been emotionally overwhelming, but also extremely healing.
LD: Survivors are often portrayed as an anonymous population, and many are understandably hesitant to reveal their identities. How does your project address this? What made you decide to pair participants’ thoughts with close up portraits, instead of only selecting quotes, for example?
LB: It’s true—coming forward as a “survivor” in a society where it is still stigmatized to even talk about consensual sex is really difficult, and most people receive a lot of skepticism. It can unfortunately also be very definitive. You are permanently smacked with the “survivor” label, which, granted, is much better than the “rape-victim” label (thanks, CNN, for having the subtlety of a jellyfish). For the record, I would much rather be known as an activist (or maybe just a human?) who has experienced multiple forms of sexual violence instead of being defined by other people’s decisions to not respect my authority over my own body. I want this project to help start opening that door a little more, shedding more light on the spectrum of gender violence that can range from being in a coercive relationship, to being sexually assaulted, to getting groped in a club, to human trafficking. All of these experiences matter, and I wanted to create space for people to talk about them, anonymously or not, without having to feel ashamed or defined by what had happened. I purposefully stand in busy, visible locations and invite people to step forward and share as much or as little as they want. I take portraits because I think the messages are much more powerful when they are connected to a specific person, but I always give people the option of not being in the photo. Almost everyone chooses to be photographed though, and many have told me that participating in the project and using their experience to help others has been very healing for them.
LD: Do any encounters stand out in your memory as particularly surprising, unsettling, inspiring, or thought-provoking?
LB: One afternoon at Alderman library [at U. Va.], a middle-aged man passed by me and noticed the whiteboard with the prompt. His whole demeanor changed and he began to shake. He quickly strode towards me and took the whiteboard in his hands, wrote something that only he could see, and set it back down. As he turned to leave, he nodded towards me; his eyes will never leave my memory, they were so exhausted. I picked up the board and saw the words: “I stand with survivors because my sister didn’t survive.” I kneeled on the floor to photograph it, and I broke down with it in my hands to the point that some strangers came over to hug me. That was one of the defining moments for me that reaffirmed why this project is so important. We each have a responsibility to analyze, challenge, and redefine the parts of our culture that foster a lack of respect for bodily autonomy and that shame survivors into silence and isolation, such as the rigid ideas of masculinity and femininity that foster aggression instead of communication. It is my hope that these images will help disrupt the silence, lessen the stigma around sexual violence and trauma, create space for more people to come forward to receive the support they need, and foster the empathy and understanding that may prevent someone from becoming a perpetrator in the first place.
LD: As you are beginning to travel to other universities in Virginia, are you working toward a larger vision? Your work brings Project Unbreakable to mind. What makes “I Stand With Survivors” similar and different?
LB: My larger vision is simply to reach people who are hurting with messages of love, support, and solidarity, and to help them feel less alone. I am actually going to Buenos Aires in a week and will be continuing this project in cities in South America and specifically in youth hostels since they are such international microcosms. I want to show the globally entrenched nature of gender violence in its different cultural forms, but also show the vast range of people who care deeply about this issue and can relate to these experiences. Project Unbreakable was a strong inspiration for this campaign; it is an incredibly powerful project and it serves an essential role in the healing process in helping survivors bear witness to the moment of trauma and place that shame on the perpetrator instead of internalizing it as their own fault. However, my project differs because it is meant to be a space to bear witness to the reality of sexual violence, but also to individual and community healing, which is why it is inclusive of survivors and supporters.
LD: Is there a way for geographically distant readers to submit their own “I Stand With Survivors” photos?
LB: So glad you asked! This project is meant to be grassroots and people-powered; I am trying to stay as invisible as possible and just provide the platform for others to speak. The growth of the project is going to depend on individuals taking the initiative to continue this work at their universities, clubs, religious institutions, or on the street. You don’t have to be a professional photographer—I’m obviously not—you just need to provide a platform for others to complete the statement “I Stand with Survivors because…” in any language they choose, ask for their consent to post the photo online, and then send the photos to [email protected] Just stay attentive to your own limits, and make sure you show yourself the same empathy and compassion you show others.
To follow Bartell’s project and view the full gallery of photographs, visit “I Stand With Survivors” on Facebook.