Heartrending Photographs And Stories Of Survivors Of Sexual Assault

by Brenda Pitt

“Imagine if someone erased your personality at age twenty. You have to figure out what kind of person you are without the first twenty years.” Ithaca, NY – 2012

Trigger Warning: This post contains descriptions of rape and sexual assault that may be triggering to survivors. 

After her close friend was raped in college, the photographer Lydia Billings was devastated by the geographical distance between them, and she confronted her own feelings with her camera. She immersed herself in feminist literature and reached out to rape survivors, recording their stories and taking their portraits for a series entitled Trigger Warning. The narratives and images work side-by-side, creating a broad yet intensely personal visual diary of sexual abuse; the words of the survivors themselves inform the artist’s careful renditions with deeper and more complex meanings. 


“The officer asked me if I could describe my rapist. When I told him it was my husband, he dropped his notebook on the table and asked me, ‘Why are you wasting my time?’ They never did anything” “Once we have a place to talk about it, it’s like releasing a poison from inside us.” Rochester, NY- 2013


In addition to giving individual voices and faces to the difficult subject, Billings’s work becomes universalized with the addition of formally shot landscapes displayed alongside brutal tales of rape. Instead of actual sites of abuse, Billings chooses to photograph places where rape could conceivably happen. While none of the locations photographed are reported locations of rape or abuse, familiar locations like a serene body of water, an old house, a school, and a church– all beautifully and expertly shot– are eerily juxtaposed against candid and hard-to-read retellings of actual rapes, reminding us that rape is real, that it can happen to anyone regardless of location, age, race, or gender. 


“A young high school student is excited about his new boyfriend. The two are ridiculed at school, and find it easiest to show affection elsewhere. During lunch period, they often drive to a nearby parking lot to talk and enjoy the view of the town below. Despite conversations about waiting until they’re both ready to start experimenting with sex, the boy’s boyfriend forces him to perform oral sex one afternoon in the car.”


In working with several advocacy groups, Billings hopes to create a safe space to discuss rape. Her images encourage viewers to confront the exceedingly painful topic; heartbreakingly personalized and nuanced, they situate rape with respect to specific individuals and locations, as if to say “this happened, and it happened here.”





“Before it happened, I thought about going to the Peace Corps. I wanted to be somewhere, get somewhere bigger. I wanted to grow.” “Every part of me was altered.” Rochester, NY – 2013


“I understand the importance of speaking out and talking about it, but how do I present it” “If I can’t trust myself, how can other people understand?” Rochester, NY 2013

“A teenage girl, around 15, regularly spends time at her father’s auto shop. She helps with odds and ends, and works her way toward a full-time position. One afternoon, she is invited to share lunch behind the garage with one of the other employees. Partway into their meal, he propositions her for sex. When she refuses, he rapes her anyway.”

“Each afternoon, a young boy waits for his father to pick him up from school. At the end of each week, the boy is treated to an ice cream cone. One Friday, when he is 12, the tradition is broken, and instead of buying ice cream, his father drives to the back of the entrance of the school and molests his son in the car.”

“Though seemingly the home of an accepting and open

community, two members of the clergy in a community church have been reported for

sexual assault on young children. Parents of the children have pressed charges, and are

waiting for court appearances scheduled within the month. Until a verdict is reached,

the clergy continue their regular duties.”


 “A 30-year-old bartender took her usual walking route home

one late night after work. She had never experienced or heard of violence in the

neighborhood, but crossed the street when she sensed someone following her. About two

blocks later, the stranger had caught up and grabbed her by the wrist. She struggled, but

he forced her into the driveway between two homes. After raping her, he left her on the

street. She stumbled the remaining half-block to her apartment and called the police.”

 “On a crisp, summer evening, a teenage girl was kidnapped,

sexually assaulted, and left along the edge of a small river. Her body was found a number

of days later, and her attacker remains unidentified.”

“I’m no longer afraid of what it means to be me. I refuse to let fear turn to regret. I am strong, and will be stronger.” Rochester, NY 2013

“The idea for me is not necessarily to be an example of hope and survival, but to show it’s ok just to talk, and all of that other stuff will come in its own right… if you talk.” Rochester, NY 2013



Thanks to Feature Shoot and Lydia Billings

Images via Feature Shoot and Lydia Billings

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