"Well, What Were You Wearing?" is a photo series capturing the clothes survivors were wearing when they were sexually assaulted. The mission? To prove that what a person is wearing has NOTHING to do with why they were assaulted. As creator, Kat Cambareri, says in the artist statement accompanying the photos, "Sexual assault is an act of control and power." Luckily for us, Kat squeezed in a minute between finals to talk with Break the Cycle this Sexual Assault Awareness Month about her thesis project.
To start her project, Kat utilized social media to find participants among her peers and their networks. Her ask was direct: she needed volunteers to model in the clothes they were wearing when sexually assaulted. Though many people only identify rape and molestation as sexual assault, the Department of Justice's definition is "any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient1." After posting the call for participants on Facebook, Kat received private messages from acquaintances wanting to learn more and offering to be a part of the photo series. The respondents ended up being all college-age females, but there was never a target group in mind. Additionally, the volunteers wished to remain anonymous so Kat's original plan to have survivors model in their clothes morphed into something different, but equally poignant - photographing just the clothes against a black background. On the experience Kat remarks, "It's something pretty powerful. It's so easy to hold the clothing, and put myself in someone else's shoes."
A photography major, Kat has been drawn to capturing the composition of a moment with a lens in her hand since she was in middle school. During her sophomore year of college, she became increasingly interested in women's health issues, influencing her to add a minor in global public health. From these interests and a book recommendation from a friend, Kat's thesis was born. While reading Missoula by Jon Krakauer - a novel detailing the handling of sexual assault at the University of Montana - Kat learned of the staggering number of people who report sexual assault on college campuses...and the larger number of those who don't. In a study done by the Association of American Universities, almost 12% of all students experience some form of nonconsensual sexual contact in their first year at university, with that number being even higher for females - 23%2. Other studies have shown time and time again the obstacles sexual assault (SA) survivors face when disclosing and reporting, such as the fear of reprisal3,4 or facing victim blaming questions such as the ones seen in this survivor's story, or the question that inspired Kat's thesis: "What were you wearing?" Using her camera to bring these issues to light was common sense, "Artists have a lot of power in raising awareness. Sometimes I think people forget or ignore statistics, but visuals have a longer lasting effect."
When Kat posted her idea on social media, some people wondered if she was asking too much of the survivors by asking them to relive traumatic memories. These were valid questions; For some SA survivors, the experience could be triggering, and it's important to note that that's okay! Those in the project felt like this was a chance to tell their side of the story, and sharing made them feel empowered. Working with these survivors gave Kat more than she had imagined:
"I feel like I have a special connection with each of the volunteers because by participating, they're trusting me with the fact that they have been sexually assaulted. They're trusting me to use their clothing in a positive way. Everyone that's participated so far has been an acquaintance of mine and that goes to show what a large problem this is. As a person, it makes me realize that so much needs to be done in terms of prevention; we need to stop stereotyping and surrounding sexual assault with so many stigmas."
Her work in sexual assault prevention doesn't end after this year's exhibition. Kat is interested in expanding this project after graduation to include people who live farther distances from her. She hopes to represent all who face sexual assault, including males. If you are interested in viewing the photo series in person, "Well, What Were You Wearing?" will be displayed at Arcadia University from April 29, 2016 until May 19, 2016. Kat hopes that viewers leave feeling uncomfortable because "strong feelings breed action." Additionally she hopes that she is able to "break at least one stereotype surrounding sexual assault, and inspire others to make positive changes and get talking about this issue." We believe in you, Kat! Thank you for bringing this important issue to light in your college community, and offering an authentic, moving platform for SA survivors to speak without words.
3Sinozich, S., Langton, L., (2014). Rape and Sexual Assault Victimization Among College-Age Females, 1995–2013. U.S. Department of Justice, 1-19.
4The National Crime Victimization Survey (2013)