Photographer Interviews

Mary F. Calvert on Photographing Military Sexual Assault Without Adding to Her Subjects’ Suffering

September 18, 2017

By Conor Risch

© Mary F. Calvert

Mary F. Calvert’s photographs of women who survived sexual assault in the military focus on how their lives were changed by the attacks. After meeting her first subject at a Congressional hearing on the topic, Calvert gained the trust of a network of women by being transparent about what she wanted to show.

Women who have suffered sexual assault while serving in the American military have told photographer Mary F. Calvert that the aftermath of sexual trauma is “almost worse” than the incident itself. “This is something that these [victims] live with every minute of every day, it’s one of those dividing lines in a person’s life,” says Calvert, who began working on her award-winning project “The Battle Within: Sexual Assault in America’s Military” in 2013. Women who’ve spoken out about the crimes committed against them have faced retaliation and harassment, they’ve lost their military careers, have seen their trust in other people break down, and their relationships with their children have suffered, Calvert says. Some have committed suicide.

By being honest with the women she’s photographed and inviting them to tell as little or as much of their stories as they feel comfortable with, Calvert has been able to create her project without adding to her subjects’ trauma. In fact, she says, many of the women have told Calvert that speaking with and being photographed by her has been “a kind of therapeutic experience.” She has spent time with them at home, depicting the changes to their daily lives brought about their experiences. She’s photographed the families of women who’ve taken their own lives, and also photographed a woman who is still on active duty, though she was not allowed to photograph her on the base where she’s stationed.

In her career, Calvert has focused on underreported or neglected gender-based human rights stories. She was between projects when her husband told her about the crisis of sexual assault in America’s military. “The numbers were just mind-boggling,” Calvert recalls. In 2012, 3,604 cases of sexual assault were reported. According to a Pentagon study, that number jumped to more than 6,172 cases in 2016, and 14,900 soldiers said in an anonymous survey that they’d experienced sexual assault in some form. The report also said that 58 percent experienced retaliation as a result of reporting the assaults. And the victims were not just women. Calvert says men have approached her asking when she will tell their stories. She won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017 and a Getty Images grant in 2016 to do just that.

Her first photographs for the project were made during Congressional hearings in 2013. One telling photograph from that period depicts a woman, who at 21 was drugged and raped by a recruiter, testifying to an almost empty chamber. After attending several hearings, Calvert asked one of the women if she could photograph her at home. From there she was introduced to others through what she says is a “pretty strong network” among women who’ve come forward to report sexual assault. “A lot of it was just personal introductions from other survivors,” she explains.

When working with trauma victims, Calvert says, it’s important that photographers are upfront about their intentions. “I always had my camera with me, I explained to them that this was a visual project and so I had to show what their lives were like and how this sexual assault impacted their lives. I even said there are times where I am going to be photographing you where you’re looking vulnerable or you’re upset or you’re self-medicating and I can’t tell this story unless I show that.” She told the women she would be “hanging out a lot,” and that they needed to give her the time to tell the story properly. Very few of the women she approached declined, she says.

One of the keys to Calvert’s story was asking the women how their lives had changed since their assaults. If, for instance, a woman told her she no longer slept in a bed because she was raped in bed, then Calvert might photograph where she sleeps. “A lot of times, it’s amazing, the people want to talk so much, they’re so ready to talk,” she says.

Calvert says it was also important to know when to take a break. “It’s kind of a fine line that you’re walking because you want to show the emotion and the trauma and the residual symptoms of military sexual trauma, but if somebody says, ‘I’m really tired and I can’t talk anymore,’ you have to just let them be.”

It’s also important to pay attention to where the pictures are going, Calvert says, since the context in which the pictures are shown can affect how her subjects are perceived. “I feel very, very protective,” she says.

As Calvert has continued the project, she’s become “a known entity” within the community of survivors, and people have reached out to her wanting to tell their stories. The mother of a young woman who’d been raped called Calvert asking what she should do. “I hear from a lot of people like that, and that’s because I know the network now and I know people who can actually offer assistance,” she says, so she’ll make referrals. She also recently got a note from the first woman she photographed for the project. “She said, ‘Thank you so much for showing me that I was not present in my own life and not present in my children’s lives,’” Calvert recalls.

Note: This article is part of a three-part series about photographers portraying trauma without adding to it. Click here to find additional articles from this series.

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