Kate Ryan is a New York City–based photojournalist whose work often highlights the personal and emotional stories of humans rights violations around the world, in what she describes as an effort to “humanize the narratives surrounding issues oversimplified in the news and politics.”
One of her most poignant bodies of work is titled Signed, X, and explores the various facets of survival following a sexual assault. For the project, Ryan began interviewing and photographing survivors of sexual assault, collecting their stories so that others might better comprehend the real and lasting trauma that can reside years after the event.
Here, Ryan shares a selection of images and stories from Signed, X, as well as her words on why this project is so deeply personal to her.
Too often, we end the story of assault at the point of injury, but the years that follow are crucial and can be as traumatizing as the assault itself. This is the time when survivors are supported or abandoned by their communities, when physical symptoms of trauma appear, when the clock on the statute of limitations begins to tick.
The ways we survive are not formulaic. There is no one path to a cure or solution. Some people find practices or doctors or communities or medications that help them live full and happy lives. Some do not. And most of us are somewhere in the middle, working through good days and days so bad it is a battle to walk out the door.
I was assaulted almost a decade ago, and it took years to tell anyone. I worried that it would hurt my family, that they would not look at me the same way. And so I shouldered the burden until, at about 24, I could no longer ignore the ways that my trauma was physically and emotionally wrecking my body. This project is incredibly personal in that I am one of its subjects.
I started Signed, X with the intent to turn the camera inward, on my own community, as some of my favorite photographers do. But I had every intention of maintaining a reporter’s distance. My naiveté emboldened me to dive in.
I learned quickly that this project would become more personal with each interview. When you hear that someone has suffered in ways similar to you, or self-harmed similarly, it brings pain and relief. You ache because you know that struggle well, but you also feel less alone. You are not crazy. You are just surviving. As one interviewee said to me, “It’s kind of like being part of a family or a club…like the worst club ever.”
Almost every person I met with, at one point, either said “I know my story isn’t as bad as other people’s” or “I consider myself lucky.” Survivors often spend years hiding their stories and, when they finally do share, they downplay their own pain. It is a double shaming. I saw this recently in Dr. Ford’s testimony after claiming that then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanugh had sexually assaulted her in high school.
A common sentiment among survivors is to not let them see you cry. What would happen if we did just say and show exactly what we were feeling? Would we be labeled hysterical? Would we maintain our jobs and relationships? Survivors spend half their time taking care of the people around them so as not to make them uncomfortable.
For what Dr. Ford had to go through during those hearings, the lack of understanding or refusal to learn about trauma did a huge disservice to the proceedings before they even started. You do not forget who assaulted you. Whether senators believed Dr. Ford or not, the pre-hearing rhetoric that maybe she “mistook” Judge Kavanaugh for someone else belittles survivors and hurts the public discourse.
Toward the end of Dr. Ford’s questioning, the prosecutor, Rachel Mitchell, told Dr. Ford that the best way to talk to someone who claims to have survived sexual assault is to let them share their full story and then to go back and ask questions, not to pepper questions in five-minute segments. This is the format I use when interviewing Signed, X participants. It allows them to access the memories they have (which are rarely linear and fluid) and then to piece it apart.
As for the president’s notion that vengeful and ambitious women come forward with allegations for fame and money — no human being wants the attention that Dr. Ford received. No one wants to be known for being raped.
I’ve spoken to 37 women and men this year. Few of them remember the specific details surrounding the incident, but they remember the visceral moment of someone’s hands down their pants or the feeling of a knee prying their legs open as hands pin their arms. They remember the music that was playing or the smell of cologne or the crack in the ceiling. And they describe the paralyzing fear. Many are foggy about what happened in the hours that followed. And some, myself included, have months of time in the years to follow that are simply gone.
No survivor should be forced to speak before they are ready. So I sent emails and Facebook messages to friends, family, colleagues, teachers and nonprofit and advocacy organizations. I described my process, the option to remain anonymous, and gave my contact information. It was slow going at first. One response a week. But by January word had spread.
Some of the people involved in this project would not have reached out to me before the #MeToo movement, which has truly legitimized the conversation in the public arena and given people a space to talk. I am sure that affected how many people reached out.
I hope the climate also encourages people to listen. I hear people say they didn’t know how widespread it was or that they were shocked to hear someone they knew was assaulted. OK, that’s fine. But now you know. So now you can choose to really listen to and see survivors of sexual violence and what they live through each day. Now you can watch how you joke about boys being boys, because you have no idea what the person next to you is carrying. There’s no more room for ignorance.
Those of us living before the #MeToo movement struggled through such days in isolation, quiet shame, and exhaustion. I hope fellow survivors will see themselves in these stories and realize that their “normal” may be someone else’s “normal,” that what they are experiencing is valid.