How Not to Illustrate a Story About Rape

What Women Really Think
Oct. 28 2013 8:37 AM

How Not to Illustrate a Story About Rape

women_drinking
A stock photograph

Photo by Kzenon/Shutterstock

Late last week, Jessica Valenti noted a reliably troubling facet of recent media trend stories about rape: It’s not just the way they’re written, but the way they’re illustrated, too. Namely, with images of “young white women partying, sometimes [with] their heads cut out of the picture (for full dehumanization action!).” Valenti has compiled a number of recent examples—from the New York Times, the Daily Mail, and Slatehere.

As a journalist who writes frequently about sexual assault, I’m also concerned about how the photographs chosen to accompany these pieces can come across as click-baity, irrelevant, and even dehumanizing. But I’m short on options. Stock photo companies—which employ models to awkwardly mime normal human behavior—aren’t exactly teeming with tasteful choices. (And what would the ideal Stock Rape Scenario Photo even look like?) News photography subscription services, like Getty Images, offer up thousands of photographs of real people in more normalized situations. But they tend to only carry photographs of suspects, locations, or other relevant images in the most high-profile cases, and then only when the trial is underway. When writing a trend story that doesn’t hinge on a specific case, you can’t just pluck a photograph of identifiable people off of Getty, lest you imply that these unsuspecting folks are themselves victims or perpetrators of rape. So you're often stuck illustrating an ancillary part of the story (like people drinking alcohol) with some awkward photo editing (shots cut off at the neck). See also: Headless Pregnant Woman syndrome.

Advertisement

The obvious solution is for news organizations to invest more in photographers and illustrators who can take original shots or cook up more creative solutions. When I wrote a feature story about a rape case for the Washington City Paper in 2010, I was lucky to have the help of staff photographer Darrow Montgomery, who shot a photo series documenting each element of a rape kit. Jezebel uses photo illustrations for some of its touchiest stories to great effect. But many fast-paced online media organizations don’t have the time or budget to expend in that area, so it’s straight to the airbrushed models and faceless party girls. I agree with Valenti that these images can be misleading to readers and damaging to victims. If an anti-rape organization were to ever direct some resources toward creating a Creative Commons photoset of improved options for illustrating stories like this one, I’d give them a donation.

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore, and Schools Are Getting Worried

The Good Wife Is Cynical, Thrilling, and Grown-Up. It’s Also TV’s Best Drama.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.