The XX Factor

How Not to Illustrate a Story About Rape

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.

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.