The images are grim.
College-aged women are pressed against glass panes, thrown into the corners of elevators, or laying face down in the grass. Above them, their tormentors look down on them, preparing to engage in an unspeakable act. In one picture a woman grasps desperately for a button in the elevator while her assailant lies on top of her, pinning her to the ground.
The images are staged, but their message breaks through into reality.
The pictures are part of a photography exhibit put together by ETSU senior Melissa Courtney that showcases the dehumanizing nature of sexual assault and highlight a relatively common problem on college campuses.
The title of Courtney’s show, “1:5, A Visual Voice,” is a reference to a commonly cited statistic that indicates about one in five female students are victims of sexual assault or misconduct during their college education. The exhibit ran from Nov. 22 to Nov. 30 in the Campus Center Building.
Originally, Courtney was hoping to produce a photography series that featured students who had experienced instances of sexual assault on campus, but the logistics weren’t entirely realistic.
“Pretty much right away I realized that that was going to be an unattainable goal for such a short period of time,” Courtney said.
During the spring, Courtney had taken several photos with a friend who had been a victim of sexual assault, but the friend soon moved out of the country. Hoping to reach out to more people, Courtney set up an email address, encouraging survivors to email her and share their stories. But the process was slow.
“Even just one response is enough for me to know that I’m making a difference for somebody,” Courtney said, “but as far as the project went, that was too slow of feedback for what I wanted to get out of the photographs.”
After sitting down with her thesis advisor and discussing the project with her friends and peers, she decided to make the series more focused on awareness.
“I started reaching out to drama students and friends that I knew from the (ETSU Honors College) and asking them to be in photos with me,” Courtney said. “I started shooting scenario-based photographs.”
The photos were more graphic in their imagery, attempting to portray incidences of sexual assault in a more jarring and realistic light.
“It’s not this idea of a perpetrator who you don’t know and they jump out and attack you and assault,” Courtney said. “That’s not common … it’s typically someone who’s an acquaintance or a good friend.”
From 2001 to 2015, 31 sexual assault cases were reported on the ETSU campus, according to data compiled by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Of those cases, 20 were reports of rape, 10 were reports of forced fondling and one was a case of forced sodomy.
In the span of her time at ETSU, Courtney said that she has two friends who have been victims of sexual assault, something that motivated her decision to put together this show.
“I’ve seen first-hand how my friends were treated differently after being sexually assaulted by people that they know,” Courtney said.
ETSU has many resources available for victims of sexual assault and encourages survivors to report any incidents to the university. The university’s violence free webpage contains information about how students can report.
Courtney thinks that the numbers only tell part of the story, and she hopes that she can expand on some of the ideas presented in the project in the future.
The last day of the show was on Wednesday, but she hopes to expand on it in the future.
“I don’t think that the project is done,” Courtney said. “I think that there’s a lot more things that I have to say.”