An enemy within

Francois Pesant on sexual assault in the US military

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Shatiima Davis stands in training fatigues in Central Park, looking out of frame. Behind her, young girls in pink summer dresses with parasols pose for another photographer. It’s a study in context, and Davis looks displaced, uncertain and deeply uncomfortable in her surroundings. Her’s is a complex story where vulnerability and uncertainty are intertwined with bravery.

Davis’ is one story in a collection of 16 women and men included in book in production by Pesant, a French-Canadian documentary photographer. Pesant moved to New York in 2012 to work on a photo essay for a Canadian magazine about the experience of female war veterans returning to civilian life after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. While he had expected to hear stories about post-traumatic stress disorder, he hadn’t expected the women to tell him stories of rape.

Davis enrolled in the military at 18 years of age, straight out of a minimum-wage job at McDonald’s. She was deployed to Iraq after completing her training and, less than a month later, a fellow soldier stole into her bunk and raped her.

“I didn’t report it because I didn’t want to be sent home. I actually wanted to stay in Iraq. So I put it in the back of my mind and I kept looking forward,” she told Pesant.

Back home, she talked about the assault with her commanding officer, and was forced out of the military, a result Davis is still trying to recover from.

Pesant spends as much time as possible with his subjects—often staying with the women and their families—to make intimate photographs that reveal the ongoing effects of their deployment, even years after their return.
“They are not hiding any more,” he says. “They are saying here I am, here’s my face, here’s what happened to me. They have been hiding for so long and now they say—here I am, things have to change.”

The issue of sexual assault in the armed forces hit the mainstream in June 2012 with the release of the documentary The Invisible War, a film by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering. Figures released by the Pentagon in May this year estimated that 26,000 people in the US armed forces were sexually assaulted in 2012.

One woman told Pesant that she carried a knife at night when she went to the toilet because rape was so common on the base. Another woman, an officer, said her worst failure in Iraq was that one of her female soldiers was sexually assaulted just one week after she gave her rape prevention training.

But Pesant says attitudes are changing. “Many women have been trying for many years to tell their stories, so just having people who are willing to listen to their stories was a big thing for them. Now more and more military rape survivors are bravely getting out and telling their stories, so that they are heard, and in the hope it won’t happen again.”

To date Pesant’s project has been published in M — Le Magazine du Monde and Chatelaine magazine. It won the 2013 Anthropographia Award for Human Rights Through Visual Storytelling and was screened at this year’s Visa pour l’image in Perpignan, the prestigious annual festival which showcases the best of photojournalism.

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