My MeToo moment: How a photo essay helped a Philadelphia sexual assault survivor heal

“6 years old. My neighbor’s house. My neighbor’s son.”

Philadelphia resident Sara Sheridan sits for the Vox portrait shoot

Philadelphia resident Sara Sheridan sits for the Vox portrait shoot

Rachel Wisniewski / Courtesy Sara Sheridan
Processed with VSCO with c1 preset

My portrait was recently featured in Vox, on display for a worldwide online audience. It wasn’t exactly cause for celebration — but it did bridge a fractious piece in my story toward healing.

The photo was one in a series published by 24-year-old Philly-area photographer Rachel Wisniewski. The collection, which explores the power of empathy, visual storytelling, and their roles in the #MeToo movement, highlights 11 local survivors and the stories of their first encounters with sexual misconduct.

In the photo essay, each person is shown in the present day alongside a picture taken around the time of their first assault. The images are accompanied by a set of three statements: the age at which the incident occurred, where it happened, and the victim’s relation to their assailant.

Pondering how to create a body of work that would serve as both platform and wake up call, Wisniewski considered how she could best draw a line between past stories and present survivors. While she did not explicitly define criteria when seeking out subjects, it turned out that eight of the eleven survivors were minors at the time of their experience.

“Children,” Wisniewski said in a recent interview, “seem more innocent.”

When she asked her close male friends how they would feel about childhood survivors of sexual assault garnering the focus of the series — she pointedly consulted with men in developing the project after noting their collective shock on social media — “most of them were just like… ‘Woah.’”

I first read of the project via Wisniewski’s personal Facebook page (she is a grade school friend). She had posted the idea for the series and asked anyone to reach out if they were interested in participating. She had no previous knowledge of my story. She had no idea I was a child at the time of my assault — still the youngest she has documented to date.

Apprehensive about the possibility of probing questions and afraid to re-traumatize myself with publication but similarly inspired by the swell of the #MeToo movement, I messaged her.

It would be my first time sharing my story publicly. I had no grandiose plans to become a fixture in a movement. I just wanted to try a new way of healing: my own voice.

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Rachel Wisniewski / Courtesy Sara Sheridan

Rachel arrived at my apartment on a gray winter day. We talked about old mutual friends, fussed with the lighting — she was as patient as I was flustered. When I finally settled into a tight cross-legged position on my bed, Rachel, upholstering her work with consent, said, “You don’t have to share if you don’t want to, but thank you for anything you wish to tell me. We can stop whenever you want.”

I cleared my throat, then spoke. The sound of my voice, at first faltering, filled the room. Her lens was the captive audience that until that moment I hadn’t realized I needed.

Rachel, standing to my left, camera hugging her side, listened intently to my words. They glided out of me — about what happened in my neighbor’s bathroom nearly two decades ago; how my mother had reacted when I told her through a tear-choked throat a few hours later; how I was too young to fully understand it, but certainly old enough to feel dirty in every crevice of my body. How I was a child, and, of course, innocent.

As I finished speaking, heard and believed, I folded my hands in my lap and draped my legs over the edge of my bed. I pressed my lips together, drew the corners of my mouth inward, inhaled and exhaled. Rachel raised the camera and clicked away, the staccato of the shutter like a quiet applause.

When I viewed the published piece several months later, the initial fear was gone. In fact, I was excited. I had only heard from Wisniewski a few times since our photoshoot — mostly how-are-yous and updates on a publishing date.

(“I made a conscious effort to not follow up or fact check,” Wisniewski later told me. “I wanted to give the same trust that they [the subjects] had given me so that the viewers would also give the subjects that blind trust.”)

Perched at my kitchen table, I felt a deep sense of calm crest over me as I stared back at the two digitized photographs of myself. The caption —“6 years old. My neighbor’s house. My neighbor’s son.” — was no longer a boldface description of my character.

It was simply a small punctuation in the narrative of my life.