What Was She Wearing?

What Was She Wearing?

Katherine Cambareri’s photographs remind us: When its survivors are condemned, rape is condoned.


When the 22-year-old photographer Katherine Cambareri read John Krakauer’s 2015 book Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, a non-fiction narrative about a series of sexual assaults at the University of Montana that were committed by male students, she recognized a familiar refrain. In the book, the women who mustered up the courage to report the assaults were shamed for not reporting soon enough. The women who went to the police immediately were met with questions about their sex life and alcohol consumption. It’s a horrendous culture that’s sustained, in part, because discourse and education is wasted on telling women how to behave, and Cambareri was compelled to use her photography to combat that narrative.

This January, Cambareri began to take photographs of the clothes that rape survivors were wearing during their attacks. Most of the clothing items are hauntingly casual: a tee with a pair of jeans that a student might wear to a study session at the library; a sweater that one might wear over a blouse on a brisk day; a pair of Converses; a plaid long-sleeve button-up. “I think that sometimes people forget the statistics on sexual assault, so enlarging these images might hit people closer to home,” Cambareri told me. Since beginning the series—Well, What Were You Wearing?—she hasn’t come across any clothing that a person could reasonably call revealing. (If she does, she plans on adding them to the ongoing series.) Without words, the images assert what Cambareri knows: that anyone should have the right to wear whatever the hell she wants without living in fear. Cambareri found the women whose clothes that she photographed on social media, and many of them, she said, were relieved to see that “someone was on [their] side.”

“All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing,” Krakauer cites Dr. Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery in Missoula. “He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering.”

And the demand to engage with the unjustified brutalities inflicted upon women who are raped is what makes Cambareri’s work ineradicably visceral. The clothes are photographed against a pitch-black background, as though conveying the incomprehensible isolation survivors withstand when doubted, blamed, or silenced after the attacks. Cambareri makes the survivors’ experiences tangible. She is prompting the public to process just a fragment of their trauma. “I hope the images allow people to trade places with the victims of assault,” she said.

“If a person already has the mindset to rape someone, it is going to happen anyway,” she continued. For the rest of us, the pictures remind: When its survivors are condemned, rape is condoned.

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