News reportage on sexual assault, especially rape, has increased noticeably in India since the rape and murder of a physiotherapy student in Delhi in December 2012. Unfortunately, though, this coverage has not always come with increased sensitivity – several Indian news organisations still rely on a set of ghastly “stock images” to represent rape.

In July 2016, BBC reporter and former South Asia editor Joanna Jolly wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review that the big four English language newspapers in India seemed to have greater room for reportage on rape since 2012, but their narratives were becoming less sympathetic. While this was most evident in the increased number of reports about “false rapes” (or cases of rape where the survivor retracted her case, before the court had reached a verdict), Jolly noted another problem:

“There could be better press regulation to prevent salacious and sensationalized coverage, greater sensitivity in reporting, the inclusion of non-PLU [people like us] cases, the appointment of specially-focused gender reporters and the reframing of rape from a lust crime to a political, economic, and social phenomena.”  

This February, Malayalam news channel Kairali TV was called out for their insensitive reportage on a case of sexual assault. Media platforms across the board have made similar mistakes when reporting on rape, their errors ranging from victim-blaming to divulging personal details about the survivor.

On April 16, photographers, graphic designers, artists, journalists and social workers came together in Delhi for a daylong workshop organised by non-profit Breakthrough.tv and Instagram, with support from the International Center for Journalists, to think about and possibly revise the visual representation of sexual harassment, gender-based violence and rape in mainstream media. The workshop, called #RedrawMisogyny, had a twin purpose: pinpoint what’s wrong with image-making around gendered and sexual violence currently, and present alternatives that, in the best-case scenario, could change the narrative around rape from victim-shaming to focusing on the perpetrator.

“Often, you will see the victim or survivor at the centre of the image, with the perpetrator in the shadows or a hand coming out of the corner of the picture towards the girl,” said graphic designer Shashwata Nova of Breakthrough.tv at the workshop.

Of course, an illustration or photograph made in this mould has the benefits of a cliche: the image is easily recognisable by readers as having something to do with gender-based violence. It’s also an easy go-to for copy editors who search stock photos and image banks, and may process dozens of articles a day in some cases.

“These images subtly build a narrative in your mind about the helplessness of the woman and the superiority of the man,” Nova added.

Turn the point-of-view around, however, and you draw attention to the perpetrator instead. This kind of imaging may have the benefit of being new – at least for a while – as well as turning unwanted attention away from the victim and focus it on to the perpetrator.

Created by designers at Breakthrough.
Created by designers at Breakthrough.

Trigger warnings

In May 2002, Wendy Larcombe, an associate professor at the Melbourne Law School, published an article titled The ‘Ideal’ Victim v Successful Rape Complainants: Not What You Might Expect, in the journal Feminist Legal Studies. The paper revealed biases around how a rape survivor is expected to behave and the weight appearances carry, even in a court of law to get a conviction.

“It is well established in feminist legal critique that female complainants are discredited if they fail to conform to an archaic stereotype of the genuine or ‘real’ rape victim,” Larcombe wrote. “This victim is not only morally and sexually virtuous she is also cautious, unprovocative, and consistent. Defence tactics for discrediting rape testimony involve exposing the complainant’s alleged failure to comply with the sexual and behavioural standards of the normative victim.”

Images that try to recreate the scene, or show a distraught woman whose world has seemingly fallen apart, or use colours like red and black that suggest blood and something sinister, can hold up the process of recovery. “Imagine what the rape survivor feels when she sees illustrations like these,” said Nova. “You are recreating the horror.”

So, the Breakthrough team suggested producing images that show a support structure for rape survivors: family, medical professionals and police, the justice system or support groups, or making images which focus on the victim’s life beyond the incident.

For graphic designer Bhanu Pratap, one takeaway from the workshop was the need to apply ideas of empathy, justice and agency to the image-making process. A second lesson, he said, was that you need to tag the images with proper keywords. “You can’t control the context [the images will be used in] indefinitely, but you can tag the images properly, lay out the context for which they were created,” he added.

The way forward

File images of protestors, especially the large numbers who poured out into the streets of Delhi in January 2013 to demand justice for the physiotherapy student, are still used sometimes with stories and columns about gendered violence. But there are also ways to make photos and illustrations for the specific context which are sensitive and to the point.

Among some of the interesting ideas which emerged from the workshop was making photos which show the role of the bystander, focus on support groups to highlight the process of recovery, and to build a bank of images which show up behaviours that are normalised, but should not be.

The workshop was designed to come up with broad guidelines for what an image about gendered violence should look like, and help designers, artists and writers to create images which avoid obvious traps like stripping the victim of agency, recreating the assault, perpetuating ideas around the helplessness of the victim or the shame and stigma that are often attached with rape.

At the end of two weeks, Breakthrough will again meet with the artists and designers, and ask them to share their work under the Creative Commons licence and with media houses.

Created by designers at Breakthrough.
Created by designers at Breakthrough.