When I first met Lydia Billings, we were sitting in our winter coats waiting to be arrested. I have the photo. Lydia, Katy, and Dawn. We were on a cold granite step below the Civil War Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument. Minutes later we were handcuffed and crammed in a paddy wagon with four other women on our way to jail for refusing to leave the Washington Square Park during the early days of Occupy Rochester. The six of us did a lot of bonding that night in a county jail holding cell. At around 2:30am Lydia’s name was called, and we were one fewer. Her friends had posted bail. There were only 5 benches to stretch out on, and with Lydia gone, I now had a bench to myself, but I still hated that she left us.
The chairs in Lydia’s apartment are much more comfortable than that bench. Depending how you turn, when you look out the bay windows in her dining room, you see downtown landmarks or a huge billboard that says “Serious accident? Call the right attorney.” On the table in front of us are three large photographs, portraits of survivors of rape.
Lydia is telling me about Trigger Warning, a project she created after an emotionally shattering incident. Through her involvement she has found a way to weave her love for photography with her desire to raise awareness and inspire others. Trigger Warning serves as the beginning of a conversation, a much-needed dialogue about rape and its prevalence.
“In April 2010, my best friend Rorie was raped on her college campus in Ohio. Before then, I didn’t have much of an understanding of sexual assault. I knew that it was bad and that you didn't want it to happen to you. Seeing her struggle with the aftermath, I wanted to be able to connect and reach her the way I always had, but that wasn’t possible then. There were things that she had experienced that I would never understand. I went through a lot of anger. I was angry that I wasn’t able to reach her and angry that anyone could do such a thing.”
Lydia was a freshman in college at the time and studying photography at Rochester Institute of Technology. It was through her photography that she found a way to connect. “I came up with the idea of photographing survivors [of sexual abuse and assault] and include their quotes and writings to give a more comprehensive perspective of the effect that rape had on them.”
“It started when I photographed Rorie and then I photographed more survivors. Some were people I already knew who learned about my project and approached me. Some people I met through word of mouth.”
The project attracted worldwide attention. It was featured on the Huffington Post website and many other online news sites. You can read about it in Spanish, Chinese, Italian, and Greek. Since then she has received emails from all over, from people who are interested in having their stories heard.
“Some have been very vocal about their rape, and there are others who had not told anyone before they shared it with me. “
The photos have been displayed in a number of venues around Rochester. “When I display them I hang small paper books that are filled with stories and quotes. They’re not directly matched with the photos. It’s more about collective voices. No names. And the portraits include men. A lot of people still believe that rape is only a women’s issue, but it’s a human issue. It’s about power.”
“I’m a messenger. The project is here to educate others and provide a fuller perspective. Sometimes viewers see people they know, and I think that’s really powerful. I’ve had people come up and say ‘I know this man, or I know this woman, and I just can’t believe it.’ It brings it closer to home, makes it a lot more real.”
“I have read a lot, spent a lot of time in the library reading about what other people have written about sexual assault. I’ve learned that it dates back to when humans first roamed the earth. Why does it have such a place in our world?”
“While Trigger Warning is still about storytelling and the healing power of storytelling, I realize it’s also about action. I’ve worked with the Center for Women and Gender at RIT, and other artists, advocates, and activists. My work is meant to impact others who might then do something to educate someone else or support a friend who has suffered abuse. A lot of people just don’t know where to start.”
“Rorie is a playwright and has written a play loosely based on her rape, about the aftermath of a rape on a college campus and how it affects three of her male friends. She and I plan to weave the play and photos together and take it to colleges where the students will perform it for their peers and teachers.”
“I also hope to connect with men and women who have committed assault. I want to hear their stories, and their feelings, and to even photograph them if they’re willing. There is so much we lose if we don’t listen and learn from one another. Who are these people and what led to their actions, and what sort of system and culture perpetuates violence? We have to look at the whole picture.“
Lydia shares quotes from survivors. One says, “You feel like you’ll never be whole again, but I’m finally at a point where I’m starting to feel whole. And it’s been five years.” Another: “When I wake up, knowing that I’m alive is exciting.”
“Despite something so devastating and violent, people can be full and whole again. I’m trying to turn anger into positivity. If I can make one person’s life better, then this can be reconciled in some way. “
One in four women and one in six men in the US are victims of sexual assault.
To learn more about Trigger Warning, go to triggerwarningphoto.com