Photo

Investigating Rape in the US Military

An interview with photojournalist François Pesant about his book, 'An Enemy Within'.

by ​François Pesant, Interview by Xitlalitl Rodríguez Mend
17 February 2016, 8:00am

Photos courtesy of Francois Pesant


Photos courtesy of Francois Pesant

This article was originally published on VICE Mexico

In 2012, while working on an article about American female veterans, Canadian photojournalist François Pesant found out that several of his interviewees had been raped by their male counterparts while on duty.

Since then, Pesant and journalist Alexandra Geneste have been investigating the issue, collecting the testimonies of rape victims and relatives of soldiers who committed suicide after being raped. Eleven of those cases have been compiled into a book calledAn Enemy Within.

I got in touch with Pesant to talk about this project.

VICE: When did you start working on An Enemy Within?
François Pesant: I started in January 2012, when I moved to New York from Montreal – my home town. I was working on a story on the experience of female war veterans returning to the civilian life after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Two out of the four women I met told me they had been raped in Iraq, without me even asking. I was a total stranger to the subject and I was deeply shocked.

I did some research and found a Pentagon report that listed 19,000 rape cases that had occurred in just the previous year. So, I decided to talk it out with my editor and change the story's focus. That story was published in Canada, in June 2012. Then, I went back to the topic because I felt it required further investigation and started working with Alexandra, who is also a journalist.

What has been the the main challenge you've faced while working on the subject?
Listening to all those stories. The absence of justice has as huge an impact on the victims as the actual rape has. The first case in the book deals with a father whose daughter committed suicide after being raped. This shows that sexual violence not only affects the victim, but also their environment. Another case is that of a victim who got pregnant by her rapist but couldn't get an abortion. She talks about the relationship with the daughter she conceived through rape.

Did all rapes take place in Iraq and Afghanistan?
They took place all over the world. Some of the victims did not go to war. One of them was raped during her training. Another, in a military base in Portugal. Someone else was abused in a military base in the US.

Also, some victims are men. The book includes three testimonials from men who were raped by other men. It is very difficult to find men willing to talk about that kind of experience.

Have any of the cases you've dealt with been taken to court?
One of the offenders spent some months in jail. Then there was another case, where the assailant was taken to court but all the evidence disappeared during the trial; the rape kit the victim had delivered was gone. To top it all, the offender was promoted in the process; I think it was to the rank of sergeant.

Every year, sees about 25,000 rapes within the US military but only 3,000 are reported. Out of those, only 300 go to court.

How has the US military responded to your project?
We've tried to speak with them but they wouldn't help us, as you can imagine. In the US army, in times of war, the major is in charge of administrating justice. If you are raped you have to report it to a major first and they must decide whether you should go to court or go back to work or get fired.

Total impunity is what damages the victims most. Being raped is dreadful but getting some kind of justice helps you feel in control and move on. What actually happens is that many of the victims end up getting fired.

How did you and Alexandra start working together?
When I moved to New York, she was Le Monde's correspondent in the UN. She had already worked with soldiers and helped me get some contacts. Even though we've been working on this project for three years, sometimes we'll spend months without finding a single case to work on because there is no official list of rape cases.

At some point, I went on a four month-long roadtrip. We had no money so I started a kickstarter campaign to get some. She would do the preliminary interviews on the phone and write a report of each story afterwards. Then, I would travel to meet the interviewees and spend three to five days with each, do a full interview, take photos and send the material to Alexandra who would put everything together. Each story has been written in the first person.

Does your work focus on women?
Yes, it does. I have also worked projects about women in Canada and in India. When I got started with photography, my main topics were related to human rights and the environment. Subjects that have to do with women inevitably kept coming up.

www.francoispesant.com