Documenting sexual assault: a how to guide

witnessThe combination of video and storytelling is extremely powerful, especially when it comes to reaching people and highlighting injustices. As filming equipment becomes less and less prohibitively expensive, more and more people are creating documentaries and video projects on important subjects, including sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). The testimony of survivors of such violence can be extremely helpful in drawing attention to the issue and validating to others who have been through SGBV. But how do you talk to someone about their trauma in a way that is respectful and empowering, not exploitative or inappropriate? How do we make sure that our questions challenge, rather than perpetuate, the culture of shaming and victim-blaming which bombards us and may influence us in ways we’re not even aware of?

WITNESS, an international nonprofit organization that uses video and storytelling to “open the eyes of the world to human rights abuses” has created a manual to address this challenge. Wednesday, the organization launched a how-to guide on Conducting Safe, Effective and Ethical Interviews with Survivors of Sexual and Gender-based Violence. I asked Rose Anderson, who was the lead writer of the guide, though it was a team effort, what motivated her to write it. She said,

Through our experience training and working with activists around the world, it has become clear that there is a need for guidance on filming interviews with survivors in a safer, more effective and ethical way. Poorly–conducted interviews that do not respect the rights and dignity of survivors have the potential to harm interviewees- which goes against the number one-rule in human rights video: doing no harm.

I also asked her to share any anecdotes about people who had done harm in conducting the interviews, in order to understand how easy it is to unwittingly harm a person you are trying to empower:

We have heard instances of interviewees not being fully informed of how their interview would be used – or where it would be shared – and then suddenly it was online for the world – including their families, communities and even perpetrators to see. We’ve heard other cases where interviewees were asked ‘surprise’ questions during an interview, in order to evoke a reaction or get details about their story that they weren’t comfortable sharing in the first place. And we have also heard and seen examples of interviews with survivors that were unusable due to sound or image quality – representing a huge loss of the survivors’ time and effort. This last part is why you will see basic filming advice woven throughout the guide.

The guide, which you can read in its entirety here is extremely helpful and offers technical tips on lighting and framing, or what to bring to an interview, as well as important questions to ask yourself and your interview subject. One thing that stood out for me was the importance of respecting the subject’s word choice. The guide reads,

Be conscious of your word choice: The words you use are important. Be accurate – ‘rape’ is not ‘sex’.  Realize, however, that some interviewees may not use the word ‘rape’ as they may not  be comfortable speaking directly about sexual violence.  Work with your interviewee to determine  the best approach, framing and language for their interview. For example, do they identify themselves as a victim, a survivor, neither or both? Respect their desired terminology in the interview and in your final video.

The guide also offers examples of WITNESS videos that deal with SGBV. Watch this one about sex workers after the jump.


Born and raised on the mean streets of New York City’s Upper West Side, Katie Halper is a comic, writer, blogger, satirist and filmmaker based in New York. Katie graduated from The Dalton School (where she teaches history) and Wesleyan University (where she learned that labels are for jars.) A director of Living Liberally and co-founder/performer in Laughing Liberally, Katie has performed at Town Hall, Symphony Space, The Culture Project, D.C. Comedy Festival, all five Netroots Nations, and The Nation Magazine Cruise, where she made Howard Dean laugh! and has appeared with Lizz Winstead, Markos Moulitsas, The Yes Men, Cynthia Nixon and Jim Hightower. Her writing and videos have appeared in The New York Times, Comedy Central, The Nation Magazine, Gawker, Nerve, Jezebel, the Huffington Post, Alternet and Katie has been featured in/on NY Magazine, LA Times, In These Times, Gawker,Jezebel, MSNBC, Air America, GritTV, the Alan Colmes Show, Sirius radio (which hung up on her once) and the National Review, which called Katie “cute and some what brainy.” Katie co-produced Tim Robbins’s film Embedded, (Venice Film Festival, Sundance Channel); Estela Bravo’s Free to Fly (Havana Film Festival, LA Latino Film Festival); was outreach director for The Take, Naomi Klein/Avi Lewis documentary about Argentine workers (Toronto & Venice Film Festivals, Film Forum); co-directed New Yorkers Remember the Spanish Civil War, a video for Museum of the City of NY exhibit, and wrote/directed viral satiric videos including Jews/ Women/ Gays for McCain.

Katie is a writer, comedian, filmmaker, and New Yorker.

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