Women reveal the secret weapons they carry everywhere on campus

It’s not news that sexual assault on college campuses is a national epidemic. In the past several months, a series of high profile cases have brought the issue into the spotlight. Last year, after Columbia University student Emma Sulkowicz began carrying her mattress in response to her own sexual assault, students on campuses around the country carried pillows or mattresses to protest college procedures around rape.

But all the while, women have been carrying far more subtle symbols of the problem on their keychains. Rape whistles, tiny canisters of mace, and even large rings that could be used to injure a potential attacker: These were what photographer Taylor Yocom discovered when she asked her classmates at the University of Iowa about the ways they keep themselves safe. In her striking series Guarded, Yocom photographs women holding whatever it is that helps protect them from potential assault, from keys arranged in a fist to brass knuckles. Each photograph is a portrait of a woman in black and white with the weapon they casually carry to fend off potential attackers. We spoke to Vocom about her powerful series.

What was your inspiration for Guarded?

Guarded was first conceptualized during a conversation before class in early 2014. In response to a string of sexual assaults on campus, a group of female-identifying classmates and I were talking about what we use to keep ourselves safe on walks home alone at night. We casually pulled out our mace and rape whistles. The men in the room were shocked. It was clear that this wasn’t a problem solely in our community—this was a universal issue.  I knew I wanted to visually portray this idea. At the time I was enrolled in a digital photography course and my final project assignment was to create a cohesive body of work. Creating the photo series at this time just made sense.

How did you find models?

Being on a college campus, finding models was not too difficult. Some were friends or acquaintances and some were strangers who were inspired by my project. Since I shot my photos in the school studio or outside in a public pedestrian mall, I would talk to women who passed by about my series and asked them to model for me if they were comfortable with it.

Were you surprised by how many women you found who had whistles or pepper spray on their keychains and by the variety of self-protection mechanisms people carried around?

I was very surprised! Many women either carried keys between their fingers or had mace or rape whistles on their keychains. One trend I noticed was how mace is marketed to look more feminine, whether it is pastel colors or funky patterns. I thought this spoke volumes about the very idea I am trying to portray. One woman who I met through my project actually posed with brass knuckles that said “LOVE” across the fingers…a pretty powerful statement.

What else did the models share with you when you took their pictures?

Talking with the models was definitely a moving experience. I heard some heartbreaking stories and many of them expressed feelings of uneasiness about walking home alone at night. The fact that so many people were willing to be a part of this was so overwhelming and inspired me to continue.

What do you hope people take away from your series?

The series was named after the ON GUARD block text on my mace  which has long since worn away. I hope the viewer realizes that so many women in this community and around the country and world do live with this reality. The fact that so many of us have mace where a souvenir keychain should be, really does talk about the victim blaming our culture perpetuates. Through my photographs, I want people to see that sexual assault statistics are also personal realities for individuals. They are not meaningless numbers.

[All photographs by Taylor Vocom]