Unsafe Spaces: Exhibit Documents Sites Where Women Were Assaulted

As a child Liron Breier-Danziger was sexually assaulted by her friend's father. In a new exhibition, the 35-year-old photographer documents sites still haunted by acts perpetrated against herself and other women.

Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar
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'Skates' (2014).
'Skates' (2014).Credit: Liron Breier-Danziger
Tsafi Saar
Tsafi Saar

A house. And another house. Stately, private homes. A path that leads to another type of dwelling, an apartment building. A stairwell. A city square. A school. Other sites, a great variety of sites. All appear in photographs by Liron Breier-Danziger, which are part of an exhibition opening on July 23 at the Zaritsky Artists House in Tel Aviv.

Each locale depicted in the photos is referred to as a “potential crime scene.” Breier-Danziger took the shots in the course of an artistic, personal and social journey. The first image she photographed was of the house in which she herself was assaulted sexually by the father of one of her girlfriends when she was 8 years old.

Thereafter, Breier-Danziger was in touch with about 30 women who had suffered sexual assaults during their childhood or adolescence, and she photographed the places where those attacks took place. In some cases, the women accompanied her; in others, they gave her an address and she went by herself. This was followed by the lengthy task of processing the materials she had collected.

The exhibition at the gallery, on Alharizi Street, is titled “Lack of Public Interest” – the official police pretext for failing to pursue the complaint filed by Breier-Danziger and her parents in the wake of the attack. This is frequently the fate of complaints regarding sexual violence.

Sexual attacks on girls and boys, a horrific phenomenon, are common occurrences. It is difficult to estimate their scope, but according to the Association of Rape Crisis Centers in Israel, some 20 percent of children and teens are victimized in this way. Boys and girls are assaulted in equal proportions until the age of 8, but afterward the incidence of assaults on girls is far higher. The best estimate is that men constitute 97 percent of the assailants. In more than 85 percent of the cases, the victim is acquainted with the assailant. However, the police close about two-thirds of the cases concerning sexual crimes against children and adolescents, 15 percent of them due to “lack of public interest.”

Liron Breier-Danziger. Photo by Uri Sadeh

“For me, that phrase – ‘lack of public interest’ – symbolizes so much,” Breier-Danziger says. “It symbolizes the ineffectuality of the police, the concealment and the sophisticated, well-oiled system that always makes us, the victims, feel guilty.”

Who is, in fact, interested to know, for example, that an 8-year-old girl was sexually assaulted? Which “public” shows a lack of interest in this? Who’s included in that public, and who is not? These are only some of the many trenchant and disturbing questions that arise from viewing the photographs.

Breier-Danziger, 35, grew up in an affluent neighborhood in the center of the country. She now lives with her family in Pardes Hanna-Karkur, north of Netanya. She has a smile that lights up her face, and speaks softly – but with intensity.

“One day, when I was 8,” she relates, “I slept over at a girlfriend’s. During the night, her father assaulted me. When I got home in the morning, I couldn’t bring myself to tell my parents what happened. For four years I kept it a secret.”

Finally, when she mustered the courage to speak out, “I was very lucky: My parents believed me. They put me in therapy immediately, and as part of the therapy I was able to recall information about other girls who were assaulted by the same father, and I decided to file a complaint with the police. The parents of the other girls refused to join us. They all said, ‘It happened a long time ago.’ Or, ‘The girls have already forgotten it.’ Or, ‘Why wake sleeping dogs?’”

'Clowns,' 2013. Photo by Liron Breier-Danziger

What impelled her now, as an adult, almost three decades later, to embark on this important but painful journey? “I don’t have one unequivocal answer to that,” Breier-Danziger replies, “but I do have many answers. I became a mother. Plus, I am now at the age of the man who assaulted me, two of my nieces celebrated their eighth birthday a few years ago, the case of President Katsav [who was convicted of rape] preoccupied me at the time, the general attitude toward victims of sexual assault.”

In addition, she adds, two years ago there were a few specific incidents that provoked her to get up one day and start taking pictures. A district court judge in Tel Aviv, Nissim Yeshaya, stated in a hearing on a case involving a young woman, then 19, who had been gang-raped six years earlier, that “some girls enjoy rape.”

“That prompted journalist Ariana Melamed to write a courageous column – ‘Your honor, I hope you enjoy this’ – in which she described being raped when she was 14,” Breier-Danziger notes. It was also then, she continues, that the Hebrew-language Facebook community “One of One” was launched, which offers women a space in which to tell about sexual assault and harassment they have suffered: “That project emboldened many women who realized that they were not alone, and it underscored the extent of the phenomenon.”

There was also the case, around the same time, of the veteran journalist Emmanuel Rosen, whom a number of women accused of having committed sexual offenses against them. That led Haaretz journalist Sharon Shpurer to write “Come out of the closet,” an article in which she described being attacked by a teacher as a child. Moved powerfully by the piece, Breier-Danziger asked Shpurer if she could take a picture of the site of the assault. “Sharon sent me the exact place in the school, and I took a picture.”

Shpurer, who was 11 years old when she was assaulted, relates that she contemplated Breier-Danziger’s request for a while, then agreed and forgot about it. “I didn’t see the idea in my mind’s eye,” she says. “It was only recently, when Liron told me about the exhibition, that I suddenly saw what a brilliant idea it is. Because what people don’t understand is that this happens all the time, in every milieu, in every place, in every population group. Her visual referencing illustrates this.

“It’s happening around you, among us, on the path you’ve taken a thousand times on the way home, in the stairwell, in the classroom. And it can be perpetrated by people who are very close and whom the victim knows well – not by a stranger who stalks the neighborhood looking for little girls or teenagers. Liron sent me the catalog, and I was stunned by the power of the images.”

'Horse,' 2014. Photo by Liron Breier-Danziger

Shpurer adds that her article also elicited a call from a woman who was a student in the same school at the same time and related that the same teacher had assaulted her, too. “I wasn’t surprised," Shpurer says. “I assumed that I was not the only one. That’s why, when you show a photograph of a school auditorium, it takes me beyond my own personal context and demonstrates how volatile that place is and how many girls, and maybe also boys, were in the same situation.”

Gal Shargill, the chairwoman of One of One, also suffered sexual assault, and the site of the attack was photographed by Breier-Danziger.

“We met at the place where I was attacked,” Shargill, 31, recalls. “I told her what happened, and she took my picture against the backdrop of the house where the rape occurred.” It was her first visit there since she was assaulted as a teenager, years ago. “It was very hard to go back there. It took a lot of inner strength.”

But together with the great difficulty, Shargill says she felt empathy from the photographer and “a sense of solidarity – a kind of shared fate vis-a-vis the women who were attacked sexually and the system that silenced the attack.”

As Breier-Danziger sees it, “There is a chain here that needs to be broken. In most cases, the assault is perpetrated by someone close and it takes a long time before the victim is able to talk about it. So we don’t talk, and when we finally do, we are not believed. The way to fight is to talk – and to believe those who tell their story. It is taboo to talk about sexual assaults in our society, even though every third woman is sexually attacked and every woman is harassed at least once in her life.

“I met with nearly 30 women. Besides me, only one of them was believed. The usual reaction is, ‘Why didn’t you hit him?’ Or, ‘You’re imagining it.’ Or, ‘It can’t be.’ As I said, I want to confront this taboo, and I believe that the only way to fight the phenomenon is by speaking out.”

She then quotes what attorney Irit Yaar wrote in the preface to the Hebrew edition of Judith Lewis Herman’s book “Trauma and Recovery”: “Evil flourishes under the auspices of being ignored, being silenced and looking away.”

Breier-Danziger’s aim is for the places she photographed – which are haunted by the acts that were perpetrated in them – and for the girls who were the victims of those acts, to be transparent no longer. Despite her awareness and determination, it took time to process and realize this idea.

'Path,' 2014. Photo by Liron Breier-Danziger

“The first frame I shot – the house where I was attacked – sat in my computer for half a year without my looking at it and without my showing it to anyone,” she relates, adding that she eventually showed it to photographers in a group that she belongs to, under the guidance of the photojournalist and social activist Miki Kratsman.

“In the discourse we conducted, I understood that one of the powerful elements in that photograph is the dissonance between the brutal story I am telling and the charming house in this wonderful neighborhood where most people would love to live.”

At this stage, about two years ago, Breier-Danziger started to make contact with other women, in a gradually growing circle. She began by sending an email about her idea to 10 girlfriends, asking them whether they knew anyone who might want to take part in the project. Of the 10, six told her – for the first time – about assaults they themselves had undergone. “And we are talking about 10 close friends, with whom I’m used to speaking intimately,” the photographer points out.

Through them she reached other women; she also got in touch with some via the social networks. For half a year, she met with women in places where they had been attacked and harassed. “Most of them accompanied me to the scene of the crime,” she relates.

The first person to use that term in connection with the photo project was curator Revital Ben-Asher Peretz, with whom Breier-Danziger was in touch. “She told me, ‘You are photographing crime scenes.’ A crime scene is a place that the police cordon off with a red ribbon, to demarcate it and facilitate the search for evidence and witnesses. As an artist, I am marking off a place – with a camera. When the police classify a site as a crime scene, they have special powers there. I, too, am classifying places as crime scenes, and that gives me special powers to deal with them.”

After photographing various locales, she felt that she had something potent to say about Israeli society, but that her personal statement as an artist was wanting: “My feeling was that the more I tried to tell the story of all the women, the more feeble my own personal story grew.” She then began to examine what happened in the four years during which she kept the secret about what she had suffered, between the ages of 8 and 12.

Under the guidance of art photographer Nurit Yarden, who is curator of the exhibition at the Artists House, Breier-Danziger delved into her own family album. After collecting pictures from those years, she created the first works of the project – one in the wake of a return visit to the police.

Breier-Danziger: “I wanted to read the testimony I gave to the police more than 20 years earlier. I went to the Kfar Sava police station, where I was told that the chances of finding a record of my complaint were zero. An officer there tried his best to help me, but finally informed me that, as he’d thought, the complaint had been ‘shelved’ and destroyed. Seeing my crestfallen expression, he said, ‘I don’t understand: It’s been more than 20 years, and it still interests you?’”

Gal Shargill, Sharon Shpure and Revital Ben-Asher Peretz. Photo by Yaron Kaminsky, Haim Taragan, Daniel Tchetchik

Besides the family photos, she also drew inspiration from “Recollected Memories,” the work of photographer Jackson Patterson, who, she explains, “merged photos from his family album with shots he took. The result was, he said, the creation of a ‘new time dimension.’”

She continues: “We are aware of the three dimensions of time: past, present and future. Our form of speech, our thoughts, our behavior are linear, and related to those dimensions of time. Patterson’s works showed me what I wanted to do, what the additional element in my work would be. It’s an arena in which I create a new time dimension, what I call the ‘time dimension of experience.’ It runs parallel to the regular, normal and happy life I lead. It’s connected to my past, to that particular experience, which can have a direct effect on my present. That dimension influences my judgment at the moment it bursts into my present.”

Breier-Danziger proceeded to merge childhood photographs with more recent ones: “Using Photoshop, I created a situation in which it is unclear what belongs to what. The viewer has to take his time looking at the photo, and he might get confused. Just as it’s sometimes not clear to me what belongs to what. Why, actually, don’t I let my child sleep over at a friend’s place, and is it natural that I’m so fearful for my 8-year-old niece? Is it natural for my heart to start pounding every time I walk down the path to my house in the dark?

“The time dimension is also connected to the crime scenes I photograph,” she adds. “The crimes were committed there long ago, the criminals are long gone from those places, but for the women who were harmed, the past erupts into the present as soon as they go to those places.” And, one might add, at other times, too.

The exhibition features a series of collages composed of images of the scenes of the assault and childhood photos of Breier-Danziger herself, sometimes with her sister. One is titled, “I'm Back There.”

“People always ask, ‘Why did you go back there?’ I went back to that same house, to my girlfriend’s birthday party,” she explains. “All these years I didn’t tell my friends what happened. I didn’t want to ruin that girlfriend’s life.” She then immediately admits that this sort of thinking attests to internalization of the outlook of the society we live in – “because, after all, I didn’t ‘ruin’ anything.”

The photographs are accompanied by a sound installation in which the artist is heard talking, in an imaginary conversation, with the man who assaulted her, asking him questions. Not an easy undertaking, clearly. Breier-Danziger agrees, adding, “A conscious choice to listen has to be made.” She made the recording more than a year ago. Recently she wanted to add something, but, “It was hard for me to recapture that voice,” she says. “Back then, I spoke from a place of hesitancy, of fragility, but now I am speaking from a strong place. Even though this is not a therapeutic project but an artistic one, the process has strengthened me very much.”

To mount the show, Breier-Danziger turned to the Israeli crowd-funding site Headstart. To her surprise, she reached her target (33,000 shekels, about $8,650) within just 10 days.

“It gave me a real boost,” she says. “There is still a long way to go and much that needs to change, but more and more women are speaking out.” With this in mind, and as part of the crowd-funding deal, Breier-Danziger has also begun to give talks before some of her funders. “At my most recent talk, only the men asked questions. The women get it,” she says.

Asked to explain how she imagines that an adult decides to harass a child sexually, Breier-Danziger says it is a gradual process: “[The assailant] does something small, sees that the sky doesn’t fall on him, and continues. What has to happen is for the sky to fall on him. Immediately. Silence encourages the system. That’s why, to foment a change, it’s essential to believe the woman who recounts what happened to her and to support her. And we will never be able to explain the scale and frequency of the phenomenon if we don’t stand up and talk. I understand completely that there are those who are not capable of talking about it, but those who can have the obligation to do so.”

Under Israeli law, the statute of limitations on sex crimes is 10 years, and for a minor, 10 years after they turn 18. Thus, a crucial struggle for feminists is to get the statute of limitations on sex crimes annulled. Legislation in that spirit – though applying only to sex crimes committed within the family – was submitted to the previous Knesset and is also up before the present one.

Dr. Ephrat Havron, of the David Yellin Academic College of Education in Jerusalem, who studies and treats victims of sexual assault, agrees that silence – the taboo against talking about sexual attack – is what makes the phenomenon possible. Of the impact of such an assault on children, she says, “In childhood the psyche is not yet fully formed, and the damage interferes greatly with the developmental tasks that lie ahead of the girl or boy. Moreover, the earlier one is hurt, the more tasks have not yet been fulfilled. A child who is molested before going through stages of acquiring independence, for example, will experience great difficulty. His major task becomes survival.”

Havron agrees with the feminist perception that sexual assault is an extreme expression of the patriarchal nature of society. “The weak in our society very often seem to have the status of property. We often see that in a fit of rage, the furniture remains intact, the woman not. Sexual violence is also a means of control and power. We see this in a great many places. Similarly, sexual harassment at work, in the army, the police force or anywhere else is a means to subjugate women, to leave them with a status in which they will not question the social order. As for children, they are an especially weak link in a patriarchal society that’s built so that the strong are at the top and the weak at the bottom.

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