By CHUCK OFFENBURGER
CARROLL, Iowa, April 26, 2018 — You want voters to understand how important the public library is to people of all ages? You want to have fun with old-timers recalling happy moments in their lives? You want to wake up people about the seriousness of sexual assault in our rural communities?
Then take compelling photos, get insightful quotes, present them creatively in the newspaper & online, and make big prints of them to display publicly in a shopping mall or at receptions in a downtown studio. Maybe turn them into a book later.
All that gets people talking. And makes a difference.
Here in Carroll over the past 10 months, reporter Rebecca McKinsey and photographer Jacob Fiscus have done just that with a continuing collaboration they call “The Faces of Iowa.” In fact, see their work right now on the website www.thefacesofiowa.com.
McKinsey and Fiscus.
And their latest project, “Every 98 Seconds” — that’s how often there is a sexual assault in this nation — is up for public viewing and discussion at free receptions this evening (April 26) and Friday evening (April 27) from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Photography by Fiscus studio at 507 North Main Street in downtown Carroll.
This sexual assault story was published in shorter form this past Monday, April 23, in the Carroll Daily TImes Herald, and will be launched in full form on “The Faces of Iowa” website on Friday, April 27.
Obviously, “Every 98 Seconds” is a much heavier topic than their first two — about how people use their library, and favorite tales from senior citizens.
Why did they decide to examine sexual assault now?
“It’s a problem — rural sexual assault — that I’ve spoken and written about in the past,” said McKinsey, 27, who is in her fourth year as a reporter for the Daily Times Herald. “People know it’s a problem, but a lot think it doesn’t happen here. It’s more ignored here, or at least not talked about as much. There are resources for victims here, but probably not as many resources as in urban areas. Maybe there’s even more of a stigma about it here.”
Fiscus, who is also 27 and is in his sixth year as owner of his professional photo studio, said when McKinsey shared the idea with him, “I thought the timing was right, coming after the ‘Me Too’ movement got so much attention last fall. That movement has really been around 10 years, but after the Harvey Weinstein case last October, a whole lot more people became aware of it when it was happening in politics and in Hollywood.”
They decided to aim publication of “Every 98 Seconds” for April, which is recognized as “Sexual Assault Awareness Month,” and there are other activities to raises public consciousness of the issue.
McKinsey, in her writing about sexual assault in the past, had come to know Julie Gore, an advocate with the Center Against Abuse & Sexual Assault, which serves 19 counties in western Iowa, including Carroll County. “We talked to Julie about what we wanted to do with this reporting project, and asked if she could talk to other advocates about finding some local victims who would consider telling us their stories,” McKinsey said. “I wrote an email invitation, explaining what we had in mind, and Julie and the other advocates gave that to victims.”
Thirteen victims agreed to tell their stories in 12 different interviews — a mother accompanied her young daughter. They ranged from the 13-year-old girl, to a 17-year-old boy to a 53-year-old woman. McKinsey agreed to identify them only by first name — and a few of the first names used are false ones — to avoid compromising their safety and privacy. All the ages of the victims are correct.
Most of the interviews were done in the Photography by Fiscus studio when it was not open for public business.
McKinsey and Fiscus both say the interviews were intense, difficult and tearful. Here’s how the Daily Times Herald described the stories: “Viewers should be aware that these interviews address sexual assault, domestic violence, mental illness, suicide and abortion. The material includes graphic descriptions of assault and strong language and could be triggering to some survivors of abuse.”
The stories are actually just quotes from the victims, answers to McKinsey’s questions. They are presented with Fiscus’ photos that are at least striking — maybe even haunting. He shot them threw an opaque sheet of glass.
“It was a challenge thinking about how to photograph these victims,” Fiscus said. “We didn’t want to put anybody in danger. These people have already been hurt. I decided by hiding or silhouetting the faces, the emotions may even come out more in the photos, and that draws people more into the words of their stories. That’s what was most important.”
“Jenna,” 20, a sexual assault victim, photographed here by Jacob Fiscus. “People are so uncomfortable about talking about sexual assault,” Jenna told reporter Rebecca McKinsey, “and the thing is, I don’t care if talking about it makes someone uncomfortable. What’s uncomfortable is being raped. So you can get over yourself and have a conversation about something. People don’t want me to be angry about it. They don’t want me to yell. But if you wanted me to not yell, then you should have listened the first time. If you don’t want me to be angry, then you should have taken me seriously when I was calm.”
The project, McKinsey says, “reinforces that this happens, it happens a lot, that a lot of times victims are not believed, and the big thing for us — that it happens here.”
Fiscus said he was deeply saddened to realize “the number of kids” who are victims, “a lot of them multiple times. I realized after hearing these stories that most sexual abusers find people who are easier to prey on, especially young people. It also makes me question how we all talk to each other about this issue. Are we really looking for ways to prevent assaults and ways to help the victims?”
Julie Gore, the CAASA advocate who helped find the victims to talk to the reporting team, said the project “is very well done. Sexual assault is not being talked about enough, and any way we can make people more aware of the problem, is good. This will really help in this area.” The photographs “will help people realize how hard it is for victims to expose themselves, but they still want to tell their stories.” One victim told Gore that being interviewed and photographed wound up being “very healing.”
What’s coming next in their “The Faces of Iowa” series?
Since they’ve done these projects on their own time, and have been moonlighting on them since last July, they’re ready for a brief break. Then, McKinsey says, they will be considering stories on refugees, women in agriculture, non-violent crime, drug addicts and others. “The way we’re doing these seems to work well with people whose stories aren’t being told,” she said.
Fiscus said he thinks their approach seems effecting for addressing “a lot of social issues.” And as they continue to invest in their own work, “we probably need to find a sponsor.”
The way they began working together is interesting.
Fiscus, a 2009 graduate of Carroll High School, then went to Hawkeye Community College in Waterloo and earned an associate degree in professional photography. He moved on to Des Moines for a year, then returned to Carroll and bought Sunderman Photography, a studio which had been in business 30 years here. He moved it into the central business district, and his distinctive, artistic style has helped him build a strong customer base.
He wanted to get involved in community life, and wound up being appointed to the board of trustees of the Carroll Public Library. When he was 25, his fellow trustees elected him president.
“If you don’t know this, we’ve had a real controversy over our library in Carroll for 15 years, maybe longer,” he said. “We’ve really needed a new one. We had one proposal up for a bond issue election, and it was overwhelmingly defeated.” That was in 2011.
In the last two years, another opportunity came up. The owners of the Commercial Savings Bank were planning a new building and offered to donate their existing downtown location to the City of Carroll to be renovated into a new City Hall. That would allow the city government to move out of the building it has shared with the library, and let the library be expanded into much larger quarters.
“I had to help build a campaign committee, which is not my cup of tea,” Fiscus said. “The issue was so contentious, I tried to think of some way I could use my talents to help. I thought maybe we could do something with photographs of people who use the library and think it’s important. I brought that idea up to Doug Burns,” the co-owner and staff writer of the Daily Times Herald, who also serves on the library foundation’s board. “He suggested I get together with Rebecca and see what we could come up with.”
She is an outstanding young reporter. A native of Cleveland, Ohio, she graduated in journalism and Spanish from Ohio University. During her college and early career years, she had internships with the Columbus Dispatch, the Chautauqua Daily in New York State, the Arizona Republic, the Daily Times Herald here, and then at the Times of Israel in Jerusalem. Then Burns hired her full-time to return to Carroll.
McKinsey, who was reporting on the library campaign, liked Fiscus’ idea of humanizing the “People of the Library.” They used an announcement in the newspaper and in social media to invite people to come sit on a chair placed between stacks and talk to McKinsey about how they use the library resources while Fiscus took photos of them. They had 16 people turn out, ranging in age from 2 to 90. You really need to see those photos and comments, by clicking right here.
The feature was such a hit when it was published in the newspaper that many library supporters think it helped the $3.8 million bond issue win 62 percent approval from the voters last August, just more than the 60 percent approval required.
McKinsey and Fiscus, shown with a couple they featured in a second feature, of older people reflecting on their pasts. These are Ethel and Ray Reiff, 92 and 91 respectively. Said Ethel: “I grew up in a family of 13, so I guess I was never, ever lonely.” Ray: “I was ornery and mean.” Ethel: “We met when my older sister was married.” Ray: “Yeah, that could be.”
The next feature for the pair featured chats with older Carroll-area residents about highlights of their lives. They wound up doing 10 interviews and photos of people who were 89 and older. In February, when they launched “Hindsight,” as they called it, they had another big hit. You can see it by clicking right here.
The bottom line on all this, there’s nothing like a good story, well-told. And the work of McKinsey and Fiscus is showing us that in this modern media age, we now have more good ways to share those good stories.
You can email the columnist at chuck@Offenburger.com or comment using the handy form below here.