Wolves in wolf clothing who chased me down a busy Boston street, 1987 ©Deborah Copaken

Sunday night, like so many other women, I created a #MeToo post. Instead of telling a story of sexual harassment, I showed it via two photos from my college thesis project, “Shooting Back” (1986–88), with a quick tossed-off line: “#MeToo, too many times to count. With photographic evidence, even.”

“Shooting Back” began as an exercise in self-therapy, after a stranger broke into my dorm room and then broke me. (I’d also been mugged at gunpoint twice, once with my friend John, another time alone, as well as kicked unconscious on a busy street while walking home at 9 PM from the library, as well as sexually assaulted by a group of drunk men while walking home from a video store. But I digress.) The photos in “Shooting Back” were of men who’d harassed me on the street. After they’d say, “Hey, baby, wanna get it on?” I’d say, “No, thank you, but I would like to shoot your photo.” I had a Nikkormat with a single fixed 28-millimeter lens back then, so that’s what I used. Meaning, to do this project, I had to get up in their faces, super close, and use my camera as a weapon. It was a small shift in the power dynamic, but it was my own form of grace and reclamation, turning hunter into prey.

New York, Astor Place, 1986 © Deborah Copaken
Boston, Combat Zone, 1987 © Deborah Copaken

That college thesis — that transformation of my hidden pain into visible art — launched my career. It was published in Boston Magazine, PHOTO, and Photomagazine. It was nominated for a W. Eugene Smith Award. It landed me a spot as one of only two females exhibited at the first Visa Pour L’Image photojournalism festival in Perpignan, France. It got my foot in the door at the photo agencies and publications that sent me to Israel, then Afghanistan and beyond.

The man who flashed me, Boston, Combat Zone, 1987 © Deborah Copaken

The two photos I posted on Sunday night were unusual for the series, as they were acts of sexual harassment caught in medias res. One was of men in wolf masks who’d chased me down a street in downtown Boston. And then there was the man in Boston’s Combat Zone who’d said, “Hey, baby, wanna get it on,” and I’d said, “No, thank you, but I would like to shoot your photo,” but before I could approach him with my 28-millimeter lens, he flashed me. So I quickly shot the photo from five feet away and ran.

An hour after posting these two photos on Facebook, I was informed that I’d been suspended from the social media site for 24-hours for posting “content that threatens or promotes sexual violence or exploitation.” The admonition went further: “Where appropriate,” it said, “we refer this content to law enforcement.” I was hurt, horrified, and, frankly, re-traumatized. The image of that flasher has nothing to do with “promoting sexual violence or exploitation” and everything to do with unmasking it, because how often does one get documentary proof of sexual predation? Almost never. And that’s one of the most insidious part of sexual harassment: its utter invisibility.

It’s like all of us women are Big Birds, and there’s this giant mastodon of sexual predation only we can see. But finally, here was proof. Snuffleupagus exists! And here’s a photo of a flasher to prove it.

New York, Times Square, 1986 © Deborah Copaken
New York, Times Square, 1986 © Deborah Copaken

It’s been 30 years since I shot “Shooting Back,” and we’re finally talking about male predatory behavior toward women in a way that feels different, more urgent, thanks to Harvey Weinstein’s outrageous use of it. It hasn’t stopped for me, nor for any of us. I lost a column and a bit of decent extra income recently, after not answering my editor’s email, in which he wrote, in response to my email asking what time the staff pizza party began, “1 PM. How come you’ve never asked me out?” But until Alyssa Milano suggested Tarana Burke’s decade-old #MeToo hashtag, until all of our social media feeds were flooded with stories of inappropriate male behavior and predation, I’m not sure how many men truly understood our silent pain: the aggressions themselves, of course, but also the cone of silence, the lack of evidence, the fear of being labeled a woman who cries wolf. Only in this case, I had the wolves to prove it! I wasn’t just crying wolf. I was showing them to you.

And then, as usual in this endless game of wolf and prey, I was summarily punished for exposing them.

***UPDATE 10/19/17, 6:45 AM: In the comments below, a man named Brad Cook from Facebook saw this story and took swift action to restore the original content. Thank you, Brad! I appreciate it. I’ve made suggestions as to how this might be avoided in the future in my response to your comment.