As part of an exhibit this month at the Corcoran School of the Arts and Design at George Washington University, there are 30 photographs of people who have been groped or otherwise sexually harassed, nearly all of them on Metro.
Nearby, Margaret Wroblewski, a 24-year-old aspiring photojournalist, was sitting at a table Wednesday reflecting on how she’d changed since she took the first of the series of pictures a year and a half ago.
“I’m more paranoid now,” she said. And a little less naive.
She hadn’t known what to expect when she started the project. She did know that this kind of thing happens. She’d experienced it herself. But the groping, vulgar remarks, exhibitionist masturbation and worse weren’t talked about much, kept underground both literally and figuratively.
Making the portraits, she hoped, would show that these things aren’t being imagined. They’d be tangible, real.
With the photographs on display only through Sunday, May 19, her project was reaching a milestone.
“I feel like in the beginning I was naive and I didn’t understand how big of a problem this is,” she said.
These days, she no longer sits at window seats on the train, where she can be trapped by a man sitting in the aisle seat.
“I always stand near kids or a family,” she said. “I try not to take the Metro super late anymore, but sometimes I have to.”
And when she has to: “I just hope nothing happens.”
But when she explains what happened to her on the Red Line, the words come matter-of-factly and without emotion.
“A man masturbated directly in front of me. He was staring directly at me,” she said.
“I’ve become very numb to these stories.”
She’s heard so many of them now.
One of the photos in the exhibit upstairs, called Next 2019 and featuring the work of Wroblewski and other graduating Corcoran students, is of a woman in a clerical collar.
On Wroblewski’s website, which has more details about the photographs than is presented in the small panels on the gallery wall, are the Rev. Dawn Sanders’ words:
“I was on the Metro when … a man next to me made a comment about my dress. In that moment, you are thinking that is odd,” it reads. “Out of the corner of my eye the man had exposed himself and was masturbating. I realized what was happening and I ran to the call box at the far end of the Metro car. In that moment, he began chasing me. … The train is still moving, the man is still yelling and, and I am hysterical.”
Wroblewski shot the portraits in places where her subjects said they’d be comfortable. Sanders is standing in front of the stained-glass windows of a church.
In another photo, a gentle-looking young man sits on a dorm bed in D.C. When he was 17, he fell asleep on a train in Philadelphia and awoke to a man taking his picture and touching his crotch.
“I didn’t think I was going to get any submissions from men,” Wroblewski said. But she’s learned “it happens to 15-year-olds, 60-year-olds. It happens to a huge, wide range of people.”
A year and a half ago, Wroblewski said, she was more naïve, assuming victims of such things would be taken seriously. Now she knows that’s not always the case.
A panel next to the Rev. Sanders’ picture describes the response she got after the man exposed himself: “I went up to Alexandria Police Officers and told them what happened. One of the officers started laughing. He asked, ‘Did you see it? What size was it?’ They did not do anything to help me.”
Metro occasionally makes arrests for public masturbation. It has run public education campaigns encouraging women to report harassment, and giving tips to bystanders on how to safely intervene — like starting a conversation with the person being harassed. But Wroblewski said other women have told her stories similar to Sanders'.
Even when the photographs come down, Wroblewski said she’ll keep adding to them on Instagram. She wants to find other places to show the pictures too — maybe at a Metro station.
She wants to take pictures of those who’ve had the same kinds of things happen on the subways of other cities, to show it happens there as well.
That’s because she learned another lesson when some she knew dismissed the photographs as not worthy of being documented: Her work isn’t done.