"I was five years old when it happened," says one rape victim. Another describes how she was tortured at home and not allowed to leave the house for any reason. Though their faces are concealed by digital "masks", the pain and humiliation these women experienced comes through clearly enough.
While few of India's rape victims are willing to speak out publicly due to the stigma involved as well as laws banning public naming of victims, a new feature available through Snapchat is providing them with a way of telling their stories without being identified. Though the face-masking filter that allows users to conceal their faces behind a variety of bizarre masks was originally intended as a goofy alternative to regular messaging, a Hindu journalist has recently started using the filters when interviewing victims of sexual assault. According to 27-year-old Yusuf Omar, a journalist and editor at the Hindustan Times, the filters have become a valuable tool for investigative journalism.
"Mobile journalism has given us access to places that we would never have had before and has allowed us to tell stories in a far more discrete and intimate manner," Omar said in a recent interview. "Nobody who has experienced that kind of horror wants to have a big boom mix and huge lights and a camera waving in their face. It has to be far more subtle." His Snapchat coverage of victim's stories has been reported by media outlets around the world. Not only do the filters allow the stories to be told, but the victims have become visible in a way that has never been possible for them previously.
"Broadcasters have been blurring out faces, using silhouettes, and I just feel like you lose so much information. Facial expressions are critical when trying to understand. For the first time, we got to see somebody whose identity was hidden, but eyes were visible. You could see the drop of the jaw, the expressions on her forehead. It's so much more intimate for a viewer trying to relate to the story."
While he hopes that Snapchat eventually provides the option for users to develop their own filters rather than relying on the ones provided, Omar reports that rape victims feel empowered by being able to conceal their identities. This has developed a bond of trust that makes them more confident in telling their stories. Also, through choosing their own filters and deciding for themselves how much of their faces to conceal, they assume the role of narrators rather than as victims being interviewed by a journalist.
"They flicked until they found a filter that they thought best covered their faces," said Omar. "That made them feel empowered – it made them feel part of narrative. They were telling their own story. Even more so in the way they directed their attention at that camera. This was a selfie; they were holding the phone. I didn't even press the record button, I walked away. This was them looking at themselves in the eye and telling the most horrific story they could possibly recount."