UI student's photos go viral

BY BEN MARKS | MAY 14, 2015 5:00 AM

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When Taylor Yocom posted 33 pictures online, the University of Iowa senior never imagined that only one year later, those photos would lead to international recognition.

The photos are a series of black and white close-ups, depicting women and the items they carry on their key chains to protect themselves, including keys, Mace, whistles, and stun guns.

After being posted to Tumblr and various other sites, her photos were posted to actress Zooey Deschanel’s website HelloGiggles last week, and from there, the series quickly went viral.

It has now been viewed more than 1 million times on Buzzfeed, and picked up by dozens of media sites, including the Huffington Post, Mic, Bustle, and even the Italian edition of Vanity Fair and several Chinese media outlets.

“Last week, I’d wake up to three media requests from different time zones while I was asleep, and I’m like, well that’s a good alarm clock,” Yocom said.

“I wanted those loaded objects on a key chain to be the representation of rape culture and victim-blaming,” Yocom said. “There’s all these horrible things women are trained to be on the lookout for, and it’s sad we have to think that way.”

The project was inspired by a class discussion in February 2014 after a series of reports of sexual assault in Iowa City taxis.

During the discussion, Yocom said, women in the class began pulling out their key chains and talking about the objects they had on them. This surprised many of the men in the class, who said they’d never considered that aspect of women’s lives before.

After the discussion, photography major Yocom was inspired to start the series and began working on it right away, first as a class project, then later as an Honors thesis under art Professor Margaret Stratton.

“I got really excited, I thought they were fabulous,” Stratton said. “I didn’t have any particular expectations, but I knew it was good, I knew it was really good, and my assumption was it would get some attention, but I had no idea it would get international intention.”

After she gave Yocom some tips, such as to reshoot them against a plain backdrop and in black and white, Yocom continued to work on the project, ultimately finishing it this month.

She said the last week has been a little surreal to her.

“This was something I never imagined existing outside of Studio Arts and this building and this university, so seeing it picked up is really cool,” she said. “It’s also really strange seeing your work written about because I feel like a lot of it is sensationalized.”

Yocom said she’s seen a lot of headlines with such words as “shock” in them, and many online commenters have expressed surprise that it’s common for women to carry these items.

For Yocom, however, these photos are simply showcasing the everyday reality for most women.

“For me, I saw it as depicting reality, because I’ve had Mace on my key chain for two years,” she said.

Senior Sara Puffer, one of the models for the series, was one of the first people Yocom approached more than a year ago.

Puffer said she agreed to model because of her friendship with Yocom and because the sexual-assault theme of the project resonated with her.

“I am angry that this is a cultural phenomenon,” Puffer said. “That phenomenon means that I have to think about being assaulted because I identify as a female. I am thus objectified and seen as some ‘thing’ that someone feels entitled to take advantage of.”

Although the project is titled “Guarded,” Puffer said she believes the photo series isn’t about self-defense but identifying rape and violence as the reason that women feel the need to hold their keys.
Senior Rebecca Oberhauser, who also modeled for the project, said she was drawn to its theme.

“I’m all about feminist artwork and Taylor does that a lot, and I’ve always been supportive of her work,” she said.

Both Puffer and Oberhauser said although their faces have now been seen by millions of people, it hasn’t been too strange. However, both said it was a little odd to see themselves on a site such as BuzzFeed.

“It’s weird. I didn’t think about it that much that a whole bunch of people I don’t know have seen my face,” Oberhauser said.

As the media attention begins to die down, Yocom is talking with several universities to travel and present her work there.

She said she eventually hopes to compile a book or an exhibition on the geographical trends of women’s self-defense weapons.

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