NEITHER ANNIE FLANAGAN nor her friend Hannah remembers precisely how they met and became friends. They went to the same middle and high schools in D.C. in the late ’90s and early 2000s—small schools where everyone basically knew everyone, with lots of pot-fueled parties and aimless after-school hangouts. “Our becoming friends was really gradual,” says Annie. “At some point, we realized we both liked to get stoned and walk around. That was it, really.”
The two were soon inseparable. Hannah didn’t mind that Annie always had a camera around her neck, with which she would capture random moments, from sunbathing and lemonade stands to make-out parties and poolside cigarettes. “I’m a Leo and I’m happy to be the center of attention,” explains Hannah, who asked that we not use her last name. “I got used to the idea that being alive around Annie meant having her take my photo.” One of Annie’s favorite pictures of Hannah is from 2004, when the two, with some other friends, decided it would be fun to get stoned, go into the woods, take their clothes off, and pose for pictures. In the photo, Hannah is about 18. Her face is turned away from the camera, her body covered by her hands, framed by the dark night and strategically placed leaves. The focal point of the image is Hannah’s hair, a glorious, gleaming mass of copper tumbling down her back.
A lot has happened since that journey into the woods.
Annie and Hannah’s story is not just about friendship, but about survival. Both women suffered sexual assault and abuse at the hands of men: Annie was raped twice while in college, and Hannah spent four years in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship, a period during which she was isolated from most of her friends and family for long stretches of time.
Hannah’s toxic relationship began in high school and bled into college. It wasn’t physically abusive at first, and she read her boyfriend Mike’s overprotectiveness and jealousy as evidence of his love for her. She tried breaking up with him once during college, after coming across a list of warning signs of an abusive relationship, but it didn’t stick.
One morning in May 2009, Mike woke Hannah up at 6 a.m. to start a fight, ordering her to sit on the couch and not move for hours. “He’d been beating me up all morning, and he was getting tired and more lenient,” she says. “I saw a chance. I asked him for some orange juice, knowing that when he opened the fridge, it would block his view of the door, and I could run for it.” Hannah bolted down the hallway of their apartment building, yelling and pounding on doors. He ran after her, grabbed her, and started dragging her by her hair back to their apartment. A neighbor intervened, Hannah pressed charges, and her boyfriend ended up spending five weeks in jail.
Hannah reached out to Annie not long after she left Mike. “She just let me talk for hours,” says Hannah. “To be able to tell this story and have someone not question it at all, to just believe me—that helped me start to trust my own mind again.” At some point, Annie started combing through old bins of negatives and journals that she had saved since middle school. “I started compiling her story as a larger narrative, looking at the forces that defined us as young women. It’s not like you just jump into a shitty, unhealthy situation out of nowhere. I wanted to go back and piece it together—to look for the ways in which we’re conditioned as women to appear vulnerable, the ways in which we’re taught that our bodies aren’t our own and aren’t worth protecting.”
Knowing what the two women would endure as they got older, it’s impossible not to go back and scour the images of their adolescence for hints of trouble to come. There’s the page from Annie’s high-school journal with nothing but the word “fat” scrawled over and over. There’s the shot of Hannah, eyes half-closed, leaning in for a kiss from a guy with frosted tips, who never shows up in the diary again. But are the stories in these pictures a series of missed signals, or simply one version of the road map we expect all teenage girls to navigate on their own, hoping they’ll make it through with minimum damage?