Photographer Eliza Hatch is using empowering portraiture to catalogue women’s experiences of public sexual harassment with her project Cheer Up Luv
Part photojournalism and part awareness campaign, Cheer up Luv, is an ongoing photography project aiming to shed light on the incessant prevalence of street harassment plaguing women worldwide. Launched by London-based photographer Eliza Hatch after countless uncomfortable but revealing conversations with friends, the project documents the stories of women who have felt sexually threatened on any scale in a public setting and attempts to overturn society's normalisation and nonchalant attitude toward street harassment.
Documented as a series of empowering portraits, Hatch shoots the featured women in parks, shops and on public transport and publishes them alongside candid first-person accounts that discuss being followed home, groped by strangers or abusively shouted at by a passerby. With recent studies showing that 85 per cent of British women aged 18-24 have been sexually harassed in public places, Cheer up Luv hopes to create an unapologetic space to share these experiences and bring attention to a form of abuse that is built into the fabric of daily life for many women. While the catalogue of unsettling stories grows week by week, we caught with Hatch to learn more about the project and its long-term mission.
How did the idea for Cheer up Luv and its name come about?
Eliza Hatch: Cheer up Luv is the product of one too many catcalls, and sprung from a series of conversations I had earlier this year with my female friends about how common it is to experience sexual harassment in public. The amount of times I have been told to “cheer up” or “smile” by a stranger is countless. It is one of the most simple and seemingly harmless phrases, but is actually extremely problematic. It leaves you disarmed, and feeling guilty, embarrassed and angry in the space of about three seconds, while you are left thinking of a comeback that's too late to say. When bringing up this encounter with a group of friends, it sparked a huge conversation of harassment story swapping. I noticed that the men in the room were completely surprised and shocked by the experiences that we were sharing, and just couldn't believe that these things happened to us so frequently. After spending a decent amount of time convincing them, that being looked at on the tube, shouted at on the street, and beeped at by passing cars, does happen more often than they think, I decided it was time to do something about it. For it’s not just the harassment itself that’s the problem, it’s the lack of awareness surrounding it.
“The amount of times I have been told to ‘cheer up’ or ‘smile’ by a stranger is countless” – Eliza Hatch
What is your approach to this narrative-led style of portraiture? How do you go about capturing each woman and their experiences in an honest and sincere way without trivialising them?
Eliza Hatch: The composition of the photographs are supposed to draw you into the central image of the women, placed in a public setting. My aim is to subvert the original feeling of vulnerability in that environment and change it to empowerment, giving these women a platform to speak. The environment I photograph the woman in, is a stage for her to stand on, to turn that situation where they once felt victimised into one where they have a voice. It doesn't matter how big or small scale the harassment they suffered, that shouldn't even be a factor – comparing them adds to the normalisation.
Why do you think it’s important to capture the women in settings related to their experiences?
Eliza Hatch: So much harassment happens in public spaces and is rarely noticed by others. I have grown up in a big city my whole life, and you are forced to learn how to tackle things that you rarely have much control over. This can be in the form of drunk men sharing the same tube carriage as you, or walking down a busy road in your school uniform. We toughen up from such a young age and learn to brush off and shut out unwanted comments you get from men at bus stops, bars, clubs and passing cars. By the time you are 22 you are used to mild sexual harassment, and most women don't even talk about it. So I think it is extremely important to photograph women in their daily surroundings, and give them a chance to say something back.
What kind of change do you hope Cheer up Luv can help to catalyse? Do you believe that sharing these stories can counteract the normalisation of public sexual harassment?
Eliza Hatch: I hope that as the project grows, more awareness for the issue will be raised. Ultimately I would love for children at a younger age to be educated more broadly about sexual harassment, because so much of what women experience starts at a young age. This project takes on the story of each and every woman involved, and if it’s one thing I want to achieve, it’s a solidarity and place of understanding for these women, and anyone who has ever experienced street harassment.
Below the women in the photos tell their stories:
“I was sat at a bus stop on my own until a suited man walked over and started talking to me. He stood in front of me, told me he liked my hair, then called me beautiful and forced himself onto me. He grabbed my face and forced his lips close to mine, for a second I froze then I pushed him away. I saw my bus and got on, he followed me onto the bus, sat next to me and tried to run his hand up my skirt. I screamed and told him to fuck off, nobody believed I was in danger. I ran down the stairs, pressed the bell and and he got off the bus. He told me he had to walk me home as he lived nearby, I refused and he still followed me at every turn. I walked faster and faster, walking through an estate close by trying to confuse him and ran as fast as my legs could carry me.”
“I was cycling up a residential street, It was a quiet evening and I was going pretty slowly as the road was really uphill. There was no one on the street other than a guy in his late teens at a bus stop, which I saw to my left. He saw me and waited until I was cycling past, and then said, ‘Bitch.’”
“So I just moved to New York and one day I decided to go downtown. I sat down on the train and one guy got on and stood right in front of me holding onto the rail. I turned my face and body to the right instead of his body in front of me. Then, I see a weird movement happening to my left, in the corner of my eye. It ended up being his penis sticking out of his zipper of his pants and he was rubbing it. I quickly turned my eyes back. I just thought it was sick that he even thought to do that right in front of my face. I am a short girl so anyone that stands in front of me I am eye level to that part of the body. There were tons of seats open and he still chose to stand in front of me. So I quickly just thought to get off at the next stop. I didn’t really know what to do. It was a weird experience.”
“Catcalling started when I was 11. When I had just moved to Israel, I was turning a corner and a gray pickup truck was honking at me from behind. They were saying things I couldn’t hear because I was so frightened. I started walking faster and one of the men in the back reached out of the window so I started to run home. As I was running home, they continued to honk and spat out the window at me.”
“When I moved to Paris, I didn’t know my way around the city and stopped to ask a man for directions back to the flat I was staying in. The man told me where to go and then proceeded to follow me home, begging me to kiss him. By the time I reached my door, I was pretty scared and didn’t know what to do. I opened the door, walked through and tried to close it before he could get in. But he wedged his foot in the door frame so I couldn’t shut it! The only thing that I could do was to pull him in as if to kiss him then shove him really hard so he fell out the building and I was able to slam the door in his face.”
“I was walking past a group of guys and one tried to grab my arm to get my attention. I took my headphones out and looked at him in disgust whilst he asked me, ‘Oi, where you from?’. I literally thought ‘not today’, so I continued on my journey. As I walked off I heard his friend say... ‘She’s ugly anyway’.”
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“The amount of times a guy won’t leave me alone in a bar or a club is countless. Or I’ve been beeped at by a car driving past. That’s the worst because then they can just drive off and you feel pissed off and helpless but can’t even do anything. Actually, just recently I was out dancing and a guy behind me decided to take that as an invitation to grab me on the hips and grind on me.”