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One of Tatyana's portraitsTatyana Fazlalizadeh

This artist wants you to stop telling women to smile

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh tackles catcalling by confronting street harassers with portraits of their victims – we caught up with the artist as she prepares to take her project global

Most women will have experienced catcalling at some point in their lives. The familiar prickle of fear as you clock that someone’s watching you. The dread as you wait for them to make a comment: about your body, about the way you walk, about why you aren’t smiling at them. 

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh has an innovative approach to dealing with catcallers. Fazlalizadeh places portraits of women who have experienced street harassment in public spaces, with captions that that speak directly to their abusers. Captions such as, “my outfit is not an invitation”, “my name is not baby”, and – of course – “stop telling women to smile”. 

Since launching Stop Telling Women To Smile in 2012, Fazlalizadeh has travelled to Paris and Mexico, and earlier this week she closed an exhibition of her street art called “Women Are Not Seeking Your Validation” in her native Brooklyn. To find out more about her plans, Dazed caught up with Fazlalizadeh down the line from the States.

Hi Tatyana, thanks for talking to us. Where did you get the inspiration for Stop Telling Women to Smile? 

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: There wasn’t really one single incident or moment that prompted me to start this project, it was more based on my experience of being catcalled and harassed for many, many years. Street harassment was and is part of my everyday life. Being an artist means drawing inspiration from my own experiences and the things that I am passionate about, things that upset or anger me. Being harassed on the street is definitely one of those things.

Have you noticed the dialogue around street harassment change since you began this project in 2012?

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: People are talking about it more. And there’s more room for different voices in the conversation now, too. I really wanted to include women of colour in my project and create work that was going to resonate with my neighbourhood, because the area I live in now is mostly a black or Asian neighbourhood. Since starting my project, I’ve seen that women of colour; young women; older women; queer women – all different types of women – have really jumped into this conversation and shared their experiences. So the conversation has expanded to include a lot of different people.

Recently Hollaback!, the anti-street harassment group, produced a video which some felt unfairly suggested that certain racial groups were more to blame for street harassment than others. Similarly, if you look at the Cologne sex attacks, Middle Eastern men were singled out by the media as the aggressors. Do you feel like it’s difficult to talk about street harassment without being drawn into racial stereotypes?

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: Yeah, I think it is difficult to talk about street harassment in a racial context – particularly if the people who are talking about it are only of one race. I think if we open up the conversation to include many voices, then we can interrogate things a little deeper. Race is an important part of this, but so is class, so is sexuality – all of these things influence street harassment.

You’ve travelled a lot with this project. Do you see any differences in street harassment in the countries you visit? 

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: Everywhere I go, there are cultural differences, and it’s important to be mindful of that. But there are also a lot of similarities. The fundamental reasons are the same. There’s this idea that women’s bodies are sexual objects for consumption. That women aren’t full human beings, but that we in some way exist in public spaces as decoration or entertainment for the pleasure of men, and therefore men are entitled to treat us however they want. I’ve seen that play out in every city I’ve ever been to.

Can you tell me about your creative process? How do you create the street art? 

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: I interview women individually or in group settings about their experiences of street harassment. I ask them about what their lives are like when they move through the streets; in what ways specifically they’re harassed; and then broader questions – about how they were raised, how they were educated and how these factors feed into their lives and how they experience street harassment. From there I photograph them and use these photos to make the portraits you see in Stop Telling Women to Smile. The text included in the posters is usually direct quotes from the women explaining how the street harassment made them feel. It’s their opportunity to say to the men who harass them – this is not how I’m going to let you treat me.

Do you get permission to put up the posters? 

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: Sometimes I do, but most of the times I don’t. 

What next for Stop Telling Women to Smile? 

Tatyana Fazlalizadeh: I’m really open to taking the project wherever I can. I’ll be going to Italy and South Africa this year, and I’m hoping for further opportunities to collaborate with different people over the world. But it’s not just about me going and putting up my work in the street – it’s really up to other people now to make an impact in the cities they live in as well.