Cheer Up Luv: The photography project sharing women's experiences with sexual harassment

Street harassment is relentless; as it continues to plague over many women worldwide, it’s a problem that often goes unreported and gets ignored. According to a UK study by YouGov and End Violence Against Women Coalition85% of young women aged between 18-24 experience unwarranted sexual harassment in public places — alongside 64% of women of all ages. There are endemic levels of sexual violence and harassment in schools where, if significant changes aren’t made, such abuse will “continue at alarming rates.” These statistics are just an example, but as a pervasive problem surprisingly many of these issues receive little national attention, as stated in a 2016 report by UK Parliament. This normalisation seems to be a stimulant for its persistence. The act of catcalling, wolf whistling or the odd hand here and there is perceived as usual behaviour, but how does a woman, or victim of street harassment, stop these moments? Can you report on every whistle, shout and uncomfortable closeness you encounter? Should society’s detachment towards street harassment be ignored?

Eliza Hatch, a photographer based in London, launched the photography project Cheer Up Luvin response to these questions. To open up a dialogue between those who have experienced countless name-callings, and for those who have felt sexually threatened by any means, Cheer Up Luv aims to share these stories and release them into a public sphere. We spoke to Eliza about her reasons behind the project and to find out more about how photography and publicity can act as a powerful catalyst for change.

Run us through the reasons for starting Cheer Up Luv.

I decided to start Cheer Up Luv earlier this year, however the themes behind it have been a constant factor in my life. Growing up in London, you get used to being catcalled and sexually harassed, especially when you are in your school uniform. When I was younger, I was more oblivious to the fact that it was happening to everyone, it seemed normal and you just brushed it off. It was only recently when I mentioned it in frustration to some friends, that I found out how frequently they experienced it too, and It was only after speaking with some male friends and realising their shock and disbelief surrounding the issue, that something switched inside me and I decided enough was enough.

My personal experiences have ranged from being told to ‘smile’ or ‘cheer up’ to more shocking offences, and the purpose for the project for me is to really show the range of what women experience in their day to day lives. I wanted to show how even the most seemingly harmless phrase has bad connotations and shouldn’t be used lightly, and I am trying to make it an accessible platform for women to speak out about anything that has made them feel uncomfortable in a public space. My aims are to show real women and tell their stories, and try to raise awareness about an issue that is completely overlooked. I wanted to create a place where women’s voices can finally be heard and to try to turn their situations where they once felt vulnerable into ones where they are empowered.

How does photojournalism act as a powerful tool? Why the photograph? 

I think it is extremely important to use visuals when telling a story; it is more engaging for the reader and even for the story teller. When speaking about sexual harassment, I think it’s necessary to look into the eyes of the woman when reading her story. Words can be extremely powerful and emotive, and when they are paired with a photograph, it emphasises them so much more. For me, the project has always been about showing the woman in her daily surroundings because that is where everyday street harassment happens. To show how normalised harassment is for women, I need photograph them in and completely familiar environment so viewers can relate. The woman is always the central focus in my imagery and my aims are to turn the place where she once felt victimised into a stage for her to speak out on. 

Why do you think something like this never existed before? Why does is have to be public?

Up until recently I think speaking out about sexual harassment has been a taboo subject for women. There are many factors as to why women haven’t spoken out about sexual harassment before, and they range from feeling ashamed to not wanting to make a big deal out of it. The fact that it is such a normal thing that women experience is probably the reason why it hasn’t been spoken about as much before, so I think that now it is so important to make women feel as though they have a voice that will be listened to. The platform has to be public because just as much as it is about giving women a place to speak, it is also a place for men to listen.  

When capturing the women, how do you go about photographing and documenting the subject? How do you represent their personality/experience? Run me through the process.

I have a coffee and a chat with the woman before photographing her to swap stories and just get to know each other a little bit. I like to make the woman feel as comfortable as I can, and I photograph her in a place which is relevant to her or the story she is telling. I am always on the lookout for locations and, before I meet the woman, I ask her to send me an experience so I can decide whether to photograph her in a location that relates to it, or one which is convenient for her. I try to place the subject in a setting which is familiar to the viewer, complimentary to the story and an empowering backdrop for the woman.

What else needs to be done to tackle issues surrounding sexual harassment? How will this project catalyse change?

To really tackle the issue of sexual harassment in public, we have to keep talking and try to denormalise attitudes towards it. For this to happen, we need cooperation from both men and women, and we need to reinforce a support system to make women feel comfortable to speak about it. We also need to start educating about the issue at a younger age, to show what counts as unacceptable behaviour towards women in public. Ultimately, If we keep talking about this, and reinforcing that it shouldn’t be happening, then in the future I hope it will discourage men to harass women in public. Nothing ever happens at once, but if I can just raise some awareness or even make a situation that’s happened more bearable for someone, then that is a step in the right direction.