Imagine walking down the street on your way to school or work, you’re minding your own business, and suddenly a man yells at you, “Hey sexy, what you got underneath those clothes?” It’s sickening at first, but now envision being invaded with these kinds of comments every day whenever you’re on the streets. Nowadays catcalling is a norm in majority of women’s lives, but one brave soul refuses to let it become her reality.
Caroline Tompkins, a 22-year old photographer hailing from Ohio, is challenging this norm with her weapon of choice, her camera. In 2011, Tompkins began the “Hey Baby” photo series, in which she captures the men who have verbally harassed on the streets. The series is Tompkins’ way of fighting back catcalling by shedding light on the ongoing issue and the men who partake.
Karina (Q): What inspired you to create the project? Was there a specific incident that prompted you to create the project?
Caroline Tompkins: It wasn’t necessarily a specific incident. I had moved to Brooklyn and it just became this relentless amount of comments and demands from men on the street. It just got to the point where I would start talking about it with other people and the conversation was always about me and what I could change, like, “maybe you should dye your hair darker or maybe you should wear different clothes.” It was like, well, this isn’t the conversation which we’re having [laughs]. I’m not the one that needs to change. I’m a photographer, so I felt like this was my tool that I could use in terms of re-appropriating that power and also starting a conversation about catcalling.
Q: What’s your opinion on the public’s attempt to blame women on these types of situations? It’s something that’s so common.
CT: Obviously it’s something I disapprove of [laughs]. It’s awful. It’s unfathomable that it does become that conversation and it’s not about what we’re doing as a society that creates people to catcall.
Q: How do you get the men’s pictures? What’s the process in getting their pictures?
CT: I realized pretty early on that catcalling is much about power. It’s a power play between the street which is historically a male space, and a private space, being a more female space. As females enter the male space, it becomes sort of a power control and power dynamic that is shifted. So for me I needed to exert my own power. By that I mean I wouldn’t ask them if I could take their picture, I would sort of demand that I take their picture or tell them “I am taking your picture” because they didn’t ask me if they could say these things. It’s also a performance for me in a way. I don’t consider myself an aggressive person by any means so it’s something that I need to build myself up to and say “I have my camera, I’m going outside, I’m going to do this.” It’s hard, it’s not an easy thing to do. I think it’s important for me to remain confident and strong.
Q: What are some of the reactions you’ve gotten? How do you deal with them?
CT: I think it’s important to know that in New York City and mostly everywhere you don’t feel safe ever. There’s never a time when you feel totally safe. So in terms of my own safety, that’s something that I wasn’t necessarily concerned with because most of the photographs are during the day on busy streets so I felt like that’s even more safe than any other situation. The reactions themselves, it sort of depends, which is sort of interesting. Some men were encouraged by it and were like, “Wow this woman is giving me more attention,” which I understand is problematic. Ultimately, the work is problematic because to photograph someone is to respect them in a way and to photograph these men is a form of respect and I understand that’s the problem within that. But some men would cover their faces, some men would just run away. But I think it’s important for me that there is a consequence for their actions whether they were encouraged by it, they still realize, “Oh that woman has my picture after I did something,” because I often would tell them that it made me feel uncomfortable.
Q: Have any of the men in your photographs tried to sue you for “damaging” their reputation?
CT: None of the men have contacted me or reached out whatsoever. So, we’ll see how the future goes in that regards.
Q: I noticed in some of the photographs some of the men exert this confidence, like they’re proud of doing that. How does that make you feel? (Good question!!)
CT: It’s ultimately like they were taught that and I think that’s the worst part. Like I said, I understand that it’s encouraging them in that respect and now I have that their pictures, I’ve been on news, you’re doing an interview with me and these pictures will be published. So there’s the accountability on their end that they now exist in the world in that context.
Q: Do you ever get scared that you’re putting your life on the line when confronting these men?
CT: None of them were very aggressive. Like I said, taking a picture of someone is kind of flattering so I think a lot of them were just kind of like, “Oh okay,” or, “Oh no.” But I think it’s when I started to confront them in terms of like, “That made me feel uncomfortable,” they would ask why I wanted to take their picture and I’d say, “Why not? You said this to me, why can’t I do that?” Sometimes they would say, “I didn’t rape you,” and me being like, “No you didn’t but it doesn’t matter.” Also, I feel like living in New York, every woman has a story of either being followed home, or being grabbed inappropriately, or something that you’ve already experienced so much living here, unfortunately. So I feel like photographing them isn’t a huge step in terms of my own safety.
Q: Another interesting to point out is that some of the men you photographed were men of color. What have the comments been about regarding the race factor in the photographs? Some people might take it as a bad representation to men of color. What is your opinion on that? Do you think there’s some correlation between the two, catcalling and race?
CT: No, I don’t want to say that. That’s probably the most interesting part for me because I’m obviously white and I’m a white person photographing people of color and the history of that is not a good history and not history I want to participate in. I think that is relevant and another reason why the work is ultimately problematic. But also I think that my main mission of the work is to create a dialogue and create a forum for people to discuss street harassment and for it to be legitimized in a lot of ways. So this aspect of it that I’m a white woman photographing people of color I think it’s another interesting one to have because I have good friends that are Asian and get catcalled mostly by white men and I think that’s totally interesting, it adds a whole dynamic to the work. So ultimately, it’s uncomfortable for me to feel like I’m participating in the history that I don’t approve but also the works needs to be made.
Q: Is catcalling an issue you first dealt with when you first moved to New York? Or is it a more serious issue here than other places where you have experienced catcalling?
CT: I’ve definitely experienced it in other places, even going to Europe. It’s something as a woman you get kind of accustomed to, these sort of uncomfortable things men say to you that you don’t really know how to deal with is part of growing up as a woman. But here I just found that it was incredibly relentless and incredibly violating to the point of where “hey baby” or “hey beautiful” is the least of your worries. It’s something that I’ve dealt with my whole life, but here it’s just at a very concentrated level.
Q: How do you think people should go about catcalling? Like you said, people usually blame it on women, but do you think it’s something that should be put on men as well? Because what’s interesting about your project is that you’re not the subject, it’s the men that are being brought the attention. So, what do you think should be done in regards to catcalling?
CT: I don’t think there’s going to be some sort of legal change that’s going to happen, I also don’t think that would ever work. What am I going to say? This guy said something to me, arrest him! [laughs]. That’s never going to happen, so I think it’s more important for a social shift or an attitude shift to get people thinking it’s not acceptable and it’s not okay and that it’s not a compliment. Of course to some women it is a compliment, that’s totally valid, by in large it makes most people feel uncomfortable. What needs to be done is it needs to be talked about and it needs to be discussed. I don’t think these men know they’re doing something wrong necessarily. I don’t think they’re like, “Oh I’m going to make this women feel unsafe.” I think most of them have somewhat good intentions, and that’s sort of why it needs to be talked about because women ignore it and it sort of perpetuates, “Well I guess it’s fine, that girl is just a bitch.”
Q: Speaking of women that take it as a compliment, have you received any complaints from them? Have you had somebody explain to you that you shouldn’t take it as harassment and take it as compliments?
CT: I found that a lot of my older women professors would say, “Oh you should feel so lucky” or, “Oh I wish I got catcalled still,” which is hard to hear because I don’t really think they believe that, I think it’s just a joke. It sort of internalizes misogyny. No woman my age has ever said, “You should just take it as a compliment.” I’ve gotten “it’s just a cultural thing” which it isn’t.
Q: What is your opinion on women who do take these as compliments? What is your take on that?
CT: It’s sort of valid if you feel empowered by it. I’m not a person that’s going to tell you you can’t take something as a compliment. It’s totally fine but I also think if you are a person that’s taking it as a compliment, you should understand how invasive it is to most women and to you and also, how scary it is to be a woman existing in a lot of ways. There’s that quote, “men are afraid women would embarrass them and women are afraid men will kill them,” I feel like that is pretty relevant to this work. That is what is like to be a woman, you’re afraid of actually being killed and men are afraid of having their pride or ego hurt.
Q: How has catcalling affected your daily life or your daily routine?
CT: Unfortunately it affects most of my daily life. I live in a neighborhood where I get catcalled less than I used to but I find myself taking different routes. Even in the city I’ll be walking to the subway and I’ll be like, “I’ll take 3rd avenue instead of 1st avenue because I get catcalled more in 1st avenue.” It’ so ingrained in me that I don’t necessarily really consider it, I just make the split second decision and later I’m like, “Woah I did that because I don’t want someone to say something to me.” Same goes in Brooklyn, if I’m walking to a friend’s house that I know is a couple of miles walk, I’ll make routes specifically to just not deal with it. Or I kind of have to prepare myself when leaving in the morning or coming home at night. I think there is something about catcalling where it’s like a sixth sense, you can feel when a man is going to say something to you. You can just feel it with the way they’re speaking or the way they’re looking at you, you just know they’re going to say something. I’ll feel a guy’s presence on me and take a different route or walk slower.
Q: What has been your worst catcalling experience in the city?
CT: Uh, that’s a hard question. I probably have three really bad ones. Once I was leaving the post office in Bed-Stuy which is already a pretty awful post office. I was just totally frustrated with New York City and this guy catcalled me as I was leaving and I just totally flipped out and I was like, “Fuck you! Get away from me!” He just matched my aggression completely and put his hand in his pocket and was like, “I’ll stab you! You can’t talk to me like that!” There was a cop near us and I was like, “Excuse me, this guy just threatened my life. Can you apprehend him?” The cop was just like, “Alright m’am, calm down.” That was the only direct threat I guess. I’ve been followed home at night and I’ve also been surrounded by groups of guys as I go for a run.
Q: What do you want people to take out of this project? What do you want people to learn? What’s your message on this project?
CT: Like I said earlier, it’s most important for me to get people talking, get people discussing this. It’s a group effort, I’m not going to cure catcalling. I can participate in a group of people that are trying to challenge it at least. I think it’s for me to perpetuate the conversation, give women permission to realize that this isn’t their fault, this isn’t something they need to change about themselves. So yeah, just to get people talking and just to get an attitude change in people that it’s not a cultural thing, it’s not a compliment, and that it’s not something women need to change about themselves in order to stop it.
You can see Caroline Tompkins’ full ’Hey Baby’ project at http://www.carolinetompkins.com/