Photographer, activist and founder of the campaign Cheer Up Luv as well as a newly launched podcast under the same name, Eliza Hatch is giving voices and victims of sexual harassment a platform to speak up from all over the world. In turn, she and those voices are changing it. Screen Shot spoke to Hatch about how photography and creative work can be used as a driving force towards positive change, as well as how to find your own voice when you don’t know where to look for it and dealing with imposter syndrome.
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Creatives in general, but not as a rule, have a puzzling time figuring out exactly what medium they want to devote themselves to, and Hatch is no exception. With a wide array of interests, her title and introduction now is more of a ‘slash’ career, something the new generation will be familiar with. But even with her success thus far as a storyteller that uses photography in a core way, she humbly told Screen Shot that “I still kind of wrestle with imposter syndrome and even calling myself a photographer because I didn’t go down the traditional route.”
“I’ve always just had photography as a hobby,” Hatch continued, stating that she had studied graphics and illustration at university. “Photography was never anything that I thought I would go into professionally at all, it was just something that I always did. I just started taking photos in my spare time. I was working in set design in the art department for TV and film and I just wanted to kind of do something for myself on the side. I wanted to have something creative and something fulfilling to keep me going.”
Having an interest is usually something that motivates a project into existence, and for Hatch that interest was Cheer Up Luv, which stands for something that women from all walks of life deal with on a daily basis: sexual harassment. Hatch wanted to create awareness around the way in which harassment is perceived by the general public, including her close male friends, and prove how even mild comments, when piled up on top of each other, become an enormous weight to bear. Traditionally, these comments are mostly aimed at women. From catcalling and ‘just smile’ gestures to extreme abuse, it is all relevant towards the same cause.
Essentially, Cheer Up Luv is a photo and interview series which aims to tell affected women’s accounts of street harassment, in any form or relation to that criteria. The ongoing and growing project uses photography, journalism, activism and social media as a community to portray the important message of a somewhat previously silent problem, and to evoke change towards it. Women featured in this series tell their stories, and are then photographed within the situation of where the harassment was experienced.
Hatched explained to us that Cheer Up Luv in its essence is a platform for women to speak of and for the general public “to hear their stories.” “It gives them the location as a stage to tell it and allows the victims to reclaim their space. There’s somehow a disconnect between what you’re hearing and who the storyteller is, because often when you hear stories of assault it’s anonymous or it’s words on a page or it’s a quote in an article, or someone had their face blurred out. So I basically wanted to bridge that gap by putting the person in the location and for viewers to see them telling their stories. It makes it easy for people to get the message. Ultimately, I wanted to make it easy for people to understand that this is a real thing that is actually happening to real people in recognisable places. I wanted to make it as relatable as possible.”
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When we asked Hatch how it was to be a woman working within the photography industry—which in the past has been a heavily male dominated space—and if she had ever felt a sense of disparity within it, she told us that “It’s reared its head in ways that’ve been surprising to me, I’ve actually found in a lot of ways, being a creative and being a woman, and doing what I do—I’ve been lucky that I have been recognised that I do a certain thing because of the topic that I’m covering and the field that I’m in, so in that sense I’ve carved my own path in such a specific area that I have felt quite isolated from that. I haven’t had to compete for a certain kind of spotlight in that way.”
“But in a lot of other ways, I have found quite a direct conflict with being a female photographer, and the ways that I’ve felt that have been just from taking photographs in public, a lot of the work that I do is on the streets in public places—and the amount of harassment that I’ve experienced just from taking photographs of other women on the street is ridiculous. I had never experienced that until starting this campaign. It happened in every single country that I’ve been to and it happened when I haven’t even been doing Cheer Up Luv related things, when I’ve just been on a photoshoot in public. It’s the comments you get, the looks you get, the shock, the disbelief that you’re a woman doing what you’re doing in the public realm, so that has been really shocking to me,” Hatch further explained.
“There’s still such a perception that photographers are men and no one bats an eyelid when a man takes a photo of a man on the street or a woman on the street but as soon as a woman is taking a photo of a woman on the street, everyone stops, watches, looks, comments. Everyone has something to say. It’s remarkable to me the amount of attention you receive, people will stop and ask ‘oh are you models?’, ‘will you take my picture?’, and ‘oh cheer up and smile’ and crowds literally gather. I’ve had people follow us before, I was once followed for half an hour in central London. I’ve had people try to get me to come into their cars.”
“It’s ironic how people will say the words ‘Cheer up luv’ and not even understand the impact of what they’re saying when they do. I have experienced sexual harassments and comments all my life, and it was when one man said exactly this that something switched on how I felt about the whole thing. It’s funny people don’t think it’s the most serious form of harassment, being told to smile or that you’d look so much prettier when you smiled or cheer up doesn’t seem like the biggest deal, but it triggered all of the other kinds of experiences that I’d had in my life and brushed under the carpet.”
“Why is this something that you’re just expected to take, why should you be made to feel self-conscious, angry, guilty and all of these emotions in the space of like one second from a throw away statement that this person has probably forgotten about instantly, while I’m thinking about it for the next 24 hours? This isn’t limited to where we come from; it happens all around the world in variations of the same phrase or motive, and it’s pretty much only ever directed at women because of this whole idea that we should be available and smiling and complicit.”
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The concept of Cheer Up Luv, and the medium Hatch chose to start the project, somewhat happened by happy accident and consequence. The photographer, although self-claimed as feeling like an imposter within the industry, found her way to today by working out two different passions separately, and eventually allowing them to meet in the middle. “I was completely self-taught and I just kind of started to upgrade my kit slowly over the years, which has been a whole learning curve for me, but something that I’ve always done. I was always the one that at social occasions or parties would bring out the camera and have always been extremely irritating to all of my friends,” shares Hatch.
“To everyone that’s ever known me, I’ve always been the one with that horrid small digital camera at parties that’s inescapable, but it was never something that I thought I’d do professionally.” Hatch further explained that she “kind of just started documenting things through Cheer Up Luv and I had this little point and shoot film camera that someone gave me and I just started messing around with it, started using it more and more and more. Then as Cheer Up Luv began to become more of a thing, I just put two and two together.” With regards to career ambition, Hatch made an important point which is essentially a decision that will resonate with any creative reading this, that “it just doesn’t really matter what you studied, it’s what you end up doing in your life that really matters I think.”
“I was doing all sorts of stuff in my last year of university, but in my first year I was really rigid. I thought that I had to be doing one thing but couldn’t really figure out what I was supposed to be doing at all but by the time I got to my last year, I had one friend in particular actually who really encouraged me to just do what I enjoyed, in any medium that I wanted to do it in, rather than focus on how to, let’s say, draw something or have a certain style. So I just kind of let loose and started doing things that I didn’t know how to do, imperfectly, but I really enjoyed them. It was sort of the passion, for me, that mattered the most at that time. That’s what’s kind of driven me with my work with Cheer Up Luv, it’s the passion behind it rather than being… I suppose, a master at the craft. That was a really freeing lesson for me and something I have always remembered—do things because you enjoy it, not because you are the best at it.”
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Every single person starts somewhere, and it’s important to note that somewhere can be anywhere along the way: things change all the time, especially careers. Hatch admitted that the whole trajectory of her life and career changed from where she initially imagined herself going in life and that she has accepted that. “It’s totally okay to not have everything figured out. There is so much pressure on young women especially to be successful and be young while doing it, but it’s unrealistic and it’s unnecessary pressure. Something else is that a lot of people worry that there is not enough space for everyone and that there is only enough space for one or two people doing certain things in certain fields and it’s just not true.”
To commit to flexibility as a creative, especially when facing hardship, is something many of us have experienced recently due to obvious reasons. Hatch told us that “The pandemic has allowed me to be more flexible with my work, and to hear from people all over the world. Change the way that I do Cheer Up Luv, which has been a really great opportunity for me to be able to speak and photograph people from all over the world that I would never have been able to beforehand. Before the pandemic, the project was almost limited in a sense that I had to actually be there with the person for it to happen, but don’t get me wrong I prefer that so much, being able to talk to the people in real life…I miss doing it so much, I can’t wait to start to have those connections again out on the streets but it’s been incredible to do shoots with people from like New Zealand and Canada and Pakistan that I may not have been able to do before.”
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In conclusion to her advice, although there is undoubtedly much more—and her career in future will most definitely be one to watch—Hatch told us that “If you want to do something but you aren’t sure what you want to do: just find the thing that you are most passionate about and just go from there. Don’t worry about the medium or what the final result will be. Don’t worry about what you think this thing is going to materialise, just hone into the topic you are most passionate about and break it down into its core values. Especially with large themes like politics, climate change or feminism, you could delve into that thing and not even touch the sides. It’s so important to just focus on something really small and simple, or a part of it specifically that you’re passionate about, and enjoy the journey of exploring it.”
In recent years, ‘multidisciplinary artist’ has become somewhat of a buzzword, used by many as a catch-all term meant to help redefine what can really be described as the act of blindly dabbling in everything. As a result, many of us have forgotten what it truly is like to be a multidisciplinary artist in 2021’s digital age, as well as the amount of work, planning and creativity it takes to gracefully mix digital with real-life art. Fear no more, because we managed to speak to one of the real ones out there, writer, director, and performer Alejandra Smits, about publishing her second poetry book while simultaneously maintaining her already impressive career in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Smits’ second poetry book, titled Poetry Scam, initially started as “a very traditional poetry book,” only to then shift into a mix of what can only be described as ‘Instagram poetry’. “I started working on it three years ago, then slowly, as I started editing it and thinking about its layout with my team of designers, we felt like I wasn’t really portraying myself in it, so we decided to add my own memes, which I usually share through my Instagram Stories,” Smits explained about the concept behind Poetry Scam.
The book consists of a compilation of poems and images by the artist, containing both English and Spanish editions. “In the middle part that divides the Spanish version from the English version, there’s a whole chapter of memes separated into different chapters. It started as just poems and then quickly evolved into a piece of art, more than just a book.”
Through Poetry Scam, Smits’ first intention was to create a play out of the book—bringing her own words and images to life, in a way. But then, you know what I’m about to say: COVID came. The show had to be cancelled after the performer had already found a location to present it. Speaking about potentially turning the play into a video performance, which Smits has a fair amount of experience with, she shared herself that “I was also getting into that idea but now, everything is so difficult when it comes to managing artists—because I had a lot of collaborators who wanted to interpret the poems I wrote—but I’m simply not a producer, I’m an artist, and I’m terrible at managing other people.”
As a result, Smits decided to lay this idea to rest, at least for now.
You only need to look up Smits’ Instagram account to notice that the artist has an influential presence on the platform. With more than 45,000 followers to her credit, the artist admits to finding it hard to block out the dependency that comes with social media influence. “I’m super addicted to my phone, and I’m a bit worried about that relationship because it doesn’t allow me to be in the present moment. I’ll be watching a movie and constantly checking my phone at the same time, just because I’ll have this sort of anxiety.”
After realising that she was going through what most of us can probably relate to—those who actually don’t feel the need to check their phone during a movie are one of the few lucky ones—Smits decided to take a well-needed break from all of it. “Yesterday actually, I disabled all of my notifications as I’m trying not to check my phone as often. If something is urgent I’ll get an email or a call instead. Right now, I’m trying to go into a detox with Instagram.”
But fighting a habit can be hard, especially if there’s an army of behaviour scientists, data analysts and constantly evolving algorithms working against you and your newly found resolution. Ever since our conversation, Smits has posted a few times on Instagram, with one of those posts receiving more than 10,900 likes.
Of course, my aim is not to criticise the artist’s relationship with social media, but more to highlight the presence and role that social media play in her life, as well as in her career. Insta detox put aside, it simply cannot be ignored that Smits’ way of approaching the digital world is as ‘down with the kids’ as it can be.
Instagram has become, without a doubt, an important tool for artists like Smits to promote their work and get cast for different kinds of projects by brands. “I get a lot of jobs thanks to my Instagram so I want to be grateful towards the app but I just feel like I need to change my relationship with it in order to not get so wrapped up in it.”
On the app, Smits’ feed is a mix of her art—from poems and memes to videos of her performances—as well as pictures of her modelling for some of Instagram’s trendiest brands such as La Manso, Miista, Paloma Wool, and more.
Although Smits does admit to modelling for many brands, including some that she doesn’t feel the need to post about on her own feed, she didn’t plan on getting involved in the fashion industry at first, “It happened by mistake almost, I actually started modelling for Paloma Wool a couple of years ago, maybe 3 years ago and I was working with one of my best friends, Carlota Guerrero, who’s a photographer. She took me in for a couple of campaigns and after that everything snowballed. My agency, which is from London, contacted me and I said ‘yes of course’. I quickly realised that it was an easy job to have on the side because it gave me a lot of freedom and it’s lucrative.”
But Smits never planned to go down that route when it comes to her career, and faced an internal dilemma knowing that she played a part in the fashion industry, therefore in all the sustainability and human rights issues it represents too. “I’m also trying to shift into a different source of income,” she explains, “in order to stop modelling in a couple of years or so.”
With modelling comes almost instantly the discussion of body positivity and the vulnerability that it involves. As a performer, Smits’ body is a very important medium used in her art, and so is vulnerability: “I grew up thinking that I should be smaller, because my friends were super skinny and I had a lot of insecurities about my body and my curves. Even nowadays, I still feel insecure sometimes although I love my body. It’s a really long journey to loving your body completely, and I’m still on it.”
For Smits, using her body as the main element of some of her artwork is not about finding self-love, but more about getting an understanding of her strengths and weaknesses in order to overcome them. “Knowing that, no matter what, when I overcome them, I’m fine, that’s what the process is about with my body and my work. When I do a performance and I’m exposing my body, even though I’m feeling insecure, getting used to that ‘friction’ is what I’m interested in. I feel uncomfortable, but nothing bad is happening. It’s about being comfortable with not being comfortable if that makes sense?”
What she calls ‘friction’ is a strong reminder of what women can go through on a daily basis. At the risk of sounding cheesy, know you what they say, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, right? Her approach to narration, creatively used in more than one medium—through writing, imageries such as memes and Instagram Stories, performances using her own body, film—is what makes Smits such a versatile artist; a multidisciplinary narrator.
By revealing her body as well as other aspects of her life online, Smits acts as a gentle reminder that we’re all, in a way, performing, only the artist uses her whole life as a performative exercise, one she constantly learns from. “I think most people that follow me on Instagram think that I love my body unconditionally but it’s not like that.”
Smits’ work is interlaced with humour—anyone who can’t see that after scrolling through her poems and memes, which could also be qualified as digital poems, is clearly missing the whole point. By exploring existential topics such as death and trauma using digital mediums that were never truly appreciated in the art world until now, the artist offers her audience a type of performance that is both funny and highly relatable.
Now, here comes the million-dollar question: are memes a valid piece of artistic expression? Of course, everything is arguable but in Smits’ case, the conversation could easily be pleaded in her favour. After all, memes are often created to make social or political commentary, just like many other art mediums. As a multidisciplinary storyteller, Smits’ art (be that memes, videos, or written poetry) should therefore be considered as valid pieces of artistic expression.
Through her work as well as her digital presence, Smits has managed to not only make a name for herself as one of the most exciting emerging artists of our generation but also as a highly needed breath of fresh air on both the art and fashion scenes.
On top of Poetry Scam and her on and off Instagram presence, the artist has recently launched her own newsletter called Unsolicited Existence, which focuses on “all things existence.” Whether you’re a multidisciplinary artist yourself trying to navigate the digital world or simply looking to improve your meme-making skills, Smits’ artwork will, without a doubt, have something to offer you. And as the affirmation goes: have fun, take detours, find your (multiple) callings and all in all—exist loudly.