I have experimented with several descriptions when explaining my residency project to others. It is a project based on street harassment. It is a response to the recent rise in social media regarding street harassment. It is a project to raise awareness of street harassment. These descriptions are true, but they don't really explain why I decided to do the project. I run the risk of lapsing into generalising statements about women, men and street harassment; my words fail me. It becomes something that could have been said by anyone. And that is not what this residency project is about.
As an illustrator I want to communicate a story, and I want that story to be accessible. I find social issues and history much easier to understand when it is told from a personal perspective; it humanises the experience and makes it something that I can relate to. Reading a factual article about factory workers in China means I learn about the basic information of the subject. But it doesn't mean I have any real human understanding of it. A factual article can reduce human experiences down to statistics, and I don't connect. But when I read biography, an individual experience that fits within that subject, it becomes alive. For example, reading Factory Girls by Leslie T. Chang drew focus onto the individual experiences of a few women. Although it was the experiences of just a few, it meant much more to me than facts and figures. Each experience was so specific, and to generalise that would miss what is human about the stories.
When I noticed more and more articles appearing about street harassment, I thought about my own experiences and the experiences of those closest to me. It was a sobering realisation to find that many of my female friends had experienced street harassment to some degree. It was even more sobering when I discovered how many of these instances led to more serious altercations. But one thing that seemed universal was how unsurprised many of the women were that the harassment had happened at all. Now as grown women, they had developed methods of dealing with harassing behaviour or outright avoiding it completely. I mean this in the literal sense of avoiding certain areas at certain times, but also on a more subtle level such as by the way they held themselves or by what clothes they chose to wear. Something had dictated that if they did not want to be harassed, then they would have to change something about the way they conduct themselves. This calls into question many issues in society, but I wanted to explore something prior to that self consciousness of conduct. What is it like for a teenager who has never experienced street harassment before? Someone who is innocent to the motivation of an uninvited interaction. Schools can give you sex education, and your parents can tell you about their first relationships. No one tells you what to do when someone you don't know calls you 'babe' in the street. If it's meant to be a compliment, why does it make you feel unsafe?
When I was in high school, I witnessed a friend experience serious street harassment for the first time. What the man in question was saying was not important. What I remember was her reaction. People sometimes say that a girl should feel complimented if a stranger tells them that they are attractive. But my friend was just scared. Why was this person she had never spoken to approaching her? At that age only high school aged boys registered on her 'crush' radar, so she didn't understand why this much older man was making an advance. She would try to act cool and shrug off the incident, but after several days of repeated advances from the same man she was deeply upset. We were all confused, and didn't know how to help. We were 12 years old. How do you explain to a 12 year old how to deal with street harassment? It's not enough to say “that's just the way it is”.
It is important to learn to stand up for yourself, to be confident enough to expect a basic level of respect. I wanted to tell a story of a girl learning to do that. But I also think that for change to happen, it has to come from both sides. I would ask anyone who condones street harassment (or uninvited interactions), would you feel comfortable if someone was doing that to someone you care about, your mother or a sister? For change to happen, people need to understand how street harassment feels from an individual perspective, why it is harmful. You can't force people to change negative behaviour, but you can show them why they should want to do it for themselves.
So this residency project is a story about street harassment. Maybe somewhere it will help someone to change.
Thanks to Rafael De Clercq, Mette Hjort, Sophia Law, Carol Archer, Michelle Huang, Zoie So and Joyce Tong of the Visual Studies Department at Lingnan University.
All the work shown in this book is under the copyright of Cat O'Neil. Do not copy or reproduce the work without prior consent (except for review purposes).