By calling out the perpetrators of gendered harassment, NAVA hopes that many more people can come forward with confidence.
Image by Leszek Glasner via Shutterstock.com
Last week, on International Women’s Day, NAVA launched a public letter called Dear Person I’ve Been Reluctant To Keep Engaging With But Have Had To For Professional Reasons. As we were crafting it, Penelope Benton, NAVA’s powerhouse General Manager, described the letter as 'creepy' and 'fierce'. And that’s really stayed with me – because they’re such important observations. It is creepy: it’s designed to make the perpetrator of gendered harassment feel as uncomfortable as the victim – or, hopefully, more uncomfortable. A lot more. Enough for them to feel compelled to change that behaviour. And it’s fierce: it’s uncompromising and it’s clear. It’s not inert and it’s not nice. In the voice of an assertive feminism, it describes discrimination, harassment and assault, and their impacts on the body, on a career and on the arts more broadly.
When it was shown at Loud & Luminous, the International Women’s Day symposium with a focus on women in photography, the response moved me. A silence quickly replaced our background chatter and filled the room as everyone watched with deepening focus, seeing themselves and so many others, and recognising the urgency for change. It was palpable. At the end there was a quiet pause, then a little applause – and then, rousingly, a lot of applause.
Since its release, we’ve been inundated by responses. Many academics and teachers have let us know that they’re sharing the letter with their students, or showing it in class for discussion. And many people have asked us whether the letter was written to someone in particular; written in the second person, it seems to address someone known to each speaker – and, of course, it does – but no, we didn’t write it with a specific person in mind. We wrote it with far too many specific people in mind.
I want to thank Bibi Barba, Anney Bounpraseth, Koco Carey, Eugene Choi, Nadeena Dixon, Rye Dixon, Wasana Dixon, Sabella D’Souza, Leila El Rayes, Julie Ewington, Alexie Glass-Kantor, Roslyn Helper, Samuel Hodge, Deborah Kelly, Willurai Kirkbright, Claudia Nicholson, Radha La Bia (Shahmen Suku), and Justin Shoulder, alongside NAVA staff Penelope Benton, Laura Pike and Claudia Roosen, for their generosity in reading and interpreting the letter through their own voice.
In producing the video, Kate Blackmore reflected on how, as we read, each of us became more emotional, more angry. It’s personal because we’ve all experienced it – and, I’m guessing, you likely have too.
At last Saturday’s launch of Feminist Perspectives on Art, a leading Australian curator and critic told me that she’d found herself in a lot of discussions with peers and friends about the letter – discussions which inevitably led to an exchange of “groping stories”. Stories that went back many decades. Stories they had never shared with one another before. Sickening stories. Necessary stories. The resources we’ve provided offer guidance on reporting such incidents, going straight to the organisations who are dedicated to supporting people through that process – including the police, with gender harassment and assault contacts for each state. We hope that a lot more people can come forward with confidence.
While we deliberately wrote the letter as non-gender-specific – recognising that gendered harassment is ultimately an exercise of power – releasing it on International Women’s Day made an important opportunity for men to acknowledge the role they can play in promoting gender equity.
At Loud & Luminous I presented the opening keynote as well as participating in the closing panel. I was deeply impressed with Lisa Kurtz and Kym Griffiths on creating platforms for one another and finding time for retreat; Lisa Saad on the tenacity that motivated her success in a male-dominated commercial field; Julia Coddington and Gerry Orkin on street photography and the stubbornly male-dominant composition of its festivals and symposia; and Catherine Forge on the invisibility of working rural women in historic photographs. It was heartening to hear Gerry set clear expectations of fellow men to recognise their privilege and share their power, or stand aside to create opportunities for others. The closing panel also presented the rare experience of unconscious bias as another panellist was questioned about the opportunities he had chosen not to offer to women. To be called out so directly was an important experience – and one we’ll be seeing a lot more of at public discussions across the world.
Gendered harassment is just one factor preventing gender equity. It’s both troublingly prevalent and troublingly invisible. Making unconscious bias conscious is a difficult commitment, requiring honest self-reflection as well as honest, critical engagement with peers. Only by making all those factors visible together can we address them together.
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