Something as simple as walking down the street alone can become a terrifying experience for a woman. As she strides down the sidewalk, she might catch a glimpse of a man staring at her. He might make noises or say something to her. So, she walks a little bit faster.
In most cases, that’s the end of it. But some catcallers can be even more aggressive. They might try to stop the woman and ask for her name or phone number. And they could even start to follow her if she ignores them. It’s scary, but it happens to women everywhere, every single day.
Well, in the summer of 2017 one woman in the Netherlands decided that enough was enough. When a man started bothering her as she walked along the street, she took out her phone and snapped a selfie with him to chronicle the harassment that she faced. And he was the first of many.
Noa Jansma, a 20-year-old from Amsterdam, was studying at Design Academy Eindhoven when a class discussion sparked an idea for a project completely unrelated to her course in design. She and her classmates started talking about catcalling, and Jansma made an astute observation in the midst of the conversation.
“I realized that half of the class, the women, knew what I was talking about and lived it on a daily basis. And the other half, the men, didn’t even think that this is still happening,” she subsequently told BuzzFeed News. “They were really surprised and curious. Some of them even did not believe me.”
Jansma felt that she had to do something to show that catcallling was, indeed, an issue that she and other women regularly faced. She consequently decided to start taking selfies, but not just of herself. She would instead take pictures of herself and the men who harassed her.
Over the course of one month, she took photos of herself with every man who catcalled her in the street, followed her or otherwise harassed her as she walked around. She admitted that she was a little nervous about collecting her photographic evidence at first, however.
“I thought men would be suspicious of me, that they would understand my motives when I was taking selfies with them,” she said. “So I was kind of fearful.” What she found, though, was that men were more than happy to smile and pose for her pictures, unwittingly identifying themselves as catcallers.
“Most of the time, they have their thumbs up. They’re happy because they honestly think that they’re complimenting me,” she said of her collection of photos. “They really didn’t care about me – they never realized that I was unhappy.”
Although she could have simply sent the images to the classmates who’d sparked the initial idea, she took the project one step further. Jansma in fact turned to the social media platform Instagram in order to showcase her photos as she snapped them. She opened an account and aptly named it “dearcatcallers.” And she then posted a statement explaining the project before sharing all of the images that she had collected.
“This Instagram has the aim to create awareness about the objectification of women in daily life,” she wrote in August 2017. “Since many people don’t know how often and in whatever context ‘catcalling’ happens, I’ll be showing my catcallers.”
She then explained why she chose this particular approach to demonstrate her point. “By making the selfie, both the objectifier and the object are assembled in one composition,” she wrote. “Myself, as the object, standing in front of the catcallers represents the reversed power ratio which is caused by this project.”
And with that, she started posting. Not only did she share the images, but she also added captions with each image detailing what the men said to her. “Can he have your number?” read one example. “God bless, when I see you, all I get is wild thoughts,” another stated.
Other captions told stories of even scarier situations. For instance, one man followed her in his van, catcalling her from the window and asking if she wanted to get into the vehicle. Earlier, another man had followed her for ten minutes on foot before asking her where she was going – and if he could come along.
In situations like these – and others in which Jansma decided against taking pictures – her main priority was always her own well-being. “Of course, my safety is more important than this project,” she said. “I didn’t take photos when I was catcalled in the dark, in little streets.”
She nonetheless had a total of 24 images at the end of the month-long project. And that was more than enough to prove her point to the male classmates who hadn’t believed that she and other women experienced such harassment. In the meantime, her Instagram account went viral, racking up more than 340,000 followers. It was clear that the photos struck a chord with people across the world.
The majority of her followers offered kind, positive and supportive words. She noted that many male viewers thanked her for putting the images online, because she shed light on a problem that they hadn’t known existed. Of course, she did experience some of the negativity that comes with having a high profile online. “I’ve been called an attention whore or a liar,” she admitted.
At the end of her month of taking selfies, Jansma announced that she would stop taking pictures of her harassers. But she asked other women out there to take over the reins of her account. She also suggested that they use the hashtag #dearcatcallers to show others just how often this type of thing happens – and they’ve been happy to oblige.
“My month of posts has ended, but it doesn’t mean that catcallers are in the past as well,” she wrote. “To show that it’s a global phenomenon and that this art project is not only about me, I’ll pass on the account to different girls around the world.”
Most importantly, she felt that her account had brought much-needed attention to the harassment that women face daily. “It has made it clear that catcalling is still a common occurrence that many of us are dealing with,” she wrote. And she subsequently told BuzzFeed News that her project had given her power over her harassers, too. “They come in my privacy, I come in theirs,” she said. “This project allowed me to handle catcalling.”