Posted 16 January 2019
Interview by Marianne Hanoun

How Eliza Hatch and UNFPA created a social campaign to tackle sexual harassment in Sri Lanka

Photographer Eliza Hatch is perhaps best known for her inspiring photojournalism series, Cheer Up Luv, aimed at empowering women and raising raising awareness for sexual harassment. In June last year, Eliza partnered with the UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund] on social campaign, Don’t Look Away – a response to a study highlighting the issue of sexual harassment on public transport in Sri Lanka. Retelling the real-life stories of 16 women, Eliza, along with Studio ZOO’s Mark Wiitanen spent two months producing portraits, interviews and videos as part of a campaign for the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence on November 25th. She recounts the entire process – from using Google Maps to scout locations and meeting the women themselves to releasing the campaign and responding to backlash.

Eliza speaking with one of the women in Sri Lanka

Project Background

I founded Cheer Up Luv in 2017 to help combat the normalisation of sexual harassment. The photographs are taken on location where the harassment took place, giving women the ability to reclaim those spaces. The aim of the project has always been to empower women who don’t have a public voice, and to create a community where women can find solidarity, whilst raising awareness for sexual harassment.

I was in New York in June 2018 when the UNFPA got in touch, and asked if I wanted to have a meeting while I was there. I had no connection to them at all prior to this, but we decided that we wanted to collaborate on a project almost immediately. The UNFPA had recently published a study about sexual harassment on public transport in Sri Lanka, and suggested that we focus the project there.

Cheer Up Luv
Cheer Up Luv

Defining the Brief

The report found that 90% of women experience sexual harassment on public transport in Sri Lanka, with only 4% seeking help from the authorities. One of the main issues is that when conductors or passengers see other passengers getting harassed, they look the other way. That is one of the main reasons why we named the campaign, Don’t Look Away. It is an issue that needs to be confronted head on, and something that can’t be ignored any longer. Together, we wanted to empower the women of Sri Lanka to speak out by creating a platform for their stories of sexual harassment to be heard. Much like Cheer Up Luv, the plan was to create location-based portraits and interviews.

“90% of women experience sexual harassment on public transport in Sri Lanka, with only 4% seeking help from the authorities.”

After the initial meeting, I reached out to Mark Wiitanen from Studio ZOO, who I have worked with many times on video projects. We both saw huge potential to also make a short film and document the 16 women’s stories using video. So we drew up a document to pitch the idea, and luckily, the UNFPA also saw the potential of incorporating video into the campaign.

Altogether, they would form part of a campaign for the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence on November 25th. This would also include a complete social media takeover of all UNFPA channels.

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Pages from the pitch document

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Pages from the pitch document

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Pages from the pitch document

Prepping and Selecting Locations

We had about a month of pre-production, as we only received final confirmation about the trip in early August. So during that month I read through the findings in the UNFPA report, and started scouting our shoot locations on Google Maps. It was different to how I usually work, but I actually really enjoyed doing that.

We also needed to get our kit together, including all of our camera equipment, lights, tripods, mics, and film, whilst we were in the field. After our transport was organised for us, we left for Sri Lanka on the 7th of September.

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Filming in Sri Lanka

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Filming in Sri Lanka

Reaching out to Women

This project was a new way of working for me, and definitely my biggest collaboration so far. It was everything I would normally do with Cheer Up Luv, but amplified 100%. The only thing that differed was that I didn’t source any of the participating women, as I normally do.

We had a production team on the ground in Colombo who reached out to all the women, and asked them if they wanted to be involved. With a statistic like 90% of women having experienced sexual harassment on public transport, you would have thought it would be easy to find 16 women prepared to share their experience, but this was not the case. It was one thing finding women who would speak to you openly, but another finding those willing to have their faces as part of a global campaign, and on bus stops around Sri Lanka. It was a lot to ask.

“Movements like #MeToo haven’t reached Sri Lanka yet; we wanted to shift the conversation from a Western perspective.”

Movements like #MeToo haven’t reached Sri Lanka yet, which is one of the main reasons we wanted to shift the conversation from a Western perspective. There is still a lot of stigma, shame and victim blaming attached to speaking out against sexual harassment in Sri Lanka, and understandably, many women didn’t want to subject themselves to that risk. I was completely overwhelmed that we managed to photograph and interview 16 women; it was something that wasn’t looking possible at all from the beginning of our week.

Eliza photographing some of the women in Sri Lanka
Eliza photographing some of the women in Sri Lanka

Meeting the Women

Once the team found willing participants, I was put in touch immediately. This is super-important to my process, as I wanted to build up communication beforehand – I really didn’t want to just turn up, and meet the woman on the day. It was important to understand the nature of the harassment they faced, and the limitations it had on their free movement, work and social life. It was a completely exhilarating and moving experience. I interviewed mothers, students, actresses, charity workers, businesswomen – each one with a unique, yet disturbingly similar account of harassment.

There was a really poignant moment for me, when I was sitting in a circle talking to three students, and I brought up the name of my project, Cheer Up Luv, to see if it meant anything to them, or if they had a similar phrase in their language. Unsurprisingly, they had all been told to smile, or look cheerful or pretty. I realised that the core of what the name refers to is experienced by women all over the globe.

“You can travel to the opposite end of the earth, and speak to a complete stranger for two hours about this shared experience.”

You can travel to the opposite end of the earth, and speak to a complete stranger for two hours about this shared experience. It created an automatic connection and solidarity, and really helped when trying to get to know the woman, and make her feel comfortable when taking her photo.

During our week in Sri Lanka we interviewed, photographed and filmed 16 women in various locations in Colombo. Each shoot took approximately two to three hours; and on one day, we interviewed five women, which was very intense.

Eliza photographing some of the women in Sri Lanka
Eliza photographing some of the women in Sri Lanka
Eliza photographing some of the women in Sri Lanka

Development and Production

We had at least one Skype meeting a week with the UNFPA, and met in their offices every two weeks to share progress and go over strategy for the campaign release. There were obviously a lot of negotiations and moments when the project would go off course, but I was happy that Mark and I had creative control over the actual content and how it would be presented.

“Editing was especially tricky as more than half of the interviews were in Sinhala and Tamil, two of the native languages in Sri Lanka.”

Post-production took roughly two months, as our deadline for the release of the project was the 25th of November – the start of the 16 Days of Activism. During that period, we sent all our film off to get developed. All the photos were shot on 35mm and 120mm, and the footage was shot on 16mm. We then had to edit and piece together all of the interviews. This was done mainly using editing software like Capture One, Davinci Resolve, After Affects, and InDesign.

The content is of a very sensitive nature, so every millisecond counts, and had to be cut in exactly the right place. Editing was especially tricky as more than half of the interviews were in Sinhala and Tamil, two of the native languages in Sri Lanka. We worked directly with translators in Sri Lanka, and the 16 women themselves, to make sure all of our translations and cuts made sense.

Filming interviews in Sri Lanka
Eliza and Mark working on the film together

After that, we had to edit all the photographs, compile the stories, and prepare assets for the release. This included working with a sound designer and composers for an introductory short film, Come Home Safely, which gave insight into the project and issue.

“It was really interesting to take my project out of its usual confines, and see it grow into something much bigger.”

What started as a relatively small team of just myself, Mark, and the head of social media at the UNFPA, grew to incorporate their web team, web developers Elkano, and the UNFPA country office team in Sri Lanka. Later on, we also collaborated with web developers on the concept and layout of an interactive website. The website was actually a surprise to me as we had only factored doing a social campaign for the project – but it was really interesting to take my project out of its usual confines, and see it grow and expand into something much bigger.

Introductory short film, “Come Home Safely”

Launching the Campaign

We released one woman’s story every day for 16 days, with a photo, story, and video interview. We used Twitter, Facebook, and posted video interviews on Instagram’s IGTV feature to drive our audience to the project homepage. Some of the photographs were also put up on bus stops in Colombo.

The UNFPA were extremely happy with the outcome. They broke a record of viewing figures on their website, and the entire project was viewed by more than six million people – something I am very proud of! Plus, we had an outpouring of overwhelmingly supportive responses from the public, which inspired more women to come forward with their own experiences. Fortunately the women we featured were also really happy with how it looked, which was really important to me.

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16 Stores – the final website

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16 Stores – the final website

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16 Stores – the final website

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16 Stores – the final website

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16 Stores – the final website

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The campaign at bus stops

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The campaign at bus stops

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The campaign at bus stops

The campaign at bus stops

Creating a Dialogue Online

The campaign also created a dialogue about the issue in Sri Lanka on social platforms, and had a flurry of both positive and negative feedback. As we feared, there was a negative backlash on Facebook to videos of the women speaking, and it was truly harrowing to see the barrage of harassment these women face both offline and online.

“It was initially really upsetting to see the abusive comments, but it just reinforced why we set out to do this project in the first place.”

It was initially really shocking and upsetting to see the abusive comments from mostly Sri Lankan men – and I obviously felt responsible for putting the women in that position – but it just reinforced why we set out to do this project in the first place. It goes to show the kind of work that still needs to be done, and inspired us all to continue the conversation. The women we interviewed even pulled together to do a counter video as a response to the trolling, and to further show the reality of what women face.

Some of the videos on the UNFPA IGTV channel

Hopes for the Future

My personal hopes for the project are that it continues to inspire women to come forward about their own experiences, and encourages bystanders to intervene when they see harassment happening to others. The 16 Days of Activism may be over, but the campaign continues, and we are one step closer to making a change.

Recently one of the women I interviewed told me that she was recognised by a man for being in the campaign on a bus. Initially, my heart filled with dread, but she then said that the man actually praised her. He told her how it opened his eyes to the issue, and made him think about the way his sister and mother travel. For me, just hearing one story like that makes it all worth it.

Some of the final images – Ronali
Some of the final images – Hesha
Some of the final images – Shiyalni
Some of the final images – Opula

Interview by Marianne Hanoun
Mention UNFPA
Mention Eliza Hatch
Mention Mark Wiitanen
Mention Studio ZOO