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Strand Speaker Series: In Conversation with Eliza Hatch, Founder of Cheer Up Luv

Image: Eliza Hatch and Ella-Mae Earnshaw

As part of Strand Magazine’s October Speaker Series, our essays editor Ellie Muir sat down with Eliza Hatch via Instagram live to discuss all things related to Cheer Up Luv; sexual harassment, activism and social media - as well as Eliza’s impressive work as a creative.

Hello everyone! Welcome to the Strand speaker series, we’re kicking it off with our first one today, a conversation with Eliza Hatch. Eliza is a photographer, activist and founder of “Cheer Up Luv” (@cheerupluv) which is an award-winning photo campaign and online community based on Instagram, retelling stories of sexual harassment. She also hosts the Cheer Up Luv podcast which discusses the realities of harassment whilst interviewing activists, artists and creatives. Welcome! How are you today?

“Hi! I’m really great, thanks so much for having me and for the introduction.”

So, what you can tell us about yourself and how Cheer Up Luv all began?

“Sure, so my name is Eliza Hatch, I founded the photo campaign Cheer Up Luv which is a campaign that I started in January 2017 that retells accounts of sexual harassment through photography. The process of the project really is interviewing the subject about their experience with sexual harassment and then revisiting the place that it happened, whether that’s a bus stop, a street, a subway station and then using that location as a stage to speak out on it and reclaim the space.

We do the shoot in that space and then publish the photo and the story online and on Instagram. It started in London and has grown to cover stories from all around the world, including Mexico, Japan, New York, Sri Lanka. Now, it’s even more international because I’ve taken it from doing shoots in real life to doing shoots on FaceTime. That kind of happened with the pandemic – the way I worked completely changed, obviously, because everyone stopped doing things in real life and did it online and so that kind of happened with my campaign as well.”

Amazing, I think it’s so important to reclaim the space where the harassment took place because otherwise it can become a site of trauma in daily life. Cheer Up Luv is a really intersectional community – why do you think intersectionality is so integral in retelling stories of harassment?

“I think traditionally and, in the media especially, even with reporting and statistics, cases of sexual harassment are often viewed through a really binary lens and is often viewed as a woman’s issue or an issue that exclusively happens to girls. Most of that unfortunately is to do with reporting because reporting is still very binary and not very intersectional at all so when we do get reports and statistics its often just from women and girls. Obviously, it’s something that affects everybody whether that’s to do with your gender or race.

There are so many different intersections of sexual harassment and included in that is racial harassment, microaggressions, transphobia, homophobia, islamophobia – it’s a huge spectrum. But it’s only just starting to be talked about really recently in the media. I mean, Me Too was only a few years ago and we still haven’t come as far as I’d liked us to have moved the conversation on, and there’s just so many other parts of the conversation that still aren’t really happening. We need to kind of focus on them and give them just as much attention as the mainstream issues, like what a victim looks like. I think we’ve seen this certain victim portrayed to us throughout the media for a long time which is basically just the cis, straight, white woman and the issue is just a lot more diverse than that. I think that’s something that should be reflected upon when we talk about sexual harassment.”

I completely agree. I think what’s so important in finding intersectionality is that it will make the movement stronger too, so that we’re not just focusing on the cis white woman.

I guess for me, there was a moment where I realised that harassment should not be normalised anymore realising “wait, this isn’t normal”, which was when I started writing about it. Could you tell me when you had that sort of moment?

“So that was sort of the catalyst for starting Cheer Up Luv for me, it was really coming to that realisation that I had been normalising all of these things my entire life and had been experiencing them and just assimilating them into my every day and brushing them off.

It started at a really young age, from taking the bus to school in my school uniform, to going to school and experiencing it in the classroom, and then being out with my friends on the weekends. It was always in the bracket of ‘boys will be boys’ and ‘we’re girls, so that’s something that you’re going to have to expect as you grow up’. I never used to question it at all when I was at school, because it was never seen as something to be questioned.

Nobody challenged it whatsoever, it was completely normalised. Even when we were in the classroom and if something bad happened to you, like if a boy tried to put their hand up your skirt, or pinged your bra strap or something, it was instantaneously put onto you as your problem. The teachers would say, ‘oh, pull your skirt down’, or ‘it’s because you’re wearing makeup’, so from a really young age there was this narrative of victim blaming and that you are the one who is drawing the attention therefore it’s obviously your fault.

If you hear that kind of messaging from a really young age and when you’re at school, and especially when you’re going through puberty - and seeing yourself through other people’s eyes as a sexual object for the first time ever - then you’re going to make those associations and you’re going to sort of think ‘oh, maybe I am drawing the attention’ and all of this kind of stuff. I never really challenged that or thought that was wrong for a really long time, for too long to be honest, until I just had one experience too many and something in me just switched and I was like, okay hang on, why is this a thing that we just accept as normal?

The thing that made me challenge that was after a conversation I had with some of my male friends. Someone had walked past me on the street and had said, ‘come on give us a smile, cheer up love’, and I was just a bit sort of like ‘oh god, what? Why?’. I’d heard it a few times before and it had always irritated me, but I’d never really gotten to the bottom of it, I’d never really figured out why it was so annoying. And then I came back to my friend’s house and had a conversation with some of my female friends and they said, ‘oh god yeah it happens all the time it’s so annoying’. One of my friends was a nurse and said, ‘you wouldn’t believe how many men tell me to smile on the ward or patients tell me to smile when I’m doing my job’.

As we continued to have this conversation our stories began to escalate, and we ended up talking about all of the different forms of harassment that we would experience in a day. Some of my male friends would interject into the conversation and say, ‘what are you talking about, there’s no way you can be experiencing these things as often as you say you are and are you sure you’re not just taking it the wrong way, these things sound like compliments and they sound like attempts of flattery. I think you’re probably being a bit too sensitive. Also we’ve never seen these things happening, we aren’t the ones doing it, are you sure?’. They basically dismissed and diminished and brushed off all our experiences and in that moment I kind of had this realisation that harassment was happening all of the time but there was a complete lack of awareness surrounding the subject. My close male friends, people who were like brothers to me, just having literally no idea to the kinds of things that me and my female friends had been experiencing since we were 13 years old, that’s when I kind of had that light bulb moment, something inside me just switched.”

Yeah, I resonate so much with many of those experiences. The first time I kind of started to analyse it, I decided in January of this year to write down every time it happened to me. I knew it was going to be a lot, but I needed to put it into perspective. I think a lot of men I know who read it were very much in disbelief. It was weird to see them be faced with it as well, understanding that that actually happens.

“And that’s like half of the reason why I started doing what I do and why I think it’s so important to have a place where you can see all of the stories and give them the room and the space they deserve. It was only until I started doing that project that my male friends started looking through it and were reading all of the stories. They were like, ‘oh my god, okay yeah this really is bad. This really is a real thing.’ It took for them to be actually seeing women that they knew standing in really recognisable places, like on the tube or on that busy street to be able to put two and two together and think okay maybe this is really happening.”

I completely agree. Something I was thinking about recently, there’s “Ask Angela” in bars where if you’re feeling unsafe you can alert a member of staff discretely, it would be great there could be some sort of code you can use on public transport or other spaces. I think as we do raise awareness of our experiences to people that haven’t experienced it before, it would be amazing to create some sort of safety net where others know where they can step in and maybe help.

“Yeah there are actually a lot of those that have sprung up recently, there’s a really good initiative called “Safe & the City”, which is an app where you can log all of your experiences of sexual harassment in the city where it happens to you. It’s a database, a map basically with all these hotspots on, so that’s really good. There’s also another organization called “Visible”, who have just come out, whose objective is all about collecting stories of harassment for the tube, so yeah, they’re both really good initiatives that I recommend.”

I will have to check those out, thank you for the recommendations. It’s been amazing watching your platform grow and I think a lot of people would be interested in the process behind running such a large and informative platform, could you tell us what it’s like and what goes into it?

“At the beginning so much of it was trial and error and just kind of seeing what worked, seeing what didn’t work. I flooded the platform with stories and photographs and just tried to get as much content out there as I possibly could to raise awareness. So then when that all started to gain a lot of traction and the whole thing sort of snowballed and ended up getting a lot of press, and it started getting bigger, bigger, bigger. Then I kind of felt like I had way more of a responsibility in a sense and that’s kind of come as the platform has grown. I’ve just felt like more and more of a sense of responsibility, I guess.

It seems like it’s taken on a different weight I suppose, because when I first started doing it I felt I was doing it for me, for my close friends and I still very much am, but with more and more people sharing their stories and getting involved you kind of feel like this project and this campaign is so much bigger than me and is something that affects people all over the world. It almost feels like never-ending in some respect. And some people have said, oh what’s next, what’s the next project, what are you going to do after Cheer Up Luv, and I think well, personally, I don’t really see an end point, there’s still so much work to be done, and it’s not something that I’m tiring of or that I’ve overgrown. I’m not getting bored of it and there’s no kind of shortage of stories either, so I just feel like it’s something which I’m always going to do in some capacity.

There’s a really amazing, supportive community now that I’ve grown over the past couple of years and especially when I’m having moments where I’m like, oh god is anyone even listening to what I’m doing, does anyone even care anymore, has the conversation moved on, you know I’ll have moments where I’m like ‘what am I doing’ like a lot of people, but then there’s always that community. I’ll get one nice message saying, ‘this really helped me’ or ‘I really identify with someone’s story that you shared’, and that’ll make it all better and I’ll just think, oh okay you still have a purpose and this is still a platform that people need and all of this kind of stuff. But you do have moments where you spiral into self-doubt and think it’s a lot to keep up with sometimes, especially because a lot of it is on social media and with that comes a lot of different stresses and stuff. But it’s a process for sure.”

Do you have a team now on the account?

“No, this is the thing, I probably really should have a team, but it’s still just me. It’s always been just me, taking the photos and running the account and doing talks and videos and the podcast. I really should branch out to be honest because it feels like I’m taking on a bit too much now. But also, with the lockdown and the pandemic I haven’t really had any work, so you know it’s been kind of fine. It’s funny because I do talk to lots of people who are in similar sort of online activism communities to me and I ask them about how they run their platform and how they do the work that they do and they’ll say, oh you know we have a team of 25 people and I’m like ah that makes sense, that makes so much sense how you were putting out all of this content every day, and I’m just sitting there like why can’t I keep up. It’s because it’s literally just me.”

That’s a lot of jobs at once!

“Yeah, I’m thinking I’m going to have to loosen the reigns a little bit and branch out a bit because I think It comes a point where you naturally just need to expand and be less precious about things and take on more people and grow basically. I’ve been thinking about it for a while and I think now is the time.”

I can’t imagine the amount of work you put in so that’s amazing!

I noticed on your story last week that Instagram had shadow banned one of your posts about sexual harassment. I know that TikTok and Instagram have been doing it in terms of Black Lives Matter content too. How do you respond to times when you get shadow banned or do you think there’s a way around it, because there’s been quite a lot of talk about it recently?

“Yeah, it’s a very frustrating one to be honest and it is the kind of thing that Instagram says they don’t do but they definitely do, and they’ve been doing it to my account on and off for years now. I think it must be to do with the kind of content I’m posting because it is quite a feminist account and there’s lots of sharing trauma and stories of sexual harassment and calling out rape culture. I don’t think Instagram likes that, I think it pushes their buttons and in a real kind of misogynistic way they have been shadow banning and blocking my content every now and again. I know it happens to loads and loads of different people, especially marginalised people, people of colour, black women.

It is an extremely frustrating thing because there’s nothing you can really do about it except for shouting about it as loud as you can and hoping someone will hear you. Your content is being restricted and your content is being blocked and it can happen for a number of reasons.

I think one of the most frustrating things that happened recently was when I re-shared some screenshots of a man sending unsolicited dick pics to somebody in their inbox and they weren’t explicit images at all that I was sharing, they were completely covered up and you couldn’t see anything at all, but it was obviously a screenshot from a DM. Anyway, I was re-sharing it on my story and I said why is it acceptable that these accounts don’t get removed, and they can continue to make new accounts and continue to harass people, because online harassment and harassment on Instagram is a huge, huge issue – there’s just no accountability whatsoever. You can send out dick pics and Instagram doesn’t moderate it or sensor it at all but if you repost it or call them out for it, they sensor you. When I posted that I got a warning that my account would be deleted, which was insane. I got that message and I was really enraged basically, because this is completely the wrong way around and it’s happened to a lot of people before. Like Venus Libido’s account, she’s an illustrator and sex educator. She had her account deleted after she called out one of her online harassers. Then there was a big backlash from everybody and lots of articles written about it. Instagram hates bad press, so they reinstated her account and gave her a blue tick as an apology which they seem to be doing a lot of now with accounts that they restrict and block and delete and censor photos of. They do this apology blue tick thing, which isn’t really a solution whatsoever, it’s just a quick way to hush people and get rid of the bad publicity.

So basically I don’t really know the answer to that one at all except try to follow and engage with these kind of accounts the most and you can do that in so many ways by saving posts, by turning on post notifications, by just engaging with their content, sharing their content. There are plenty of people other than me that deserve this attention as well.”

I’ve seen a lot of those kind of posts going around showing the best ways you can challenge the algorithm and the least you can do is ‘like’ but the best thing you can do is share the post. But yeah, it’s just such a shame because there’s so many amazing platforms on Instagram and the amount of control Instagram has over content is very frustrating.

“Yeah, it’s very, very frustrating but you’ve also got to think like, god if my entire life’s work is dependent on this platform which I have kind of no control over whatsoever, then I need a backup plan, fast.”

That is a kind of sobering thought, everything I write is online, so if we lost the internet tomorrow then…..

“Yeah, I’m happy that I take all of my photographs on film, I have an archive of all of my negatives. So, if worse comes to worst at least I’ve got that.”

I guess leading on from talking about social media and activism, now in terms of us as individuals with our personal accounts, do you think that there’s an increased sense of responsibility to hold people accountable? Not in terms of cancel culture, but in terms of educating others, increasing visibility of womxn and peoples experience with harassment. Is this something all social media users should be thinking about?

“I think it’s something you should be aware of; I think it’s something which everybody should engage in but it’s also one of those things that you don’t want to force down people’s throats. Obviously, there’s certain things that 100% you should be engaging in and taking an active role in, like anti-racism for one thing.

But it’s a funny one because now I’m kind of in two minds because I do feel for me personally I have a really big responsibility with the platform I have to call things out and raise awareness about certain things, but then also there’s a problem with treating individuals as news sources and news platforms. I obviously think it’s really, really important to keep up to date with things that are going on, to share important things, to call things out, to call out injustices that you see happening in the world, and to be engaged with current issues. But then there’s also the added pressure that that puts onto individuals as well which can really turn people off and shut people out of the conversation as well.

Basically yes, I do think because we all have phones and we can engage with issues going on in the world and educate others and be educated ourselves, we do have a responsibility 100% to engage and call people out on things, but I also think we should give other people a little bit of room. It’s a tricky one, I know there’s lots of people now who do feel like they are being treated as news sources and there are people demanding things from them like ‘why aren’t you sharing things about this, why aren’t you talking about this, why aren’t you posting this’. At the end of the day you are just one person and it is exhausting to an extent to keep up on top of everything and you have to keep your mental health in check a little bit as well when it comes to that sort of stuff. So ultimately yes, but also look after your mental health.”

I completely agree, I remember a few months ago Ashley Walters put up a video and he was basically just saying, ‘why is everyone asking me to speak about Black Lives Matter, just let me live’. I think it’s important to realise that we as humans can’t speak up about everything, but can all share informative messages when we want to share - especially when there’s amazing platforms like yours.

“I mean I do think its really important to take a stand and show your support for things like Black Lives Matter and to the feminist movement and the things that are really important that need vocalisation and need your support. It’s more the really, really small things. Overall if you are engaging and talking about the important things going on in the world then that is amazing but there also comes a point where you can’t actually share everything, like you can’t share absolutely everything that’s going on.”

I guess on a different note, I’ve been really enjoying your new podcast, and congratulations on the launch of it this year. Why do you think the podcast has resonated with so many listeners?

“Well, I’m happy it has and surprised that it has. I made it because it was something I really wanted to do. I w