I think that many of us can understand how easy it is to get trapped inside of the persona we create for our professional lives. To a certain extent these…let’s call them ‘personality tweaks’, are a defensive measure. They shield us from the claws and teeth of judgement from our peers. They function as walls of mannerisms and expressions designed to protect us from exposing the meat of our self-perceived mediocrities to a hungry and hostile world.
In a sense they’re also a form of communication, and I’ve been thinking a lot about communication ever since I interviewed Katie Sikora, founder of The Sexism Project. Sikora runs her own business as a music photographer in New Orleans, and I spoke with her to learn about the work she’s doing to explore and document the perspectives of women in the New Orleans music scene.
TSP tells its story at the intersection of art and gender relations. It’s an exploration in photojournalism that documents the stories of its subjects by using groundbreaking and avant-garde techniques to delve into the unspoken minds of women: asking them about their experiences. Shocking, yes?
In many ways TSP is an exercise in listening skills, which is as critical to the practice of good feminism as it is absent from our culture of everyday patriarchal narcissism. Sikora explained, “For me a major impetus for starting the project was thinking about the ways sexism affects me in a subtle manner.” It’s the subtle stuff that so often falls through the cracks of our communication, even when we have good intentions.
Now, I’m sure we all know countless stories of sexist behavior (how depressing is that?), but when talking to Sikora one of the stories she told me really stuck out, and not for the uniqueness of the misogyny she had to deal with, but for the insight she offered about why it happened. She recounted how it’s a common experience for her to be shooting photos at a show and some—eh, bro, I suppose, will approach and ask her who she’s dating in the band.
I initially thought this a strangely specific experience to have happen so frequently, but it made sense when Sikora added that during one of these encounters she told the guy, “You think the only way a woman can be happy is if the man she’s dating or attached to is accomplishing something.” I found that powerful in a sad way. Sometimes that’s how truth resonates, I suppose.
But that’s why I love the work that TSP accomplishes. This is just one story from one woman, the true beauty of the form comes when the collage of stories and pictures are brought together. What better way is there to capture the voices of people all too often shoved to the side than by taking their portraits and interviewing them. I mean, the only way you could top that would be if afterwards the project was exhibited in some kind of exceptional venue for celebrated artists like, oh, I don’t know, the historic Preservation Hall in New Orleans (catch The Sexism Project there November 2-5!).
Artistic victories aside, TSP merges the art and activism of its subject matter flawlessly. When I asked Sikora if she wanted any specific anti-sexist organizing to result from her work, she made it clear that her primary goal was raising awareness and starting a conversation. Which makes sense, communication is key after all. Only once she started talking about the results of the project did it hit me that something much bigger was also happening. Sikora said, “One of the really unexpected side effects of this project was that we created a network of women in the community who previously weren’t aware of each other…I don’t know if it would fall under activism necessarily, but just that support system being there is so huge.”
Do you see, good people? Do you see!? This photojournalist set out to do an artistic project about subject matter important her, and without even intending to do so created a network of roughly sixty women with a shared professional and political experience. These women operate in the same city, play music at the same venues, and deal with the same owners, managers, and men as they move about their careers. The possibilities for ways that they can now support each other are endless, and it’s because an artist set out to capture their stories and start this conversation.
It’s not my place to guess at what these women might do with their newly created network of support (do I smell union organizing? boycotts of venues with sexist managers?! How abo—no, stop!). I do know that TSP is artistically valuable, a marriage of words and image that provided fertile soil for the seeds of the stories these women needed to tell. While the resulting plants may still not have blossomed, I have no doubt that come the change of seasons there will be a most beautiful bloom.
**Follow The Sexism Project here: