Women have to contend with sexual harassment everywhere: at work, on the street, and especially online, where face-to-face interactions are traded for anonymity. Few can open social media or any dating app without getting deluged with unsolicited dick pics on a daily basis.
While many men hear of these harassment horror stories, it's rarely experienced first-hand. But NYC-based photographer Atisha Paulson got to discover for himself what it's like. As a straight man with a self-described "feminine" name, Paulson often gets mistaken on Instagram for the female subjects he shoots and posts on his account.
With a personal understanding of the underlying misogyny in our culture, Paulson, along with his wife and photo team, created a zine, cTKTKT, inspired by his experiences. Inside, pictures of Paulson's models are juxtaposed with seedy messages ranging from the comical to the perverse from various DM creeps.
PAPER talked to Paulson about cTKTKT, fake Instagram accounts, and how life has been after the project.
cTKTKT is powerful, to say the least. What was your initial reaction to receiving all these messages as a straight guy on Instagram posting women's pictures?
It was initially very disturbing. It was disgusting, it was awkward, it was more than anything I had ever experienced. Obviously I was aware that men harass women, but I had never had it directed at me in a way where men thought I was a woman. I was a genuine recipient of their unwanted attention. I was aware of it, but I wasn't aware of how easy it was to infiltrate my personal space in a very unwanted way, and obviously in an unwanted sexual way.
Did you respond?
When I first got them, I was not responding. I was just screenshotting the DM at the entry state where it says "accept or decline," and simply deleting them because I was repulsed and repelled by the people in the messages. But as I was getting so many and just declining them all, I felt like I wasn't doing something that I could be doing. So I started answering them, but trolling them in a way that would ultimately be used to sort of humiliate them publicly. If nothing else, make them think about what they were doing, and what they were sending to random strangers.
What was their reaction?
The guys would see my and be really pissed, and be like "take it down." Instead] I would put the conversation we had up, and it would be like a mini-series. People that were watching this go down were more intrigued by the conversation than the actual photos themselves, and that got me thinking that the message of the two projects was more powerful and significant than either one of them by themselves. The photos were good, but they weren't anything like, "Oh my god this is making me think." The DMs were also interesting, but putting them together onto Instagram — the combined projects proved to be more interesting than them standing-alone.
Did you expect this project would result from your photography?
That was what was so magical about the project. When I was taking the pictures, I had no idea the outcome would manifest into this dark deep-seeded cultural undertone of harassment and misogyny. It definitely wasn't my starting out point, but it came to the surface through my experiences, learning, and sharing it — that was the collective experience.
Do you think the men knew this was more of a project, or they actually thought every single different girl was the account owner?
Honestly, you're giving them too much credit. They don't think. They're reactors, so if they see a photo in their feed or suggested photos, they may just automatically think the person they're DMing is that model. Even though if you zoom out and see my Instagram is populated by a ridiculous amount of people, they aren't that cognitive. They're in a fantasy of their own, and that's what Instagram is: a fantasy. They didn't think there was an actual person behind these pictures. And if they did get that far, they thought maybe it was a female photographer because of my name, because it ends with an A.
"When I was taking the pictures, I had no idea the outcome would manifest into this dark deep-seeded cultural undertone of harassment and misogyny."
There was one message in particular that stood out. You were sending messages back-and-forth with one of these guys, and he said he wanted to test your bravery. You responded saying, "Yeah coming from a guy who's hiding behind a fake Instagram account..."
At that point I had gotten so many messages, so I was very aware of the tools that guys would try to use in order to manipulate you to sort of elicit a response. I had been through it so many times, I was kind of aware that the people who were sending the messages were probably in a dark room messaging hundreds of strangers a day, hoping for a response.
In fact, their audacity is thinking that's brave, and to use it as a mechanism to get people to respond. At that point, listen: you have a private account, no one can see you, and you're sending these out — you're kind of a coward. It's a cowardly way for men to harass women because there's a real level of anonymity. You can say, do, or be anyone without consequence.
So that's the thing about the project: these men and boys would say, do and send things to women and strangers that they would never do in real like. I got messages from Asia, India, Iran, Mexico or wherever from sweet teenage kids who are probably shy, who would never say "Send me a picture of your pussy" to a woman. But because of the anonymity, they can do what they want, harass who they want, without fear of reproach.
You publish all these private DMs in cTKTKT. Have you thought about the potential legal issues?
Of course, that was one of the first identified things. The people publishing it wanted to make sure that it was legal for them to print the people's handles and messages. We had a copyright attorney review the work, and he was like, "Yeah you can publish this without any fear of reprimand, because you're getting these messages [sent] to you — you're not modifying them or attaching to random people. For example if someone sent you mail, and you send a picture [of it], it's not private anymore, it becomes part of the public. So that was a factor we considered. We wanted to make sure what we did wouldn't get us in trouble.
At the end of cTKTKT, you mention the people who helped you. One of them is your wife. How did she feel about the project?
She's a very patient woman, so she was on board with the project as an art project, and she sort of enjoys certain aspects because she thinks I'm funny. But some other parts of it were disturbing — she didn't wanna see a bunch of weirdo's dicks.
Was she ever involved in communicating with any men?
I enlisted her in one exchange with some guy near the end of the project where he said, "We're making a music video, and thought you'd be perfect for it. Do you model?" I replied, "Oh yeah, I go both ways," I started fucking with him, cause some things will excite the guy. Double entendres. "Oh great, I looked for you online, but couldn't find anything." "Well what name would you use," I asked?
If you Googled my name, you'd know I was a photographer. I asked him, "Oh what's your day rate?" I didn't say if I was male or female, but asked as if I were a model: what would you pay me or do you expect me to do this for free?
So then he says to me, "I couldn't find any of your work online, maybe you could just send me some poses to make sure you'd be a good fit." So then I thought, "Ok yeah here we go. This is the door, I opened it, and he's going to walk through as expected." And he was like, "Oh yeah down on all fours, ass in the air, sweet smile on your face" — just everything a total creepy guy would say to you. So of course I though, "Alright," and at that point it was coming to the end of the project. I had my wife take the pics of me doing all the poses exactly as he requested. and of course I never got the job, but it was the one time my wife was complicit with me. She thought that was really funny.
Since cTKTKT's been out, have you been receiving more messages?
Honestly, what happened was that I was doing these photos for a couple years, cause I was doing some stuff for Playboy when they were doing their re-brand. It was kind of like doing natural sexy photos of women in a non-super objectified, no retouch, natural docu-setting. So at that time Playboy liked the style, and they were incorporating it into their re-brand when they weren't doing nudity.
But the process was complete when the zine was finished, and I've kinda moved on from doing that type of photography, because it did its thing. So I still get some straggler messages here and there, but I don't get the same amount, because I don't create that content anymore.
And as a quick anecdote: [A man] sent me something [once] — it was a snapshot of a photo I took of a girl for one of my zine jobs, a really beautiful woman sitting next to a window. And he said, "Oh I love your hair, it's so beautiful," so I was playing back and forth with him. But it turns out in the end, after I sent him a photo of me, he was like, "I love you, I wanna be with you. You look like someone who really likes to get buggered."
I think it's an English term for f**k? Anyways, so I send a picture of me, and said, "Yeah, I totally do," and in the end, he was [actually] a gay guy who was totally fucking with me! It was so funny because I had been completely played by my own DMing stories. I had become a victim of my own process.
What would you want to say to the men featured in your piece if they got the zine?
Honestly there's nothing you can say to them that they don't already know. On a side note, something that was really disturbing: When Highsnobiety ran a story [on the zine], they put a corresponding pic on their Insta, and it went crazy.
The guys were saying she basically deserves to get these DMs — she's basically next to a prostitute. I was so surprised, because I know that people have a deep ingrained misogyny in them, but when you see it really coming out as guys saying she deserved to be harassed, then you realize how deep-seeded it is in the culture. And how difficult it will be to change this way of thinking.
It's a mess.
Here's a great analogy: I took a picture for Playboy a year ago, and they put in on Instagram recently. This guy made a comment about the girl — "Too plain Jane" — so I went and screenshotted that, circled it [on Instagram], then went to his Instagram, screenshotted it, then went to one of the pages of him and his daughter, and I put on his comment "too plain Jane."
He responded "careful" in a menacing way, and I was like, "You don't get it! You missed the entire point! Here you are a father of a daughter, a husband of a wife, and you're going on Instagram and making comments about women — dismissive and derogatory judgment based on her looks, but then when someone does it to your daughter, now you feel like you need to be protective? Well guess what, that woman who you did that to is someone's daughter, someone's wife, someone's mother!" So it was so crazy because it was a perfect circle, and he still didn't get it. But everyone else did.
Published by these days gallery, cTkTkT is available at American Two Shot in SoHo, New York.