Katie Sikora documents members of New Orleans' music community who have experienced sexism as well as the forms it takes.
In the month between the time that photographer Katie Sikora and musician Alexis Marceaux and I spoke about The Sexism Project, the news of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual harassment broke, as did Brett Anderson’s story about John Besh’s. One of the women who accused President Trump of sexual harassment sued him for defamation, and the #MeToo Facebook meme gave readers a sense of how pervasive the experience is for women. The Sexism Project didn’t start as an attempt to ride the zeitgeist, but it can’t help but do so. It was always going to be relevant after Trump’s rumored and demonstrated sexism didn’t disqualify him as president for a large portion of America.
“That flipped a switch for me,” Marceaux says. “I decided I’m not holding my tongue anymore.”
Sikora started the project in Spring 2016 without thinking about Trump’s then-candidacy, and she began it organically. She recalled how whenever women were in a space together, the conversation inevitably drifted to stories about the outrageous examples of sexism they had experienced. She wanted to write stories, and those stories from women she knew in the New Orleans indie music community seemed like a natural starting place. At first, her plans were vague. She knew she wanted to photograph women in their homes, and there she would talk to them about their experiences with sexual harassment, which she would write up, probably for a website.
After Sikora interviewed Marceaux, who performs as part of Sweet Crude and Alexis and the Samurai, Marceaux asked about where the conversation was going. “I had been really open, and I hadn’t been. Ever,” Marceaux says. When Sikora mentioned a website, Marceaux saw the project as a way to further a national conversation and encouraged her to think bigger. The two of them teamed with Morgan Thielen of Bear America Records and Katie Budge from The Howlin’ Wolf to help Sikora’s work have impact they believed it could have. There will still be a website where the portraits and conversations will be posted, but starting Thursday night, the photos and excerpts from the conversations will be on display at Preservation Hall for this weekend, where there will also be performances by Tasche de la Rocha, Helen Gillet, Big Freedia, Maggie Koerner, Julie Odell, Jenna Winston and Piper Browne of Miss Mojo with Mikayla Braun of The Crooked Vines, as well as DJ Dominomnom and DJ Nice Rack.
It was important to Sikora that she photograph and talk to her subjects in their homes. “When you watch someone on stage, you have one image of them,” she says. “To see a woman in their home in a spot that is special to them where they go to decompress or cry or be happy, that’s more of who they are. That shows a different side.” Interviewing people at home made the frankness of the conversations possible. “Often these conversations were sensitive and painful, and so to be in a space where subjects were comfortable meant you started at a level of ease.”
The domestic settings, like the #MeToo hashtag, give the photographs additional power. #MeToo made the ubiquity of sexism unavoidable, and according to Marceaux, “People can relate to these musicians by seeing photos of them in their home.” The two expressions combine to make the pervasive reality of sexism impossible to avoid.
Sikora's black and white photos invite viewers to sort out visual cues when set next to accounts of the sexism they deal with. Is this woman putting on a good facade, is she genuinely happy, or both? Is this woman showing the effects of the degradations she has faced, or is she simply uncomfortable in front of a camera? Or ... what? The photos run the gamut from clearly composed shots to ones that seem to surprise their subjects. Some subjects are clearly performing for the camera, while others aren't. The context prompts viewers to look at surroundings and wonder how or if they're shielding or restoring, and if so, how? When someone has a dog or a child, the significance is easy to guess at, but apartments and houses don't happen by accident. The spaces themselves make you think more about the subject.
Sikora had a fixed list of questions that she used to start the interviews, but the conversations veered in very different directions. Because of that, the stories cover a broad range of sexist experiences, and the common thread through them was how people still grow up living with “old ways of thinking that aren’t right,” Sikora says. She posted pictures of Post-It notes with quotes from the interviews on The Sexism Project’s Instagram page, and while some were blatantly wrong-headed, others prompted some readers to ask what was wrong. “One is ‘You look nice with your hair down,’” she says.
Another reads, “You should marry a doctor.”
“I grew up with that one,” Sikora says. “Not, You should be a doctor.”
Everything her subjects told her sounded sadly plausible, but there were still parts of conversations that stunned her. “In one instance, a woman was told, You’d be a lot further in your career if you’d get on your back,” she recalls. “Who would think it’s okay to say that?” In the early phases of the process, Sikora often found herself upset and outraged that so many attitudes like that are still held. “The process has been enlightening to say the least.”
The team that developed around the project started as friends and interview subjects for the show, and their goal is to make The Sexism Project more than simply a site and a show. “One of the unexpected outcomes is this network that we’ve created of the women that I’ve interviewed,” Sikora says, and she plans to create a directory to help connect the women in the show. She also sees the project as scalable, and envisions applying the same methodology to examine sexism in other professions and other cities.
“It exists everywhere, unfortunately,” Marceaux says. “Music being the first was easy because we’re all in the music industry, but now we can do it for other people and open that network up for those people who need it.”