An interview with Claudia Hirtenfelder about her powerful #Imnot campaign

You’ve heard the old saying; “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words… can have a dangerous effect on individuals and society as a whole when used negatively.” That’s how it goes right? Okay, so maybe that’s not exactly how that rhyme goes, but it’s certainly true. Words are a powerful tool, especially when they’re used to slap people with stereotypes and other damaging labels. Claudia and Oliver Hirtenfelder are using art and social media to help combat that negative language with their powerful campaign, #Imnot, in which Oliver, a talented photographer, takes photos of ordinary people holding up signs expressing their opposition to the names they’ve been called. He and his wife, Claudia, a researcher who specializes in gender equality, launched a Facebook page and a website to display their art, and it makes a rather powerful statement.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Claudia Hirtenfelder about the project.

HelloGiggles: How long ago did you and your husband start this campaign?

Claudia Hirtenfelder: Oliver and I started this campaign two years ago, in 2013, as a way of trying to merge our different professional interests. I came home with an idea that popped into my mind while driving home from work and thinking about the 16 Days of activism.HG: Why 16? CH: Well we wanted 16 images because it would mean that we have one image a day for the duration of the 16 days of activism. It had some poetry to it. That said, in 2014 we did not reach our target. We are not fixed to having only 16, we will have to see how the campaign evolves.HG: 14 for 2014 is great too though! You mentioned merging you and your husband’s professional interests. Obviously he’s a photographer, and you mention on your website that you have an MSc in the Social Studies of Gender. Was there any instance in particular that sparked an interest in social activism for you? CH: No particular moment. I am not sure I am an activist either, but I am definitely a feminist. I was always confused by gender (and, in many ways, remain confused by it the more I learn), but I find that my vision has expanded and the degree enabled me to see structural differences differently. Things that were not obvious to me before became apparent. They were not apparent overnight, either. Learning to see injustice is a struggle particularly when you are implicated as being privileged but gender and language is something we can relate to. We all have something to say and we all know what it is like to be at the end of a phrase that is loaded. There was no moment, just an ongoing conversation!
HG: Great answer! Language is an astoundingly powerful tool. I was about to ask what inspired this project specifically but I think you just knocked that one out too! So what’s next for #ImNot? It is a modest campaign. We are looking at it long term. Oliver and I would like to continue taking images once a year and putting them on the website and our Facebook group. Overtime, as the images compound one another, I think that they will become powerful displays of the importance of everyday language and how the words we shrug off in everyday conversation are actually structural. I am also an academic so who knows? Over time, I myself may begin to pick up on a pattern emerging within the images and develop the ideas further from there. For now we are trying to build the campaign, year-by-year, and hopefully elicit some social media interactions too! HG: Even the modest collection you’ve acquired over the past two years certainly makes a powerful statement. Of course, I try my best not to perpetuate sexist stereotypes or offensive language anyway, but seeing people’s thoughts and emotions depicted in such a visual way really made me stop and think about the words I use to describe people and the snap-judgments I make. I’m sure it will encourage others to do the same! CH: Thanks so much! HG: Thanks so much for sharing it and taking the time to answer a few questions. I love the campaign! Best of luck with #Imnot 2015 and I look forward to watching it unfold! As countless artists have shown us over the past few years, social media can be an amazing platform from which to create social change, and the Hirtenfelders are certainly using that to their advantage! This year, the project continues to grow, and moves from South Africa to South Korea. We can’t wait for their next series of photos! (Images via Claudia Hirtenfelders.)