“I’m tired of being the the angry black woman”, read the words on one woman’s back. “I’m tired of people telling me to ‘just eat more’”, read the words on another.
Paula Akpan and Harriet Evans, then students at the University of Nottingham, conceptualised the idea in June 2015, after becoming frustrated with the singular brand of feminism they saw displayed on an online feminist group, and that vast community’s lack of real-life action.
“We wanted to actually do something,” says Paula, speaking to me on the phone from New York a few weeks ago, where she was representing the pair throughout an exhibition of their work at the Hudson Valley Centre for Contemporary Art.
“We were heavily inspired by other social media campaigns like Free the Nipple and Humans of New York (HONY), and initially we wanted people to bare their chests,” she says, “but we found it was too difficult because people have friends and family on Facebook as well as prospective employers. The back was more anonymous and more inclusive as well.”
Stereotypes, assumptions and microaggressions – the latter usually being defined as everyday slights and snubs experienced by marginalised groups – seemed a natural focus, and their first shoot involved the pair simply gathering a group of their friends to have “I’m Tired” pictures taken by photographer Ming Au. But now, in many ways, the project has taken on a life of it’s own.
“As it started to pick up a bit of attention people started sending their own photographs in. We have one photographer in Philadelphia and one in Sydney who organise shoots of their own accord. They send us pictures in bulk,” explains Paula.
As the invitation to New York suggests, things spin-balled for the girls after the project was picked up by the media last August. They now have over 33,000 likes on their Facebook page, and have been featured in publications from Teen Vogue to the Metro. At the end of February, they received a Points of Light Award from the UK government.
Their pictures, published alongside HONY-style Facebook captions, now focus on a wide variety of microaggressions, from issues relating to transgender people and people of colour to ableism and mental health. One of Paula’s favourite images, taken while she was in New York, focuses on Parkinson’s disease.
“It was, ‘I’m tired of having to reveal I have Parkinson’s to be treated like a human being’,” she says, “The woman explained that people would see her and think, ‘Oh, she’s being so slow,’ and would tut. She used the example of packing up her shopping. People behind her would sigh and mumble, and she’d have to turn around and tell them to give her a break.”
Describing how the woman with Parkinson’s cried after seeing her image displayed in the Hudson Valley Centre, Paula says she believes the campaign educates as much as it is a cathartic experience for those involved. The I’m Tired Project Facebook page is littered with comments which reveal the extent of this. “We have no idea what others are dealing with internally,” reads one recent comment.
“I’ve gone from seeing how things are shared on social media to seeing how it affects people in real life. It’s going to stay with me forever,” says Paula.
“You think you have a grasp on it, that you’re quite socially aware, but you can never be too socially aware. There is always going to be something that you’ve never thought about. With this whole project me and Harriet are literally learning every day.”
While in New York, Paula was also convinced into doing her own “I’m Tired” shoot.
“It was ‘I’m tired of justifying my bisexuality’,” she says. “It was weird being on the other side of the camera and I think I understand a little better how difficult it is to do. You are literally baring your soul, for it to be picked apart by people you don’t know. I have a greater appreciation for how brave some of the people who shared their stories have been,” she says.
Her openness with her sexuality has coincided neatly with the I’m Tired project, and she came out to her mum in December.
“It was kind of like, ‘why not?’,” she says, “I think I only properly, comfortably, started speaking about it in the past year. There’s literally no going back now. My tattoo, which is very recognisable, is in the picture which I didn’t realise until afterwards. I have three flying doves on my arm.”
One of the other things Paula believes that she has learned from her visit to New York, where she spent time working in high-schools and middle-schools, is that she sees the project becoming bigger than its virtual beginnings, with focuses on workshops and exhibitions.
In the coming months the pair are organising sessions at the University of Exeter, and have been invited back to New York for another exhibition in a cathedral after summer, as well as an exhibition in their university town of Nottingham.
“Facebook is behind a screen, but while you can see the appreciation, it’s not as powerful as seeing students getting really excited in person,” she says.