Confusion, reflection and finally her healing is explored by Sadie Catt’s lens

Sensitive Content – the following article contains references to sensitive topics, which some readers may find upsetting.

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This article was printed in the Power & Empowerment issue of British Journal of Photography magazine, available for purchase through the BJP Shop or delivered direct to you with an 1854 Subscription.

Made intuitively during the months of lockdown last year, The Beekeeper is a meditation on the photographer’s unsettled feelings of fear and threat in relation to the concept of a man

As the beekeeper approaches, the deep hum of the buzzing hive grows louder. Dressed in a full-body protective suit and veil, he is careful not to disturb the workers as they tend to their queen. In case they grow violent in defence, brandishing their sharp stings, he carries a smoker – a calming device. The beekeeper keeps the colony safe, and in return shares its sweet honey. 

Last summer, Sadie Catt spent time getting to know the life of these curious insects. Normally based in Bristol, she was spending lockdown with her partner at his family home in East Sussex. His father is a beekeeper, and guided Catt through the co-dependent relationship between the keeper and his hive. Dressed in a spare oversized jumpsuit and washing-up gloves, the photographer began to capture the exchange. And, as she did, started to draw parallels between the power dynamics of the bees’ society and ours.

From the series The Beekeeper © Sadie Catt.
From the series The Beekeeper © Sadie Catt.

The previous year, Catt had been assaulted. Feelings of confusion and guilt collided with ones of trauma and vulnerability. After the first time, she tried to forget. “I’m a loud, bolshy young woman,” says Catt. “I couldn’t accept the victim images I had in my head. My housemate met me the morning after, put me in the shower and sorted me out. I said I didn’t want to talk about it.” When she was assaulted a second time that same year, she was referred to The Bridge, a Bristol-based centre that provided her with the emotional and psychological support she needed. The centre connected her with SARSAS (Somerset & Avon Rape & Sexual Abuse Support), who referred her to The Green House, where she received a series of free face-to-face counselling sessions. They were cut short as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, at which point she left the city to be with her partner.

“I’d always written down things around that concept of fear and threat, but also affection and those confusing boundaries. I don’t want to say masculinity and femininity because it’s not about that – it’s the vulnerability that you feel as a woman.”

Arriving in a new place surrounded by memorabilia of a family that was not her own, Catt became aware of the presence of masculinity in the home. She noticed the portraits of her partner and his relatives; photographs of his great grandfather’s Welsh rugby team “in their little shorts with their arms crossed”. She mused upon the concept of a man, with all the nuances and contradictions that come with it. And she became aware of herself, a 25-year-old woman with experience of assault, at this convergence. Catt noted down her thoughts. “I’d always written down things around that concept of fear and threat, but also affection and those confusing boundaries,” she says. “I don’t want to say masculinity and femininity because it’s not about that – it’s the vulnerability that you feel as a woman.” Though the notes were never intended to be shared, they would later form an integral part of the narrative of her project, Beekeeper. “It was the first time I’d accepted these events,” she later recalled. 

From the series The Beekeeper © Sadie Catt.
From the series The Beekeeper © Sadie Catt.

Catt delved deeper into the idea of vulnerability, within the dynamics of her immediate environment. “Things like cutting my boyfriend’s hair and having that kind of power,” she explains as an example. “He’s far more physically dominant, but he sits, and I’m standing over him with the scissors in my hand and he’s trusting me.” She continues: “It’s the idea of feeling safe in a man’s presence. Sometimes it feels confusing. The child and teenage-me was taught to be scared of men, and then in adulthood that lesson was reaffirmed. Yet I’d go on walks, down lanes that I hadn’t been before, at night, with my partner and his father, having a lovely time. I’d have this voice from the old me in the back of my head saying, ‘Isn’t this weird that you feel completely safe?’”

Gradually, Catt engaged with her camera. While her writing was raw and at times enraged, the images she was creating were soft and gentle. Glimmering honeycomb is echoed by sunlight percolating through tall trees, creating shadow mosaics on the ground. Three young men sit on the grass with the sun illuminating the crowns of their heads like small halos. A handmade slingshot bows ready to launch at the edge of the frame. There is an innocence to Catt’s subjects; a sense of calm, even joy. The interplay between image and text of juxtaposed emotion was reflective of her internal disorientation.

From the series The Beekeeper © Sadie Catt.
From the series The Beekeeper © Sadie Catt.

“I found that everyone who I spoke to felt the same way. Every girl my age was saying, ‘I haven’t told anyone, but I had this happen to me’. They’d say, ‘It wasn’t as bad as what happened to you’, or, ‘It doesn’t count because I wasn’t dragged off the street’. That’s how I had felt too.”

As the project slowly came together, Catt made a conscious decision to speak more openly about her experience. In particular her difficulty in defining issues that in theory should be black-and-white, such as consent. “I found that everyone who I spoke to felt the same way,” she says. “Every girl my age was saying, ‘I haven’t told anyone, but I had this happen to me’. They’d say, ‘It wasn’t as bad as what happened to you’, or, ‘It doesn’t count because I wasn’t dragged off the street’. That’s how I had felt too. Every girl had something happen where there was a sort of blurry, grey area, which they felt uncomfortable about. They didn’t know if it was serious enough, or justified making a claim. Maybe there was a ‘benefit of the doubt’; maybe they’d ‘misinterpreted’ it…” 

From the series The Beekeeper © Sadie Catt.

These conversations with friends fuelled the project even more, giving the photographer confidence in the importance of an honest discussion. Catt recalls that the act of making Beekeeper was a form of therapy. “It was a conscious decision to think about this stuff and try to understand how I feel about it, so that I didn’t carry it with me for the next 50 years.” Though, she adds, “[The project] was also brought on by denial, eventually leading to accepting [what had happened] and moving on.”

Now finished, “decisively”, the series has been made into a dummy, designed by Ben Greehy. “I’ve never felt so confident that a piece of work is over. Maybe that’s the beauty of it, that it could give me a kind of closure. The time with the bees was definitely a process of mindfulness,” she says. When the lockdown lifts, she hopes to return to her therapist in Bristol, to whom the book is dedicated. “Things become cyclical,” says Catt. “Like the lockdown, what it did was bring us all together. To try and get through and learn. You need people, you need each other – even when you’re a little scared.” 

Helplines 

If you have been affected by any of the topics discussed in this article, you can seek help and advice from the following organisations: 

The Bridge (Bristol)

thebridgecanhelp.org.uk

SARSAS

sarsas.org.uk

The Green House

the-green-house.org.uk

Women’s Aid

womensaid.org.uk

Victim Support

victimsupport.org.uk

The Survivors Trust

thesurvivorstrust.org

Survivors UK (for male victims)

survivorsuk.org

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.