Haley Morris-Cafiero is the artist behind the project and in front of the lens in her brilliant photographic series Wait Watchers. She talks to Sofie Hagen about the blurred lines be-tween art and activism.
Hailing from Memphis, Tennessee, Haley Morris-Cafiero is the artist behind a series of photographs that has been featured in articles all over the world and, more specifically, all over the internet. The photos in Wait Watchers depict Morris-Cafiero doing everyday things while people in the background sneer at her, make fun of her or go out of their way to stare at her. Or at least, that’s my interpretation. For Morris-Cafiero, it’s slightly different.
“It’s really important to say that I don’t know what these people were thinking. They could have been looking at something behind me,” she says. “All I know is that I have that frame – and that’s the whole point: it’s about the moment and how we interpret it.”
Cops by Haley Morris-Cafiero
Turtle by Haley Morris-Cafiero
In 2010, Morris-Cafiero was midway through a project in which she would take self-portraits in places where she was extra aware of her weight: be it social circumstances, having dinner or going to the beach wearing a bikini. The project was about her – other people were never meant to be a part of it. Until she set up a camera in Times Square. When she got the film back, she noticed a guy behind her, smirking. She started to see a pattern.
“Later it happened again, at a café. And I thought: If it happens twice in 12 frames, what would happen if I set up a camera – and wait?”
And thus Morris-Cafiero began Wait Watchers. Not that projects like this were unfamiliar to her; her previous work has also had herself as the focus.
“In grad school there were these bathroom stalls that I couldn’t fit into, even though they were public,” she says. “I did a project where I would try to lose weight for seven weeks to try to fit into the bathroom stall. I’ve always dealt with me being the main person. It has always been about things that affect me, but which could also affect other people.”
For Wait Watchers, Morris-Cafiero set parameters up for herself: she could not stand too long in one place; the camera should not be hidden (due to secret filming being potentially illegal in some states), but it would also not be in obvious and plain sight; she would look to shoot in places where people would be moving around and, if possible, where subtle hints to the feminine societal expectations, such as makeup ads, would appear in the background.
“First, I would be doing everyday things. In the photo of the cops, I was on the phone with my mum…” she begins. I cannot help but interrupt. That photo hit a nerve with me. In the photo, an NYPD police officer is walking behind Morris-Cafiero holding his hat over her head, while making a funny face. His colleague is holding his hand on his stomach. I express my horror and surprise at their behaviour, almost stuttering with annoyance: the police are meant to protect and serve, not humiliate. How did that make Morris-Cafiero feel?
“Honestly, when I look at the images, I’m much more excited about capturing that micro-second moment.” she says, calm as ever, “I think it’s just all about timing. The second cop with his hand on his stomach, he could have just been walking down the street laughing, but that exact moment – somebody saw that. That is what that photo is about, just taking that moment and interpreting it. When they walked by, I remember smelling strong cologne. Then I looked and saw they were cops. I never felt the hat. I never knew they were doing that. I could just smell them.”
Morris-Cafiero holds a BA in photography and a BFA in ceramics from the University of North Florida and an MFA in art from the University of Arizona. She is an associate professor and assistant dean at Memphis College of Art. So, when asked if she is more an artist than she is an activist, she thinks for a while before answering.
“That’s tough. I consider myself a control in an experiment. I’m a constant – and I’ll see what happens. I could not expect anyone else to do that. Taking that into consideration, I think it is a little bit of activism, a little bit of art, and a bit of sociology. Seeing as I cannot be 100 per cent certain that these people are making fun of me, it can never be activism exclusively.”
Cards on table: Morris-Cafiero is a personal hero and it doesn’t take long before she realises this, as I tell her what her photos mean to me. I often go out and eat alone. I enjoy it – but as an obese person, I recognise what is happening in her photos. I often sit at restaurants and feel the eyes, hear the whispers and see the pointing fingers. I tell her about the last time it happened – just a few days before the interview. Suddenly, I saw myself as in one of her photos. When I see those photos, I see people who are mocking Morris-Cafiero as ugly. It helped me sit in that restaurant and view the people mocking me as ugly. I stopped feeling like it was me who did not fit in – and started feeling that they were wrong.
“I have a lot of people emailing me about things like that,” she nods. “Anybody who feels like ‘the other’ – I’ve had a lot of gay men, gay women, lots of transsexual people, other ethnicities who live in places where there are not a lot of people like them. I’ve even had husbands and family members who’ve said, ‘I never understood what my wife or brother or sister was going through until I saw your pictures.’ I have had people with hearing aids or other physical handicaps or just anything visible that does not fit society’s norms. The most touching one was someone who had jaw cancer.”
Does she see herself as a role model?
“I… do,” she says, hesitantly. “A lot of people have been inspired by the photos. I got an email from someone saying that their friend had tried to commit suicide, but then they had shown them my photos… You cannot shrug that off.”
Morris-Cafiero has also been face-to-face with the darker side of the internet, the horribleness of Internet anonymity. She talks about this with what’s almost glee.
“Someone set up a special Google email called something like ‘fatass at Gmail’ or something, just to tell me that I’m going to die. Some people actually write to me from their professional work email addresses to tell me why I am ugly. There are blogs dedicated to hating me. The comments inspire the next series. They say things like: “That fatty c*nt is probably collecting unemployment. She has diabetes. She is sucking out our welfare.” I mean, how can you look at someone and judge them on things you cannot see? Like diabetes, wealth and healthcare. How can you not have any thoughts about the other side of the coin?
Anonymity by Haley Morris-Cafiero
“I am glad the photos are inspiring people,” she continues, “but it’s also important to start a conversation with these other people. It has become cool to say mean things on the internet.”
And how does Morris-Cafiero deal with it?
“I go shoot more. I have been archiving these comments for the book. It’s so sad it’s funny. That someone would actually say something like that.
“So to answer your question,” she pauses for a bit again, “About whether it’s art or activism, It’s definitely a little bit of both. I don’t think of myself as the queen of the fat activist movement. If it helps people then good. I enjoy doing it. I love doing it. Whether it goes viral or not. That just got the work out there. It’s not about ego or fame, I just love doing it.”
And bless her for doing so.
Haley Morris-Cafiero’s book The Watchers is out in September.
Sofie Hagen is a Danish stand-up comedian based in London. She is also a body positivity activist and a comedy writer.