Watching 'The Watchers': The Conversation with photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero

Haley Morris-Cafiero

Photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero made news in 2015 for her self-portrait series that captured how strangers reacted to her appearance. (Images from the series appear above and below.) Earlier this year, from her office at the Memphis College of Art in Tennessee, she spoke with Allison Glock about why we look, when observation became judgment and what the cultural gaze means to women of all sizes.

Allison Glock: You've made a career as a fine art photographer, but stills from your latest series of self-portraits went viral and turned you into a body activist of sorts. People Magazine described the shots as "powerful," while other publications have used words like "depressing," and "heartbreaking." Tell me briefly about the genesis of the Wait Watchers project and the subsequent book.

Haley Morris-Cafiero: In 2010, I was doing a series of self-portraits of me in public and social spaces. And it was really just about me and my surroundings. I set up one shot on the steps in Times Square, and then when I got the film back a couple weeks later, I noticed that there was this guy behind me who was fixated on me. Even though we're in Times Square. And then it happened again with another person five minutes later on the same roll of film.

AG: You were in one of the most visually chaotic and stimulating places in the world, and yet these tourists were more interested in looking at you.

HM: Yes.

AG: When you first saw the photos, what were your feelings about them? The reactions and expressions of the people observing you were not particularly kind. Was that casual cruelty something that you were already aware was happening as you went through the world?

HM: Not to that degree. But I consider it a happy accident.

AG: In what way?

HM: The way I like to talk about it is this: I don't know what those people are thinking. They're strangers. I haven't asked them their feelings. But what it does, what I do, is start the conversation about how we look at one another and how we use that gaze to communicate our feelings and formulate our opinions.

AG: A quick question about the technical aspect. How are you able to capture the images and be in them simultaneously?

HM: The process varies, it depends on the situation. I always set up the camera, the settings, the focus, etc. And then I hand it to an assistant. And I put "assistant" in quotes because sometimes it's a student and I pay them by buying dinner, or if I'm traveling with my husband, I'll make him do it although he's not very good. Basically they kind of act like a shutter release. I tell them when to push the button. One time, I put the camera on a bench.

AG: So those serendipitous images started you thinking creatively about how women are received in culture?

HM: Yes. I decided I wanted to know what happens if you set up a camera in public and just see what happens. And I've been doing it now for about six years.

AG: The publication of your self-portraits inspired thousands of surprisingly negative comments online. People wrote, among other things: "Ergh, cankles, she is hideous. Nasty. Get the f--- out of the way fatty. Completely f---ing disgusting. It shouldn't go outside! Ever!" Calling another human "it" seems a pretty extreme reaction to a body type.

HM: Honestly, the first time I saw the comments, I laughed. I don't know why, but I think they're funny. Funny in a sad way. I feel like the calories that it took to type their comments were a waste. The electricity that powered their device was a waste. Because, I don't care. I really don't. I don't care about you, anonymous person, who doesn't mean anything in my actual life.

AG: That's a pretty measured response to such unbridled brutality. Never mind that they're missing the point of the whole series, but how did you handle that level of vitriol about something as personal as your appearance?

HM: Oh, there's even some blog posts dedicated to how fat and ugly I am. The thing is, the project gets under people's skin and that's good. If I can do more things that get under their skin then great, I'm going to go do it.

AG: Your art is more than simply provocative though. It's really an examination of how women are publicly shamed with startling regularity. Be it online or in the real world.

HM: I do get furious about that, but in a different way. It motivates me. My next project is going to incorporate these comments. I'm going to respond in a way that is much better than words. I'm going to respond artistically. And they can't do that. I mean, maybe they can, but I doubt it.

AG: I don't think a meta conversation through art is something most internet trolls are into.

HM: [Laughs] No. What they're probably going to do is say something equally dumb. Like, troll away, you little jerk. And that means the discussion goes nowhere. Words have one definition. Art, photographs and images have many.

AG: One of the many things that's striking about your work is how many different types of people are shown reacting to you. Women and their bodies seem to provoke uninvited response from a wide variety of critics no matter how we look. What do you think that's about?

HM: [Laughs] I really believe some of it is because we have an internet culture where we're constantly voting. We have Facebook where you "like" and Instagram where you "like." And we're voting with just a click, just a touch of our finger. So our ability to vote and to rate things has become incredibly easy.

AG: And those votes are assigned value in the world.

HM: Yes. These people with metrics of millions of subscribers or millions of followers, they're the ones who get endorsement deals. They're the ones who get opportunities. And then on top of that, the internet provided a landscape for people to be celebrated for being hateful, for being extreme. And one of the ways of getting fame is being extremely mean.

AG: When I scroll through the comments in response to your photographs, so many of them include disparaging remarks about what they assume is your personality. The critique goes beyond the aesthetic to character. It's as if we can't separate looking from judging anymore.

HM: We can't. Because literally everybody has been asked to offer their opinion. Your opinion is constantly being requested multiple times a day just on social media alone. It's like, follow, like, follow, like, follow. Our society offers this ease in judgment and now an audience to see you judge, and the crazier your judgments are, the bigger your audience gets. I mean, look at Trump.

AG: When were you first aware of being appraised because of your body?

HM: In terms of my weight, and not just as a female in the world, it was most obvious when I was at art school and someone kept leaving me notes on my bookshelf, like cartoons about fat people. And they would leave me nuts, kale chips, saying, "Eat these!" They were passive-aggressively criticizing, but they were too chicken to come and say anything to my face. It was frustrating.

AG: Especially when they don't know a thing about your story or the particulars of your physical or psychological history.

HM: In March this year there was that internet meme about that actor that was on the show "Prison Break."

AG: Wentworth Miller.

HM: Yes, and how he'd gotten fat. Photos of him chubby, next to those of him when he was super fit. And he had to step in and say, guess what folks, I have a lot of emotional stuff I'm dealing with.

AG: He posted, among other things, that he'd had "depression since childhood" and that eating gave him comfort. None of which was really anyone's business.

HM: It takes a celebrity for fat shamers to be quieted. When they come after everyday people, no one cares.

AG: You were athletic as a teen ...

HM: I was. Very. I played soccer. Some years I was on as many as three different teams, between the school and local leagues. I started playing when I was about 10. By the time I got to high school, I was playing 40-plus hours a week.

AG: What did you like about it?

HM: It was thrilling. You just chase the ball like a moth chases light. And that was perfect for me. I liked the constant movement, the constant strategy and being around people that had the same goals.

AG: But there ended up being a dark side of that intense focus for you.

HM: Yeah. I don't know why or how it happened, but I came up with this goal that I wanted to be able to lay on my side and fit my fist into that indention that happens on your hip bone. I wanted my balled fist to fit in that space.

AG: You developed an eating disorder?

HM: Yes. And mine wasn't because I wanted to look like somebody else. For me, I became obsessed with these spaces that were created in my body where I was too thin, what the skin looked like between the bones. Those spaces intrigued me. And I was always struggling because I could never get skinnier or bonier the way I wanted because I was playing soccer. So I didn't look like the stereotypical image that we think about with an anorexic. And as a result nobody noticed I would eat very little. I remember drinking non-fat milk from these small cartons. And then I would go play my 40 hours of soccer.

AG: How were you able to pull yourself out of that pattern?

HM: After a period of years, I just got tired of being tired. I remember that I felt like my veins were full of water and it was just so painful. So at the end of the soccer season, I was graduating high school, and I just quit. Shortly after that, I found out that I had a thyroid disease. When I started college, I didn't gain the freshman 15, I gained the freshman 40.

AG: That must have been a rough transition.

HM: It was a large weight gain. After that point, I tried yo-yo diets, I did Weight Watchers, all the different diet plans. But the truth for me is that I have to do massive calorie restriction and a lot of exercise in order to lose weight. And after what I went through in high school, I decided I wanted to dedicate my life to finishing school and making art instead. These days, I'm active. I go to the doctor. I don't eat poorly and I actually don't eat that much. I'm healthy. So I've decided I will love my body as it is right now. It functions perfectly fine. So I'm OK with it.

AG: I imagine many people are coming to your work and thanking you for addressing the issues of body policing, the punitive cultural gaze, the unfeasible expectations placed on women of all sizes.

HM: Unlike the nasty comments, most of the positive notes that I receive are almost like diary entries. They aren't just, "Thank you for your project," but more like, "I was on the verge of killing myself and then I saw your work and it gave me hope again."

AG: Did you expect that sort of outcome?

HM: Oh my god, never. I'm just an artist. But if it's going to impact someone that way, then great. My work has created a place to share very, very personal stories. And I let them do that, because it means a lot to be able to have a space for that. I try to respond to all of the people who write those types of letters.

AG: Part of that intense response is probably because the work is so vulnerable. It's a really intimate series.

HM: Right. And I think in some way people want to be me, in terms of wherever I am now with accepting myself and what other people think of me. And I do appreciate that. I think about it a lot. The empowerment that comes from trying to be the best person that you can be, and doing the best that you can. It truly doesn't matter what anybody says about you. But unfortunately, I think that's an extremely rare belief.

AG: It's much easier to disregard yourself than to disregard the opinions of others. The notion that anyone could even control outside perceptions is deeply flawed. But so many women think, If I could just be ... fill in the blank, then everything would be better.

HM: And you know what? I do too. When it comes down to it, people believe that once you're adored, you'll have no problems. [Laughs]

AG: It's interesting, when I interviewed Melissa McCarthy, she said that she still has people threaten her or send her notes saying she's a bad mother just because of her shape. Even someone as respected and beloved as Melissa McCarthy is still suffering from this unwelcome onslaught of judgment.

HM: McCarthy is one of my idols, and not because of her size. Yes, she is a bigger girl. But what I love about her is the way she delivers her lines. Her comedy. She is a true original.

AG: And yet, every single profile of her mentions her weight. Because, Hollywood.

HM: Oh, I have a Hollywood anecdote! A Lifetime channel movie producer called me once my work became popular. She said wanted to make a story about my life. And I'm thinking, OK, let's talk for a moment because this is not really a script-worthy thing that I do. And she said, "Oh, no, no, no! It's your essence, your persona. But what we need to do is make it a rom-com. Because you're big gal, and big gals go to rom-coms."

AG: No, she didn't.

HM: [laughs] Uh, yeah she did. And then she asked if there was a funny story about me and my husband. And I had to explain that my life is the total opposite of a rom-com. So it was hilarious that happened, but at the same time, I just keep thinking to myself, how often are we put into boxes because of something that means absolutely nothing about the person we are inside?

AG: Seems like the message of your work may have eluded that Lifetime producer.

HM: Yeah. When I talked to her, I was just like, Really? You know what I do, right? But it doesn't matter. I've been a catalyst to a conversation. I did some calculations and I think the reach has been, through all the media, more than 200 million people. As a photographic artist, you just can't get that in a museum or a gallery. Yes, that reach has come with these comments and these judgments. Yes, there are people stealing my photographs and using them to make fun of me. But I'm happy that the conversation started because even if I just helped one person, just one, and that translates to them helping one person, and them helping one person, then that's valuable.

AG: Tell me about what you've dubbed the "self-improvement project."

HM: I started archiving the comments I was getting in response to my work almost immediately. And a bunch of them said, "Life would be great, everything would be fine, if you just lost weight." Or if I did this or that. I was getting a lot of advice.

AG: Like, "you should exercise more." Or "get a makeover." Or "eat less."

HM: Exactly. Then I Googled the most-vain cities in America. Venice Beach, California. Miami Beach. Places like that. And I also Googled cities with the highest percentage of eating disorders, the most being, if you believe the internet, in Boulder, Colorado. And I used those places for my next locations. I went there, and I followed the advice I was given. I wanted to show what happened, for example, if I went to Venice Beach and worked out.

AG: And what happened was further ridicule.

HM: Yeah.

AG: Have these projects made you depressed about humanity?

HM: [Laughs] No. Everyone looks at each other. So it didn't surprise me or make me super negative. You know, sometimes I'd go to a place and people would walk by and say some of the most horrific things ever to me. But that is just a moment in time. What interests me is when you take a moment in time and extract it from the scene and present it. How do you react to it then? And some people react with, Oh my god, how dare he look at her like that? And other people react with, Oh, you're so ugly, if I were there I would hit you. And all of that interests me. All of it.

AG: What next?

HM: My book came out in December and I'm going to get some exhibitions for the project. I have a show in London, and then I've been reaching out to high schools and working with young girls and boys on body image and internet bullying. And then artistically, I'm doing self-portraits incorporating the people who bully me online. That's the next project.

AG: Reflecting on the reflections.

HM: All these layers. You know, when people insult me, they claim freedom of speech. "I can say whatever I want to you." But the other half of that is that you also have to accept the consequences of your voice and that speech. When you're an online anonymous profile, you can just delete yourself when things get too heated. But you can't do that in real life.