In today’s society, our physical appearance is often judged, rightly or wrongly, by those around us. With that in mind, artist Haley Morris-Cafiero of Memphis, Tennessee, decided to conduct an intriguing social experiment. She photographed herself in public places to show how everyday citizens reacted to her plus-sized body. And her endeavours produced some very interesting results…
Originally from Atlanta, Georgia, Morris-Cafiero graduated from the University of North Florida in 1999, earning degrees in both photography and ceramics. During that period, though, she was diagnosed with a condition known as hypothyroidism. This particular ailment comes about when a person’s thyroid gland fails to produce sufficient hormones. It can cause several side effects.
Some sufferers may feel tired or depressed, while others may put on weight. And Morris-Cafiero, who is now working at the Memphis College of Art, fell into the latter camp. But it also helped catapult her into the public’s eye and contributed to her own artistic endeavours in the last few years.
In 2010 Morris-Cafiero was taking a number of self-portraits in different tourist spots, including Times Square in New York City. However, one image in particular spurred her on to kick-start a personal project, which would span the next six years of her life. She called it “Wait Watchers.”
Wait Watchers was an unflinching photo series capturing members of the public reacting to Morris-Cafiero’s plus-sized body. The artist traveled around the world with her camera, visiting places such as Peru, Paris, Panama, Berlin and Prague, as she looked to gather a diverse collection of responses.
“Whatever it is that I’m doing, I want to make sure that it fits the scene, so it’s not like, ‘Of course they’re staring at you because you’re naked in the middle of the street,’” Morris-Cafiero told The Cut of her project in November 2014. “I don’t wear costumes – I’m just wearing what I would wear that day. It’s genuinely me going out in the world, and just taking a moment to take some shots.”
However, when explaining the origin of the project, Morris-Cafiero looked back on her trip to New York in 2010 and singled out the precise moment of inspiration. “I set up the camera in Times Square and when I got the film back, I noticed that there was a man that appears to be smirking at me behind my back,” she recalled to the Daily Mail in January 2016.
“Since then, I set up the camera in public to see what happens as strangers pass by me,” Morris-Cafiero added. Her Wait Watchers images subsequently started to gain the attention of several publications, including HuffPost and the Daily Mail. Inspired, the artist then decided to set up a Kickstarter page in an attempt to publish her photos in a book.
Online criticism from anonymous users also helped shape the project, as some comments seemed to mirror the wordless reactions in Morris-Cafiero’s images. When the book, titled The Watchers, was finally published in September 2015, a selection of those comments, both good and bad, featured alongside the photographs.
“Fat lump of lard,” read one harsh remark. “Stay off the donuts and go running. Makes me ill just looking at her.” However, a positive message could be found on the facing page. “You are brilliant and amazing and courageous and I wholeheartedly understand the intent of this project,” it read.
“The most surprising thing that I saw was the reactions that people had to the images after they were published,” Morris-Cafiero told the Daily Mail. “Hundreds of people sent me comments and emails bullying me about the way that I look.” Despite those vitriolic responses, though, the artist insists she wasn’t hurt by them.
“I know that comment sections are a haven for people to be cruel, but I think it is hilarious for people to waste their time to tell me their opinion of me,” Morris-Cafiero continued. “I don’t care what anyone thinks about me. I love the way that I look.”
Some time later, the artist reflected on her project’s overall objective. “For a lifestyle audience, the goal was for us to see how we look at other people,” she told The Independent in October 2017. “I have to say that I do not know what the people in the photographs were thinking.”
“But I chose the images that appear to capture the stranger looking at me in a critical or questioning way,” Morris-Cafiero added. Among the images included in The Watchers, the artist picked out her favorite – “Blondie.” In the photo she’s wearing a Blondie T-shirt, workout leggings and trainers, while a group of passers-by look on in apparent contempt. The shot was taken in Los Angeles, a city that Morris-Cafiero had chosen for a very specific reason.
“According to my research, the most vain city in the U.S. is Los Angeles, so I decided to go there,” Morris-Cafiero told the Daily Mail in January 2016. “I went to Venice Beach and noticed that people were working out so I bought workout wear. I decided to do what other people were doing – stretching and lunges. The image just worked out perfectly.”
However, despite calls to improve her look, Haley is steadfast in staying just the way she is. “I got an an email from someone who is big and wants me to dress up better,” she said. “I don’t have an interest in dressing up better. I mean, what I wear is what I like to wear.”
“I like it visually and it makes me comfortable,” Morris-Cafiero added. “This is me everyday and that’s what I depict in the pictures.” And as she continues to face down detractors, the artist was backed by a fellow photographer in the foreword of her book.
Former actress Amanda de Cadenet praised Haley’s stance, as well as the rawness of the photos in the book. “These images are perhaps Haley’s own version of a selfie,” she wrote. “But she creates them without any filters.”
“And they just so happen to include an unknowing audience who, unlike the conscious photo-bomber, is caught unaware, while expressing a multitude of expressions ranging from amusement to disgust, disdain to repulsion,” de Cadenet added. “There is no curating here.”
For six years, Haley Morris-Cafiero snapped photographs of herself in public places, hoping to gauge the reaction of those around her to her plus-sized body. And while her images earned her plaudits, they also led to abuse. Still, the artist refused to kowtow to what some think of as normal. And in a society so obsessed with image, that must be commended.