That One Isolated Moment: An Interview with Haley Morris-Cafiero – Jackie Wykes

I first heard of photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero in February this year when her series, Wait Watchers, received a slew of attention from mainstream and social media. I am fascinated by the series because it makes visible the completely ordinary, everyday hostilities directed at fat and other non-normative bodies in public. I started looking into the series as part of my research on fat subjectivity, in particular the ways that fat people use self-representation to speak back to the twinned discourses of health and beauty that produce our bodies as abject. In this interview, I speak to Haley about media attention, public hostility, anonymity, activism, and making performance art out of everyday life.

Jackie Wykes: For those who aren’t familiar with it, can you briefly describe the Wait Watchers series?

Haley Morris-Cafiero: It’s a series where, for the past three years I have set up my camera in public and taken hundreds of photographs to attempt to document any kind of critical or questioning looks or body language as people pass by me.

It started from my former series Something to Weigh, where I was just setting up the camera and doing self-portraits in these beautiful places where I would think about my body size – like, on vacation and at restaurants and things like that. And when I was setting up one on the Times Square Coca Cola steps, that’s when I got the first look. And then I got one five minutes later. I thought, if this happens twice, let’s see what happens if we set up the camera for this purpose. And so I’ve been all over the world trying.

Titan

At this point there are actually two layers of the project. There are the photographs, and then there are the products of media attention – comments and blog posts from people who are critical of my image and the photographs. The first major article was in the Daily Mail UK, and the first comments were, like, “They’re not looking at you because you’re fat, they’re looking at you because you’re ugly!” Or, “If I were there, I would not only look at you but punch you,” or something.

I think the anonymous comments – of course they’re intended to be hurtful and negative –  but they’re funny. I laugh my ass off because they’re contributing to the story, they’re helping me out! And that’s what they don’t understand. Like, “Put down a donut and start working out”? Okay, thanks. You’re judging me based on what I look like, and that’s exactly what I’m trying to prove.

It’s really a social experiment. Although it starts for me with weight, it is a social experiment to see how we react to one another based on our preconceived notions of image. So it’s weight, hair colour, skin colour, clothing, everything.

Vitoria

JW: I’m quite interested in the similarities and differences between the Wait Watchers series and the Something to Weigh series. In terms of aesthetics, the Something to Weigh series has some really strikingly beautiful images – ‘Self Control’ where you’re looking at the display of rock lollies hanging in the window – I think it’s just gorgeous.

HMC: I prefer shooting in that kind of formalist style – you know, lights and colours and darks and Hopper-esque – those are the visual things that interest me. But with the Wait Watchers series, you can’t do that in the dark so there much more of the performance aspect. I mean, I do hunt for as aesthetically pleasing spaces as possible, but it’s genuinely more in the act of performance versus the actual formal qualities of the image.

JW: In Something to Weigh, you’re photographed in certain contexts which are typically seen as the ‘cause’ of fatness (like restaurants and sweet shops), or where fat bodies are typically excluded (the pool, the beach, the skate rink). Whereas the Wait Watchers series emphasises – and problematises – other people’s reactions.

HMC: Something to Weigh is about the pressures of my ability to live up to expectations of the social structure – when you go out, you have a bite to eat, or when you go on vacation you go to a pool or the beach. Those images are meant to be very open-ended, they can be depressing or hopeful depending on the viewer’s interpretation, but the others are more about people’s attitudes. I think they’re both a commentary on society. In Something to Weigh, society is represented in the spaces and the constructs of social structure, whereas in Wait Watchers it’s the actual people.

Bikini

JW: I wanted to ask about the relationship between self/other/object in your work. Part of what you’re doing is turning the gaze back on the people who are looking at you, but at the same time, you’re turning the camera on yourself as well, and I think that’s a really interesting relationship.

HMC: I think that I consider myself an object in terms of the way that I try to deal with me being in the photographs. I mean, it’s something you just do as a self-portrait artist, you just turn it off, you’re the ‘other’, you’re using yourself to prove a point. And I would never ask anybody to do what I do. There are so many images – I try to show that no matter where I go, it’s not just one place or one culture where things like that happen. It’s just over and over and over again. And by doing that, hopefully someone can then insert themselves into my shoes, and if that helps them, or makes them think about the way they act, I don’t know.

Map

JW: I think one of the things that I find most affecting as a fat person looking at those photos is that they really capture that part of the daily experience of being fat in the world – the looks, the body language, the ‘micro-aggressions.’ I find the way your photos capture that in a concrete way really useful. I was wondering if having that form of evidence has changed the way you experience being in public space?

HMC: It actually doesn’t. I guess in terms of the photographs, it’s such an isolating experience when I’m taking them – I have no idea if anyone’s going to react, or who’s reacting, or what. It’s just hundreds of photographs taken as people walk by. It’s just a little moment in time.

There are times when people have been verbally completely harassing me, making fun of me, and I’ve taken pictures: on their face it just looks like they’re talking to somebody, you know? There’s nothing there. Those images are not part of the series, so it goes both ways.

Another layer is that people might think they have anonymity because they’re passing behind my back – although I don’t know that for sure, because I don’t know what they’re thinking.  But it’s another layer that’s added to the images.

Magnolia

JW: Have you ever been contacted by someone in one of your photos?

HMC: No. No, no, no. And I’m not interested in seeking them out. A lot of people have contacted me wanting high-res images to try to figure out who these people are, and I just really don’t… I don’t have any interest in it because I don’t know what they’re thinking. They could be, like, “Oh, those are cute shoes!” but in that moment, that one isolated moment, there is something critical or questioning.

And, I mean, I don’t accuse them, I don’t want to talk to them about it or anything like that. There’s nowhere where I say “these people are calling me fat.” Sometimes it’s just taking things for what we understand them to mean and going with it.

JW: Anonymity is such an interesting concept. On the one hand, I think a lot of us walk through the world assuming a certain level of anonymity. But also, if you look in any way ‘different,’ then certain aspects of that anonymity disappear. Like, your body almost becomes a public property. That relationship between public space and anonymity seems to be one of the things that you’re exploring in your work.

HMC: I think that people assume that they have control and power over their image. And some places you do, actually, like in France. And people think that there is no, like, recourse for whatever they want to do, you know? And that they are expressing themselves and they have a right to express themselves. And that is, you know, that’s fine. But I also have the right to photograph, and as long as I’m in public and as long as you’re in public, that’s a protected act.

When all the media stuff happened, I realised that there’s this whole structure of anonymity that we have now. Not only through our online personas do we expect the ability to be able to say whatever we want without having any recourse because it’s just anonymous.

JW: I’ve read some of those comments, and they can be really hateful – not just about you – but they bring in a whole lot of other prejudices about race, sexuality, misogyny, all sorts of things. Has it been hard to deal with that level of vitriol across so many different sites?

HMC: Actually, for me, no. I don’t care what they think. I genuinely – I don’t care. And if anything, they’re helping me. I’ve been taking these comments and screen-shotting them and archiving them – because it’s like a conversation, it’s like photograph and response.

But at the same time, you can’t just dismiss the mean comments as “Your mother didn’t raise you right,” because it’s cool to be witty – or, you know, not even witty – raw and cool. I mean, I’m not saying it’s fine that they do it, but if you’re going to use the internet to your advantage, then I’m going to use it to my advantage as well.

JW: The casual cruelty can be quite breathtaking, really. But at the same time, I think that online forms of communication can also be amazing in terms of building connections and communities, for example, the fat acceptance and activism communities online. Do you have much involvement with them?

HMC: To be honest with you, I wasn’t involved, and it’s not because I’m not interested in it. Every day for two weeks on the news, there was another disease linked to obesity and people aren’t seeing the forest for the trees. It’s trying to fit us all into a box. Because for me, I don’t eat poorly, and I’m incredibly active. But it’s not treated like that in the media – it’s treated as this blanket, you know, fat equals you’re going to die.

But what I’m interested in is gender and image, not just fat and skinny. I think it becomes problematic if I just limit myself there – artistically it limits what I’m trying to say. It’s a lot more than just weight. That’s one part of it, but I’m treated differently because I’m a woman, I’m treated differently because I’m blonde – maybe not in those photographs, but in life. I have experienced more discrimination in my real life because I’m a woman and a blonde more than because I’m fat. At least, that I know of. I’ve been actively discriminated against in the workplace because I’m a woman. And so working in the broad and having all of these other layers is more engaging to me personally.

JW: You talk about wanting to start a conversation through your work, which to me has a very activist kind of implication. Do you see the relationship between art, social experiment and activism in your work?

HMC: I think it is my form of activism. It may not be picketing and sitting-in and all those different more physical forms of activism, but I do consider it activism. For me activism is taking something that is not necessarily on the up-and-up and putting it out in the world and showing it. I think there’s a big spectrum of activism.

AnonymityIsntforEveryone

JW: Oh, absolutely! And I think that cultural practices like making images, contributing to the cultural conversation, can be effective in ways more classic activist work isn’t.

HMC: I do too, because it’s harder to dismiss and ignore. And, quite frankly, if I gave up what I wanted to do every day to do something on an activist platform that’s more traditional, I would be letting the thing I’m activating against win because I’m altering my life, you know? That’s not what I’m interested in.

JW: There’s obviously a long history of photographers who put themselves in front of the camera, but I’m really interested in the cultural context as well – particularly the popularity of the ‘selfie’ on social media, and also more activist-oriented sites like Hollaback and Smile, Sizeist!. Do you see your work in relation to those things at all?

HMC: I think for me, it’s completely different. A lot of it came out of the performance artists of the 70s and 90s. When I think about something that I wish I could honour, it would be those people. Because to me it’s this kind of self-sacrificing in order to start a broader conversation, and that’s where I see myself.

A lot of people try to dismiss them as almost something that a wily teenager would do, and it’s actually a genuine conceptual process. And a lot of people have suggested that I put a link to buy a print on my website to make money. Whereas the media is making the images public, to me they still belong in the gallery – they’re for publication and gallery exhibition and not fodder for media. I mean, that’s great, I’m very appreciative of the opportunities. But I think a lot of people dismiss it as the pissed-off fat girl, and that’s not the case at all. It is another layer of the discrimination.

JW: Yeah, I’ve definitely had similar experiences with my academic fat studies work – like, any kind of theoretical critique I have or have to say gets boiled down to the angry, overemotional fat girl.

HMC: Right! Mad that she can’t be skinny, or too lazy to care, or whatever.

JW: And when I’ve talked to the media, they want to draw out the, like, traumatic childhood bullying story rather than any kind of theoretical argument I might have, which is incredibly frustrating.

HMC: The media for me wanted to know when I stopped being able to ‘control’ my weight, and the reasons why I’m fat instead of the actual issue at hand.

JW: One of the things I find really interesting about your work is that you’re not trying to recuperate fatness by recreating an image of ideal femininity that’s just a little bit larger. I think that that’s a really interesting and productive difference between your work and some of the other images of fat bodies that are out there.

HMC: Well I think that part of the goal was to try to document something that is completely ordinary. People think that when they’re taking a photograph, they have to dress up and record a memory of something that didn’t necessarily exist. Every year on picture day at school you put on makeup and did your hair, but the other 364 days, you didn’t. So part of that exercise was to depict exactly how I am. I wanted to get as close to reality as possible, and that’s reality.

I just got an email yesterday from someone who is big and wants me to dress up better. And I… 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. This is me everyday, and that’s what I depict in the pictures.

JW: They look like candid shots – in most of them, you look as unaware of the camera as the people walking past. But at the same time, that kind of choice is part of the staging of the photos. In some ways it’s just as constructed as a more obviously posed image.

HMC: Many of them are taken while I’m doing other things. I took a group of students to Spain and said “Hey, let’s set up a camera, this is a good spot right here. Bam! This is what I’m wearing.” I think I did that to add accuracy to the experience, as well as just convenience. I walk around sometimes, and I’ll just grab a stranger to take the pictures. It’s not structured or planned or anything like that.

JW: Do you see that reversal of the gaze – and in some ways the power dynamic – in these pictures as a sort of revenge?

HMC: It’s definitely empowering, but I don’t consider it revenge because for me revenge has got this emotive nature to it that I definitely don’t have when taking the pictures. It’s very factual.

Cops

JW: Revenge seems to suggest a very personal connection.

HMC: Yeah, like a one-on-one, very personal, very specific act. And I don’t know what’s going to happen – I mean, there’s thousands of shots that are not successful. I don’t consider it revenge, but some people do, and if it helps them, that’s great. To me, it’s helpful in terms of just shedding light on what happened at those moments.

Jackie  Wykes is a full-fat low-maintenance high-femme procrastinatrix. She is a PhD candidate in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, where she is writing a thesis is on fat embodiment and sexual subjectivity. Her much-neglected blog can be found at http://www.fatuosity.net/. Jackie’s favourite procrastination strategies include co-founding and producing Va Va Boombah Fat Burlesque; and founding the Melbourne chapter of Aquaporko, a fat femme synchronised swim team. Aquaporko’s debut performance in March 2012 became the subject of a short documentary, Aquaporko! The Documentary.

 

Haley Morris-Cafiero received her BFA in Ceramics and BA in Photography from the University of North Florida and her MFA in Art from the University of Arizona.  She currently lives in Memphis, Tennessee where she is the Director of the MFA Program and the Head of Photography at Memphis College of Art.  She is a national member of the A.I.R. Gallery was named a “FotoFest Stand Out” by Manfred Zollner, Editor of fotoMAGAZIN.  She is currently working on finishing the Wait Watchers project and presenting it to curators for exhibition and publishers for a book publication. http://haleymorriscafiero.com/

 

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