In the photography series "Wait Watchers," Memphis College of Art professor Haley Morris-Cafiero captures the general public's reactions — ranging from casual glances to disgusted stares — toward an overweight woman, Morris-Cafiero herself. The series has received a lot of attention on photography blogs and in media outlets such as the Huffington Post, the New York Daily News, and the U.K.'s Daily Mail. We sat down with Morris-Cafiero to discuss the series and why the world is taking note.
Flyer: How did you come up with the idea for the series?
Haley Morris-Cafiero: It started when I was shooting for another series, "Something to Weigh," which was me realizing that the only time I really feel uncomfortable about my body is in social situations, going out to eat and things like that. I would carry my camera around while I was on vacation, and if I saw a beautifully lit, composed scene that engaged a social context, I would take a self-portrait. They were really meant to be about me, but when I was setting one up on the steps in Times Square, I got the film back and I noticed a guy behind me looking at me mockingly. I had occasionally heard people making comments about me, and I never thought I'd be able to photograph that. Then it happened again four images later on the roll, and I made it my mission to try to set up the camera for that purpose.
How did you set up the camera?
I would go to places where there are lots of people and do these mundane acts: talking on the phone, eating ice cream, waiting for a cab, performances of everyday things. I would put the camera on a tripod and take thousands of shots to see if I could capture that Cartier-Bresson moment where the shutter speed and the look align.
Some have commented that it is impossible to tell whether the people in your photos are reacting to your weight or the presence of a camera or something else altogether.
For me it doesn't matter, because, as an artist, I put out the question. I pose these images as something that happened. It's up to the viewer to provide the answer, to say "well, it's this" or "it's that." I look at this as a social experiment. Some of them I do believe are looking at me because I heard them comment as they walked by, and then I looked at the camera and I had an image to go with that.
What message do you hope to convey?
This is about our identity being constructed based upon an image: It could be size. It could be skin. You know, a lot of people have said, "They're not looking at her because she's fat. They're looking at her because of her clothes." Well, that's still a construct of image. I don't assume, or care to know, whether these people are questioning my weight.
All the same, major media outlets are presenting this as a public critique of your weight. Do you see this series forwarding the fat-acceptance movement?
I consider myself more of a passive contributor [to the fat-acceptance movement] because the series title definitely insinuates that, but I'm trying to pull it more towards the art of the images. If it's fat acceptance through the concept of identity determined by image, I'm fine with that. If it's just extracted as a fat girl being picked on by mean people, I'm not interested in that.
Check out the series at haleymorriscafiero.com.