IIt all started when I took a self-portrait in Times Square, New York. After developing the film, I noticed that this man in the background seemed to be smiling at me. I thought, “What if you turn the camera over?” And it became a social experiment for the next five years.
I’d look for a densely populated area, position myself to do something “mundane” to fit in, something similar to what other people were doing there, and then take a flurry of self-portraits, showing me but also the larger scene. . So here I am stretching because I’m on Venice Beach in Los Angeles, and about 10 feet to the left is Muscle Beach, with people exercising.
Doing something mundane was a big part of the goal. He would wear the clothes he would have been wearing anyway. I wanted to literally show what is happening, the everyday behavior of people everywhere. But that meant I had to shoot guerilla-style because I knew that if I shot over and over again, I would become a spectacle. I only spent about two hours in Venice Beach, going up and down the boardwalk taking pictures.
Over the years, I took thousands of images across the United States, as well as in Berlin, Prague, Paris, Peru, and more. I remember when I got off the bus in Barcelona, everyone instantly looked up and down and I thought, “Okay! I’ll get something here! “I think looking at each other is something we all do, but I never really thought about it until I shot it. Initially, I was surprised that it could capture something so fleeting.
I first published the series, Wait Watchers, on a photography blog in 2013, and it went viral. I was very surprised: I did it for the gallery, not for the Internet. I started receiving messages from people who criticized my body. I also got notifications about sites that I had never heard of, 4chan and Reddit and all these places that are common now, where people were being celebrated for making hateful comments about me.
Someone would say something horrible and then a lot of people would say, “Woo! Come on man! “They wanted fame for themselves or to intimidate me into stopping taking pictures, but getting so much abuse just fueled me. It’s still socially acceptable to comment on a woman’s body in a way that you wouldn’t comment on a man, even if it’s a compliment. There is an expectation that women will be visually attractive, and that way, we are not in full control of our bodies. The norms are changing, but we still have a long way to go. People with those negative feelings they are even more extreme now. And I don’t just want to talk about body size or women with my work. I’m thinking of the act of being in protest, in bodies that exist outside the social norm.
I had body problems as a teenager and went through a period of excessive exercise and insufficient eating when I was 16 and 17 years old. I wasn’t trying to be like a movie star, because I was very muscular, but I was definitely thinking about having flat abs and no fat on my torso. It was about control. During the confinement, requests for support for eating disorders increased. My new series is a set of self-portraits that explore eating disorders. Fortunately for me, I came out of it and since then I really live my life the way I want to.
Very early on, when I was producing Wait Watchers, I was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors couldn’t tell me how bad I was until after surgery, so there were nine weeks when I didn’t know. Fortunately, everything came out clear, but that experience gave me an idea of how short and precious life is. It added to my desire to do what I have in my stomach and follow my instincts, and take revenge on those who hate me by discovering what bothers them the most.
Haley Morris-Cafiero CV
Born: Atlanta, Georgia, 1976.
Trained: Pottery and photography in Florida as a student, then art at the University of Arizona graduate school.
Influences: Feminist performance artists Eleanor Antin, Janine Antoni, Laurie Simmons, Adrian Piper, and Valie Export. Photographically, Catherine Opie.
Decisive point: “I worked with Hannah Watson on my solo show at the TJ Boulting Gallery last year and was selected for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation award.”
Low point: “The nine weeks between cancer diagnosis and surgery, although that gave us the confidence to ignore criticism.”
Better advice: “Trust your instincts. Many times people convince themselves of something other people might think about.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism