Snapshot art opens international dialogue about body image

A photograph from Memphis artist Haley Morris-Cafiero’s “Wait Watchers” series of self-portraits depicts the reactions of two passing police officers to her presence.
Courtesy of Haley Morris-Cafiero.

A photograph from Memphis artist Haley Morris-Cafiero’s “Wait Watchers” series of self-portraits depicts the reactions of two passing police officers to her presence. Courtesy of Haley Morris-Cafiero.

‘Wait Watchers: Photography by Haley Morris-Cafiero’

Jan. 19 through March 30, Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park.

Opening night reception: 6 p.m. Thursday; music by DJ Witnesse.

For more information, call (901) 761-5250 or visit www.dixon.org.

A photograph from Memphis artist Haley Morris-Cafiero’s “Wait Watchers” series of self-portraits depicts the reactions of people to her presence. Courtesy of Haley Morris-Cafiero.

A photograph from Memphis artist Haley Morris-Cafiero’s “Wait Watchers” series of self-portraits depicts the reactions of people to her presence. Courtesy of Haley Morris-Cafiero.

When photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero speaks of her body of work, the concept becomes literal and extremely personal.

Blurring the lines between fine art, performance art and what she calls “social experiment,” the Memphis College of Art assistant professor has made her weight the focus of a series of environmental self-portraits that reveal, with alternately humorous and disturbing candid-camera frankness, the often less than sympathetic reactions that accompany the sight of an obese woman.

“It’s not always the laugh or the sneer,” said Morris-Cafiero, 37, whose work is the subject of an exhibit that opens Thursday at the Dixon Gallery and Gardens, 4339 Park. “Sometimes it’s a critical or questioning look on their face or in their body language.”

Dubbed “Wait Watchers,” the photo series wasn’t expected to attract any more attention than any other work by a Memphis artist, but Morris-Cafiero hit a nerve. The project’s in-your-face themes of weight, gender and voyeurism proved irresistible to a culture obsessed with thinness, sexuality and social media.

The photos hit the Internet, and if they didn’t achieve the popularity of cute cats or Miley Cyrus’ tongue, they still managed to turn Morris-Cafiero into something of an art/culture celebrity and a sought-after voice in the national dialogue about body image.

Such swift and still growing renown is unusual on the Memphis fine art scene. “There hasn’t been another instance where a faculty member has had that kind of overwhelming viral attention,” said Remy Miller, Memphis College of Art dean and vice president of academic affairs.

Yet the photos have made Morris-Cafiero as much a magnet for scorn as admiration, even in a country battling what the Centers for Disease Control has identified as an “obesity epidemic.”

According to the CDC, 35.7 percent of U.S. adults and 34 percent of people of all ages in Shelby County qualify as obese. Yet Morris-Cafiero’s “social experiment” suggests familiarity has not bred empathy.

Posted on the artist’s website, the “Wait Watchers” series presents the heavyset artist in tight clothes in a variety of busy public settings. Shot by cameras with timers or operated by assistants, the images capture various onlookers and passers-by as they stare or glance at Morris-Cafiero with reactions that are open to interpretation.

Sometimes the passers-by look amused; sometimes disgusted; sometimes judgmental. Usually they are discreet, but sometimes they are not. In the most famous photo, a New York police officer mocks Morris-Cafiero by pulling a funny face and holding his cap over her head.

Memphians will get their first chance to see the artist’s work in a gallery rather than online setting starting at 6 p.m. Thursday, when “Wait Watchers: Photography by Haley Morris-Cafiero,” an exhibit of 14 images, is introduced with an opening-night party. The exhibition officially goes on display Jan. 19 though March 30 in the Mallory/Wurtzburger Galleries of the Dixon. The exhibit is a complement to “Color! American Photography Transformed,” a major exhibition of color photos from 1851 to the present that will occupy the museum’s larger galleries.

The “Wait Watchers” project was born in 2010, when Morris-Cafiero was shooting a self-portrait in Times Square, which she describes as “the sensory overload capital of the world.” She didn’t expect to be noticed. Yet when she developed the photos, she noticed a pedestrian in the background of a shot with an apparently disapproving look on his face. She began traveling around, setting up cameras to capture similar moments, and posting images on her website, haleymorriscafiero.com.

“Whether they are questioning my position in front of the lens or questioning my body size, the gazer appears to be visually troubled that I am in front of them,” Morris-Cafiero, director of the Master of Fine Arts program at Memphis College of Art, writes on her site.

The work first began to generate attention last February when it was showcased on Lenscratch, an influential fine art photography blog that praised Morris-Cafiero’s “brave” exploration of “the idea of being an object of judgment.”

The Huffington Post quickly followed with it own story, which was noticed — and exploited — by The Daily Mail, a United Kingdom tabloid. “That was the moment when it went viral,” Morris-Cafiero said.

The Daily Mail story attracted more than 4,000 online comments, most of which were negative, attributing the reactions of the people in the photos to Morris-Cafiero’s “miserable face” rather than to her weight, for example.

Attracted as much by the online insults as by the provocative photos, Anderson Cooper, ABC News, the “Today” show, Salon.com, “CBS This Morning” and other news outlets and entertainment programs contacted Morris-Cafiero, requesting interviews, guest appearances and guest columns. The timing was right: That same month, New York film critic Rex Reed generated controversy by calling Melissa McCarthy a “female hippo,” and former White House physician Dr. Connie Mariano suggested New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was too heavy to be president. Although that moment has passed, the calls for Morris-Cafiero’s input haven’t stopped.

That’s fine with the artist: Teaching is one of her great loves. “I had an epiphany and have made one of my goals when I show the photos to bring in a group and talk about social/political issues,” she said. “An example would be inviting a group of young girls to the show and talking to them about body image.”

© 2014 Go Memphis. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 0

Be the first to post a comment!

Want to participate in the conversation? Become a subscriber today. Subscribers can read and comment on any story, anytime. Non-subscribers will only be able to view comments on select stories.