On 6th February 2013, the art photography website Lenscratch published an article featuring a new series of pictures called Wait Watchers by photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero. In the images we see Morris-Cafiero in numerous public settings – on the beach, walking down the street, waiting to cross the road – standing still and surrounded by passing strangers. It’s only on second glance that we begin to notice the people around her and the way they appear to be looking at her. There are sneers and inquisitive stares. Though fundamentally documentary in nature, these pictures are performances. Morris-Cafiero set up these self-portraits specifically to harvest the reactions to her presence.
“The day after the Lenscratch article was published, I was contacted by Huffington Post and then the Daily Mail and after that it just went crazy,” Morris-Cafiero says, recalling how rapidly the pictures went viral. They have been seen by hundreds of millions of people across countless sites and news outlets since. The experience for her was one of shock, initially. “I was a photography professor who had no idea about media management. Three days later, I found myself lying in the foetal position after emailing constantly, talking on the phone with four international news outlets and being scheduled for travel to do talk shows. It became a full-time job’s worth of work for the next year and a half.”
Wait Watchers started in 2010, while Morris-Cafiero was working on a series of self-portraits in which she was photographing herself in public areas where food is overtly advertised. She had set up a shot of her sitting on the Coca-Cola steps in Times Square, but when she got the film back she noticed a peculiar thing: the man behind her appeared to be sneering at her. “I didn’t know him nor what he was thinking but it made me wonder: What if I were to set up a camera and photograph the scene as people pass me and see what happens?” Thus began the project.
Her process was relatively straightforward. Having held a position as professor of photography at Memphis College of Art for the past few years, she shot most of her photographs while travelling with groups of students to various cities across America and further afield, making use of the different locations and the people with her. “If I found a scene where there were lots of people and an interesting composition, I would get the camera’s settings right and then hang it around an 'assistant's' neck by the strap,” she explains. “They would not look in the camera and I would tell them to push the button when I saw a large group of people coming. I would then look back at the photos to see if anyone seemed like they were looking at me in what appeared to be a critical or questioning way.”
When asked if she was hurt or shocked or enraged every time she was able to pick out an instance of one of these ‘watchers’, her response is remarkably the opposite. “From the beginning, I was excited when I found an image as I am always surprised at how a camera can freeze an ephemeral moment that lasts only a microsecond. Every time I got a successful image, I was motivated to shoot more.” Mere glances that would most often be missed were now immortalised on film. As the project evolved and gained increasing traction online, Morris-Cafiero began to gauge the public reception and quickly realised she was being judged twofold, because putting herself out there online invited a whole new slew of abuse. “I started receiving hateful emails when Huffington Post published my work and they have continued to come in a steady flow ever since.”
It’s frustrating at best to witness the comments left under the pictures. Recently, the top comment on one article disregarded the power of the photographs because Morris-Cafiero is purportedly just ‘drawing attention to herself in the way she poses for pictures’. However, she has explained the process is one in which the camera is not obviously present. The people whose reactions are caught don’t know a photograph is being taken or that Morris-Cafiero is ‘posing’ in any way. So the real question for these commenters is: How does one make a ‘spectacle of themselves’ simply by standing there?
Despite the subject matter of her pictures, there’s a real sense of humour in the way Morris-Cafiero makes work. Female artists have a long history of performing for the camera, and wit has always been a woman’s best weapon. “I use humour to de-weaponise the aspects of an image that have potential to hurt other people,” she says. “I have learned that my ability to laugh at hateful reactions is true and deep – it’s not just a mindset that I tried to position for myself. If you think that someone will attack you, you like to believe you would be able to defend yourself, but until it happens, you never really know for sure. Now I know. I can handle it and respond to it all in a witty and insightful way.”
Society has a painfully narrow framework for assessing degrees of ‘fitting in’ and in the age of the internet, everyone who puts themselves out there, in any way, unwittingly offers themselves up to the judgement of millions of strangers who feel galvanised to say whatever they want from behind the veil of their perceived anonymity. The online arena is a minefield, and for many of us it can be crushingly destructive for self-confidence. For Morris-Cafiero though, there’s a level of empowerment and self-preservation that comes from rising above it. This is something she is looking to push in her next project, which aims to hold a mirror back up to the people that criticise her. “For each of the people who wrote me nice, supportive messages, I try to take the time and email them a nice note back. For the mean ones? I open a Google search and start researching their public profile.”
The two things Morris-Cafiero says she values when creating work are "performing for the camera and pushing society to question their position". For this new project, she’s collected thousands of the hateful comments and emails she’s received over the years and is figuring out how to use them and respond to them. “If I responded to them in text form, my message would be deleted or fuel their hatefulness, but my research has found that an image cannot really disappear from the internet. So my new project is going to be about responding to the online bullies using my body. It takes on a form that they are not expecting because of their assumptions about the internet and the way it works. I am going to use the same worldwide audience who used Wait Watchers in the past to spread these new images all over the internet.” Morris-Cafiero ended a recent interview with the poignant words: “You need to find a way to silence your critics.” Expanding on that here, she advises: “Bullies like to delete comments and profiles when they are put in the hot seat. Instead, use your creativity to develop a response that sticks.”