It all started when I took a self-portrait in Times Square, New York. After I got the film developed, I noticed this man in the background appeared to be smirking at me. I thought: “What happens if you turn your camera around?” And it became a social experiment for the next five years.
I would find a heavily populated area, position myself to do something “mundane” to fit in, something similar to what other people were doing there, and then I’d take a burst of self-portraits, showing me but also the wider scene. So here I’m stretching because I’m at Venice Beach in Los Angeles, and about 10 feet to the left is Muscle Beach, with people working out.
Doing something mundane was very much part of the goal. I’d wear the clothes I would have been wearing anyway. I wanted to show literally what’s happening, people’s everyday behaviour everywhere. But that meant I had to shoot guerilla-style because I knew that if I took a shot over and over, I would become a spectacle. I only spent about two hours at Venice Beach, going up and down the boardwalk taking photographs.
Over the years, I took thousands of images all over the US, as well as Berlin, Prague, Paris, Peru and more. I remember when I got off the bus in Barcelona, everybody was instantly looking each other up and down and I thought: “OK! I’ll get something here!” I think checking each other out is something we all do, but I never thought about it until I got it on film. Initially, I was just shocked that I could capture something so fleeting.
I first published the series, Wait Watchers, in a photography blog in 2013, and it went viral. I was really surprised – I made it for the gallery not the internet. I started to get messages from people criticising my body. I also got notifications about sites 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 then a bunch of other people would be like: “Woo! Go man!” They wanted either fame for themselves or to intimidate me into stopping taking photographs, but getting so much abuse just fuelled me. It’s still socially acceptable to comment on a woman’s body in a way you wouldn’t comment on a man, even if it’s a compliment. There’s an expectation for women to be visually attractive and, in that way, we are not fully in control of our bodies. The norms are changing, but we still have a long way to go. People with those negative feelings are even more extreme now. And I don’t only want to talk about body size, or about women with my work. I’m thinking about the act of being as protest, about bodies that exist outside the societal norm.
I had body issues when I was a teenager and went through a period of over-exercising and under-eating when I was 16 and 17. I wasn’t trying to be like a movie star, because I was really muscular, but I was definitely thinking about having flat abs and no fat whatsoever on my torso. It was about control. During lockdown, requests for eating disorder support went up. My new series is a set of self-portraits that explore eating disorders. Fortunately for me, I got out of it, and since then I really just live my life the way I want.
Really early on when I was producing Wait Watchers, I was diagnosed with cancer. The doctors couldn’t tell me how bad it was until after surgery, so there were nine weeks where I didn’t know. Fortunately I came out all clear, but that experience gave me a sense of how short and how precious life is. It added to my desire to do what is in my gut and follow my instincts – and get back at haters by figuring out what bothers them most.
Haley Morris-Cafiero’s CV
Born: Atlanta, Georgia, 1976.
Trained: Ceramics and photography in Florida as an undergraduate, then art at grad school at the University of Arizona.
Influences: Feminist performance artists Eleanor Antin, Janine Antoni, Laurie Simmons, Adrian Piper and Valie Export. Photographically, Catherine Opie.
High point: “Working with Hannah Watson on my solo show at the TJ Boulting Gallery last year, and being longlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation prize.”
Low point: “The nine weeks between diagnosis and surgery for cancer – though that then led to having the confidence to ignore critics.”
Top tip: “Trust your gut. So many times people talk themselves out of something because of what other people might think.”