"It's genuinely me going out in the world, and just taking a moment to take some shots," she said.
Haley Morris-Cafiero was shooting a self-portrait in Times Square in 2010 when she came up with the idea for her "Wait Watchers" photographic series. She was working on another series — one depicting herself in places where she felt particularly self-conscious about her weight — at the time and while reviewing the images, noticed an intriguing sight in the pictures she'd shot on the Times Square bleachers. Morris-Cafiero, a photographer based in the UK, noticed a man standing behind her in the photograph who appeared to be sneering at the back of her head.
"Even though he was being photographed, he was looking at me," she told The Cut. "It wasn't just a quick little glance — I have several photographs of it. He was doing it for a while." His sneer sparked the inspiration for her "Wait Watchers" series as she realized that she'd just managed to capture a stranger's reaction to her body on film; something she'd imagined would be impossible. Although it had been a complete coincidence, Morris-Cafiero recognized that she'd be able to repeat the feat again if she planned it right. Thus she began photographing herself — with the help of an assistant or tripod — in highly trafficked areas like midtown New York or La Rambla in Barcelona.
"It's rarely planned. Mostly they're just taken as I'm walking to a destination. A lot of the foreign ones are taken when I'm on class trips during the summer. Like, you're walking to the Champs-Élysées and you just feel it. In Barcelona, I noticed a lot of people looking at me, and I saw somebody in a reflection making hand gestures about my weight. Sometimes I'll just set a camera up on the stool, or ask a student traveling with me to take some shots. The camera isn't hidden, but whether other people see it is not in my control," she explained. She stipulates that she does not know what the people in the photographs are thinking or reacting to. Her goal is to start a conversation about how we look at each other, she told Upworthy.
Morris-Cafiero only shot for a couple of minutes at a spot as she didn't want to make herself a spectacle and thereby take away from the essence of the project. "I do brief performances that follow what is happening around me, so if it's hot I'll eat ice cream... Whatever it is that I'm doing, I want to make sure that it fits the scene. I don't wear costumes — I'm just wearing what I would wear that day. It's genuinely me going out in the world, and just taking a moment to take some shots," she said.
The photographer, who says she has struggled with her weight since she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism in college, revealed that people often make assumptions about her based on her physical appearance. "I had a studio-art professor that would put healthy chips on my shelf — like, 'You should eat these instead of the doughnuts or whatever the heck you're eating.' I felt like I was discriminated against in college because people have the idea that if you're fat, you're slow. It was okay, though, because I loved myself more [once I stopped dieting]. I had hated myself for so many years. I was scared of dieting because I was afraid I would get back into that obsessive nature of anorexia."
After the series went viral online, the photographer received a fair share of love and hate from netizens. "It was twofold. One was like, This has never been done before, this is amazing, this is great, thank you, thank you. There was a whole fat-activist movement that I had no idea existed that reached out to me. And then at the same time, there were people making anonymous email addresses to email me that I should never go outside," she said. When asked if reviewing the photographs and witnessing strangers' reactions to her body is a draining or upsetting experience, Morris-Cafiero said: "No, no. Not at all. It's invigorating. It's empowering. The work isn't draining, because I know that I am making an impact."