How Grave is the Gaze?

28 Apr



“I embarked on a social experiment: to set up my camera in plain sight and document how the world reacted to me.”

A few days ago a friend posted this link to Facebook. Immediately intrigued by the title- “Pictures of people who mock me”—I took the bait. Without skipping a beat, the subtitle’s phrase “I got my power back” brought a flood of questions to my brain: What power? Whose power? Where did it go? How did she get it back?


Haley Morris-Cafiero describes the premise of her photography project “Wait Watchers” as an attempt to capture the disdainful reactions that her appearance invokes in the general public. She sets up her tripod or cues her assistant and waits in crowded spaces until she captures the images she deems indicative of her social standing—the smirks, the sneers, the mocking gestures.


Upon reading the article, I began to understand what she might mean by this “power.” It was in the gaze. As she explained, “I feel like I am reversing the gaze back on them to reveal their gaze,” I thought of what Foucault had to say about this genre of gaze, as relayed by Susan Bordo: “There is no need for arms, physical violence, material constraints. Just a gaze. An inspecting gaze, a gaze which each individual under its weight will end by interiorizing to the point that he is his own overseer, each individual thus exercising this surveillance over, and against himself.” Morris-Cafiero was trying to capture these social weapons—though she insisted that she was in no way “interiorizing”—writing, “self-criticism is a waste of time.”

Rather, she was in fact gaining power from the incidents. By this empowerment, I inferred, she meant the intellectual power she gained by drawing attention to the phenomenon and creating her art. This brought me to a further class connection: how would she see the relation between beauty’s power and intellectual power? Would she see the greater presence of one indicative of the lack of the other? This reminded me of our discussions of interview attire.

This was not the only question I had. Did the presence of the camera affect the strangers’ behavior? When she wrote, “Self-criticism is a waste of time. I look worse with tons of make up and products in my hair” was she not contradicting herself by criticizing her appearance after the use of beauty tools? Where does she really stand in relation to societal beauty norms, as a white woman of considerable economic class (as a college professor)? And most troubling to me, how could she draw conclusions from pieces of evidence as highly subjective as facial expressions and gestures? Perhaps she interpreted the passing glances, the distracted stares or looks that weren’t even directed at her with much more societal gravity than they really had.

What do you think of her project?


Haley Morris-Cafiero, “Pictures of people who mock me,” Salon, April 23, 2013.

Susan Bordo, Unbearable Weight (Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1959), 27.


Posted by on April 28, 2013 in Uncategorized


2 responses to “How Grave is the Gaze?

  1. Nikki

    April 29, 2013 at 12:06 am

    In some of the pictures, I could not even tell whose reaction she found judgmental. But there are others in which the reactions are clearly to her. I also do not find it highly controversial to imagine that this would be related to her weight and appearance.

    I wonder how her perspective and yours differ in interpreting the intent and gravity of the gaze. I am inclined to trust Morris-Cafiero more about the way she is perceived than you seem to. I think it is definitely valid to imagine that she receives negative attention for the way she looks. I am certainly willing to believe that her experience at least justifies this impression. After all, we are all surrounded by images that say the way she looks is incorrect.

    Your question about what kind of power the gaze has, though, is one that I still find interesting and somewhat unanswered. Clearly it has a form of affective power for Morris-Cafiero, and I suppose many of her subjects (or objects?) would be embarrassed to find themselves caught staring. But I am curious about the relationship between this photographic gaze and anonymity – people photographed apparently involuntarily, people Morris-Cafiero likely will not see again. While photographs of movie stars may not be dynamic, at least we can put them with a name. Is the purpose of being able to see the way people look at her merely to be aware? I have a hard time seeing this as control; maybe the idea of seeing the way someone looks at me loses force in photos or among random people in the street. But the project is definitely an interesting one.

  2. leafelhai

    April 29, 2013 at 12:40 am

    I think that Nikki’s right to point out that Morris-Cafiero’s photographs might make the subjects embarrassed– the mocking expressions she’s capturing are the kind that people generally only make when they are comfortably anonymous. The power of the camera’s gaze comes from this disruption of the anonymity/temporary nature of the mocking expressions and gestures. Even though her subjects will likely never see the photographs, by freezing their disdain on film, Morris-Cafiero says to the photos’ viewers, “Look how judgmental people are. You’ve probably been this judgmental too.” Not only would the subjects be embarrassed if they were to see the photos, more importantly, we viewers (adding a third gaze to the mix) feel embarrassed and uncomfortable too.

    By immortalizing the mockery of judgmental people in a way that clearly places herself in a sympathetic position, Morris fights back against that mockery. In the Salon article, she says, “I suspect that if I confronted these narrow-minded people, my words would have no effect. So, rather than using the attackers’ actions to beat myself up, I just prove them wrong. The camera gave me my voice.” She goes on to say that the only frustrating part of the project is when she hears someone make a mean comment but fails to capture that sentiment on film. When she does immortalize the judgmental person, she has succeeded in deflecting the gaze and “prov[ing] them wrong.” By giving an outside/third-person perspective camera is able to deflect the judgmental gaze in a way that Morris-Cafiero isn’t able to alone.


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