“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.