This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
You might recognize Haley Morris-Cafiero from her series Wait Watchers. The photo project, which went viral in 2013, snapped people reacting to Haley's body, capturing a fleeting sneer or look of disgust, revealing the day-to-day judgment that overweight people endure for merely existing in public spaces. The project was covered extensively, and with all that attention came a ton of trolls, who relentlessly bombarded Haley with abuse on social media.
In response, Haley created a new body of work: The Bully Pulpit. Drawing on the lineage of feminist activist art, she dresses up as her attackers, incorporating their chastising comments into each piece.
I got in touch with Haley to ask her more about her work and refracting the "critical gaze."
VICE: Can you tell me how The Bully Pulpit came about?
Haley Morris-Cafiero: When "Wait Watchers" went viral in 2013, I immediately started receiving bullying in the form of hateful messages. Often, they would tell me how disgusting I am, or how my weight was causing a variety of illnesses. Hundreds of these messages came through via email, but the main outpouring was via social media, where there were literally thousands of commenters. I concentrated on the bullies who used Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram as their weapon.
What was it like to be cast into the viral spotlight?
At first, it was overwhelming. No one can train you for the experience of having dozens of major media outlets contact you 24 hours a day. Looking back on it now, it has made me very confident in managing the narrative that I want to be shared about my work. I know that the way I react to bullying is unique; I don’t care what anyone says about how I look, so I find their comments hilarious. That being said, there are millions of people who can't just ignore abuse, so I hope to also inspire them to fight back in different ways. I spent the time between "Wait Watchers" and "The Bully Pulpit" researching how I wanted to respond. I initially thought of doing more guerrilla legal interventions because several of the bullies had sent me messages with email signatures containing their personal information, such as addresses and phone numbers. But I ended up wanting to do something wittier than navigating the boundaries of the legal definition of harassment.
What are your feelings about the fat positivity movement?
I support the movement and everything it's achieved, but I'm not sure if its messages have impacted people on a day-to-day basis. Meaning, I have worked with individuals who are supportive of body positivity on the surface, but who seem to be actively discriminating against me because of my size. Their prejudice manifests as micro-aggressions, rather than obvious forms that could be questioned. Artistically, I would like to contribute to the conversation about using social media and performance art as a form of activism and response. Generally, I would like people to know that bullies don’t always win and we can find funny, smart ways to outwit them. I especially enjoy pushing the boundaries of what is private and public.
How did you make the costumes in the series?
I saved thousands of comments from the last four years, so I concentrated on people who I could find and who had visually interesting aspects that I could replicate with my own props, which are bought from various internet stores or Amazon. For example, the bodybuilder image was facilitated by a comical, blow-up muscle suit. An embolic item—such as a graphic T-shirt or unique necklace—often provided the backdrop for the text. The flimsy costumes are about conveying the frailty of ego and the false sense of protection that the internet provides these bullies.
What's next in regards to your work? Will you be building off The Bully Pulpit?
There will be a monograph published of The Bully Pulpit images by Fall Line Press in the spring of 2019. I’m also working on acquiring funding through grants for a portrait project of sexual assault survivors that are printed as wet plate collodion images on life-size stainless steel pillows.
Haley Morris-Cafiero works at the Belfast School of Art at Ulster University. You can support her Kickstarter campaign to publish The Bully Pulpit as a photo book here.
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See more photos from "The Bully Pulpit" below:
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