An artist’s bold look at the way people stare at women’s bodies

We’ve all felt self-conscious, even judged, at some point or another. And while it’s totally natural, it’s definitely not comfortable. But that uncomfortable, observed feeling is exactly what photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero explores in her photo essay “Wait Watchers.”

It all began in 2010, when Morris-Cafiero photographed herself in Times Square. When she developed the image, she saw the people behind her sneering at her.

As an artist, she was inspired to turn this cruel experience into beautiful creative work, going out onto the street at capturing gazes from strangers. Her project aims to return those gazes and make people think about how they look at others. But when her work got some recognition on blogs, something else happened:

“After my photos received viral exposure, I found that most of the articles had comment sections filled with thousands of anonymous comments criticizing my body, my clothes, my face, my hair,” she writes on Kickstarter. “Then the critical comments starting coming via email. Most of the comments and emails said that my life (and in some cases the world) would be better if I lost weight and got a makeover. The unsolicited criticism inspired the next phase of the Wait Watchers series.”

So she started traveling around the world, going out in public and taking photographs of people’s responses to how she looked. From New York to Berlin, she’s created these really compelling and really intimate self-portraits. Unlike most self-portraits, these aren’t focused on how she sees herself, but how other people see her.

“I love my body and these unsolicited criticisms fueled me to make new images,” she writes.

In the images, she’s not doing anything crazy or eye-catching and that’s what’s so interesting. She’s just shopping, or exercising, or resting. But no matter what she’s doing, other people are watching her do it. In her work, she’s shining an important light on weight bias, particularly against women, around the world.

Morris-Cafiero, a professor at the Memphis College of Art, launched her Kickstarter campaign to turn her project into a book and she received such a positive response (almost $20,000 in funding) she landed a publishing deal.

She announced that in September 2015, The Magenta Foundation, a non-profit, charitable arts publishing house, based in Canada, will publish The Watchers, based on her photo series —the book will feature at least 30 new images.

Her examination into the way women are critically judged is quiet, riveting and thought-provoking. We can’t wait to see more of her work. In the meantime, check out the Kickstarter video she made about her creative process.

(Images by Haley Morris-Cafiero via Kickstarter)