Reality vs. Artifice

Reality vs. Artifice in Photography: Is the Message Getting Across?

Many of you have probably seen this project by Memphis-based photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero called Wait Watchers.  It's been published in a variety of news outlets and photography blogs.  I was drawn to the images and the subject matter instantly because of my past experience as an obese woman.  Having lived in as big as a size 24 and as small as a size 2 has made me hyper aware of how others view me in public and private spaces.  But not only how they view me, also how they perceive me, talk about me, judge me, etc.  Given this immediate recognition of the subject at hand and my intimate experience with it, I really connected with the project upon first seeing it.  I recognized those judgmental, curious and amused glances and the expressions of disgust thrown at her in the street.  I could very well imagine the words mumbled around her in such a way that the “public appraiser” believes she can’t hear, but as anyone who doesn’t fit in will likely tell you…our senses are in overdrive most of the time in order to know how poorly or positively we are being judged.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had conversations with people, while listening to others’ judgment of me in the background (be it positive or negative).  The interesting thing about standing out - being obese or being especially thin - is that people like to talk about you and somehow they don’t think you can hear them.  So maybe this is a great time to say - WE KNOW and WE HEAR. 

But, let me get back to the project.  For some reason, this particular series keeps coming back up in my mind and I realize that maybe it’s because I’m not entirely convinced of it’s authenticity or whether or not that is really important in the first place. As a photographer, I always struggle with the idea of an image being composed in such a manner that the truth gets left behind in exchange for an intended goal or reaction.  I have temporarily solved this dilemma (so that it doesn’t keep me up at night) by separating documentary photography from fine art photographic compositions.  This is the only way I seem to be able to make the distinction and this is not to say that documentary photography cannot be fine art and vice versa.  This is only my way of solving a nagging personal concern.  For the record, according to an article about her work in the Huffington Post, Cafiero considers it to be a documentation of “how she was received in public places.” (Huffington Post)

(Photos at the end of the article)

Cafiero’s photographs tell an interesting story.  They tell a true story.  They tell of a world where people are judged based upon the way they look, and being overweight is obviously not the preferred body type.  I can look at these images and exclaim with a strong sense of confidence, “YES, YES…this is spot on truth. This is what happens often on the street. These are real glances.  Etc.”  I have lived these moments.  I know these moments.  I have gone home and cried from these moments.  I have wished I could be invisible from these moments.  So, I get them and I do not deny them.  

However, as I look at the photos themselves and try (my best) to detach myself from the experience, I cannot get beyond that nagging voice in my head that keeps telling me “those are constructed moments and as a consequence the message is being lost because people will not understand how real this is.”  As one of the articles explains, the photographer set up the camera and took pictures with a time-release.  

Morris-Cafiero then began setting up her camera in heavily trafficked public areas, composing the shots, setting a self-timer, and then stepping into the frame. The camera snaps a photo while she’s doing everyday things (e.g. chatting on her phone or grabbing a bite to eat), and her hope is that the image also captures an interesting expression from at least one passing stranger. (PetaPixel)

This is problematic for me on many levels.  First of all, a camera set up on a city street is going to draw all sorts of attention to the intended subject.  So, that alone takes away from the possibility of capturing a truly candid moment.  In addition to the equipment issue, I imagine the photographer is jumping into the picture frame like an alien landing in my dressing room at the mall.  How am I NOT going to notice?  Furthermore, she jumps into a pose that she considers natural.  Honestly, I don’t care who you are, if you are standing in the middle of the sidewalk, blocking moving traffic with a weird pose like you’re oblivious to the fact that people want to get by and you’ve got a camera pointed at you on a tripod, then I’m definitely going to look at you AND  (maybe now that you’ve gotten my attention) I’m going to give you some weird glances too.  

Well, maybe she knows that. In fact, in describing the process she says,

“I think some people are just reacting to the way I look. And I do think some people are reacting to me being photographed... I don't presume that they all think I'm fat. But at the same time, for that one little fraction of a second, there's a physical reaction to me doing what I'm doing.” (Huffington Post)

There are other little things that intrigue me as well. How you are perceived and what is acceptable will also depend a great deal on location.  For instance, an obese person in Europe is going to attract much more curious and negative attention than in the States where obesity is far more common.  And, even within the United States, an obese person in a city stands out more than in a rural community, especially a southern rural community.  So, I think it's important to take into account all those factors when documenting something like this. Maybe the photographer has talked about this somewhere and I haven't seen or read it. 

So, I guess I’m curious to know if it matters how one gets the message across.  For me, it seems to matter.  I tend to feel that if you don’t deliver a reality (void of artifice), people wont believe you and they will use that artifice as an excuse to tell you that you’re imaging things.  For me, that is a slippery slope and an easy one to fall prey to in the world of photography where reality can be constructed through composition of mood as well as the emotional and digital composition of the photograph itself.  Don’t get me wrong, I like the concept of capturing people’s condemnatory looks and focusing the public’s eye on the problem of fat discrimination and it’s general acceptance in everyday life.  It is a REAL problem.  I could tell story after story of how doors were locked shut for me and opened suddenly after I lost 100 lbs., but I won’t.  You would have had to witnessed it or experienced it with me to know, otherwise how would you know I didn’t invent the story? 

So, this brings me back to the point…how important is the delivery of the message for you? Do you think these photographs tell the real story?  How important is it to know how they were taken and where they were taken?

If I were Cafiero and I wanted to really bring these issues to light in such a way that little could be denied about their reality, I would have a friend follow me in the street all day and take photos from a great distance.  In my opinion, she has to be part of the crowd.  She can’t implant herself into the crowd and expect not to be noticed.  I would be curious to know how often she receives those those looks when she is just being herself.  I think I know the answer, but I’d like to know that the photographs are depicting the reality of what I think the answer is.  

What about you?

Here are a few of the photos in question.  Look at them closely and share your thoughts? 

All images © Haley Morris-Cafiero