Nine years ago, American photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero embarked on a social experiment. She set up a camera on a tripod in a busy public area – Times Square, New York, to be exact – and photographed herself as she performed mundane tasks. Strangers passed her by and, among the thousands of images taken, she noticed that there were some questionable smirks made by those around her: body shaming, caught on camera.
Continuing with what she describes as a “performative form of street photography”, Morris-Cafiero used the project to raise awareness around the stigma associated with body size – resulting in her book, The Watchers, published in 2015. However, once the images went public, the photographer experienced somewhat of a backlash; she received negative images and vicious comments on her body via social media. But rather than being insulted, sad, or hurt by this response, Morris-Cafiero used this as a catalyst for her next project: The Bully Pulpit.
As per the Oxford Dictionary definition, a ‘pulpit’ is a “raised enclosed platform in a church or chapel from which the preacher delivers a sermon.” For Morris-Cafiero, her camera is her platform and her sermon goes something like this: “In this series, The Bully Pulpit, I investigate cyberbullying through the public profiles of people who attempt to bully me,” she writes in her artist statement. “For years, people have been hiding behind their computer screens to bully others to the point where writing critical comments is common and celebrated. The internet has become a weapon to hurt others.”
In the series, Morris-Cafiero photographs herself in the costume of those who bullied her. After sourcing the photographs online and by trawling (somewhat effortlessly) through their public profiles, she thus turns the focus on their behaviour by recreating the images using wigs and prosthetics – “while small imperfections mirror the fallacy that the internet will shield their identities.” Then, she adds the transcripts of the bullying comments: “What’s wrong with body shaming?” – writes one internet user. “Yes people think you are disgusting,” writes another.
“My inspiration for The Bully Pulpit was the countless numbers of people who wrote mean-spirited comments that I received when Wait Watchers was published,” she writes. “But instead of responding to them with text that can be deleted, an image cannot be removed from the internet. I decided to respond with a photograph that they can never delete.”
Morris-Cafiero’s photographs have been widely exhibited in solo and group exhibitions throughout the Unites States and abroad, and have been featured in numerous publications such as Le Monde, New York Times, and Salon. As an impactful photographer who would describes herself as a “part performer, part artist, part provocateur, part spectator” – as it goes on her website’s biography – her latest series, The Bully Pulpit, is a visual sermon that positively raises awareness around the extremities of cyberbullying, instead of focusing on revenge.
All images: © Haley Morris-Cafiero