Arts

Ulster University lecturer zooms in on internet trolls in Belfast show The Bully Pulpit

Belfast-based lecturer and photographer Haley Morris-Cafiero has suffered for her art but in her latest project she tells Gail Bell why it was time to put her bullies back in the picture

Haley Morris-Cafiero poses as one of her detractors in the BodyBuilder
Gail Bell

IT ISN'T often that professional photographers like to train the lens so brutally on themselves but Haley Morris-Cafiero had good reason – literally thousands of reasons, if we're talking numbers.

The Belfast-based lecturer in photography decided to put herself front of camera for her latest work – The Bully Pulpit – in a brave masquerade investigating the phenomenon of cyber bullying in the age of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

It is a collection that makes a shocking mockery of basic human kindness; a quality that adults are supposed to possess, at least to some degree, as an example to their children if nothing else. But in this telling photography series, the shameful grown-ups are still metaphorically kicking the kid in the school yard because she wore the wrong  trainers.

Described as part-performer, part-artist, part-provocateur (provocateuse?), part-spectator, American-born Morris-Cafiero, who has exhibited her photographs throughout the world, decided to take action – in a suitably artistic way, of course – after people started commenting on the way she looked, particularly in relation to her weight.

Haley Morris-Cafiero says it right back to her bully in the white dress

She tracked down online profiles and portraits of those behind the diatribes (it wasn't that difficult, as many of her abusers openly emailed her to tell her they thought she was disgusting) and after finding their images – "the internet has a long memory" – she dressed in similar garb, in similar pose, and threw their slogans right back at them.

"I picked 25 specifically for The Bully Pulpit, but there were thousands of people who have commented over the years and millions more who use the internet as a weapon," she says. "So, these 25 images are not about these 25 people exactly; they're more representative of all internet trolls.

"I wanted to make people feel uncomfortable and I think there will even be people who will look at a picture and assume it's them when it's not."

Haley takes on another pose, using the comments of one of her bullies, in latest project, The Bully Pulpit

The response to both the photographical parody and the book (being launched in London next week) has been "overwhelmingly positive".

"A couple came up to me after my talk at the launch of the book and exhibition in Belfast and said they had never been to an art gallery, but heard my interview on radio and felt compelled to come and meet me," Morris-Cafiero says. "That kind of summarises it – it has been wonderful.

"I typically use humour in my work and in this series I wanted to show how the internet offers a false sense of security and is not able to protect people from scrutiny in the way they think it can.

Protect and Serve – the photographer-turned-US policeman poses alongside his comment in the sand

"Although corrosive, the messages were not hurtful to me all; in fact, they made me laugh. They also made me realise that I wanted to take the power they had given me – just from invoking that kind of reaction – and do something with it, so putting myself in the project made the most sense."

The resulting pictorial expose – nine of the 25 images were taken in Belfast – includes a surprisingly wide-ranging group of tormentors, from a Barbie-type 'Fake Waist Girl' and white-frocked 'Twirl Girl', to body-building 'body-shamer' and even a US police officer who is reconfigured on a beach, complete with blow-up shark and nasty comment planted in the sand.

Ironically, despite being muscular from involvement in sports, Morris-Cafiero was anorexic as a teenager. When health concerns made her unable to ignore the dangers of her eating disorder she became less active, but efforts at dieting were then thwarted by another health problem – hypothyroidism, which can cause weight gain due to problems with the thyroid gland.

Haley Morris-Cafiero turns the tables on 'Whale Watching' woman in her Bully Pulpit photographic exhibition

A graduate of the University of North Florida (she earned a BA in Photography and BFA in Ceramics), the acclaimed photographer –who has been published in the British Journal of Photography and Vogue Italia – recalls low-level bullying at school and finding anonymous passive-aggressive notes, along with low-calorie food, waiting for her on return to class.

"I was bullied a little in school, but Facebook wasn't around at the time," she observes wryly.

It all came to a head after an earlier project entitled 'Wait Watchers', went viral in 2013 after being picked up news and opinion website, Huffpost.

In this photography project-cum-social experiment, Morris-Cafiero had set up her camera in public places with the specific aim of capturing ways in which passersby looked at her – from sideways glances to outright points and stares.

Resulting unconstrained 'feedback' was collected in screengrab after screengrab until the 2016 Fulbright Scholar Fellowship finalist was 1,000 images deep in 21st-century expressions of vitriolic 'free speech'.

"I think body-shaming is one of the last acceptable forms of discrimination," says Morris-Cafiero who worked as an anti-bullying workshop volunteer with Girls, Inc. of Memphis – her home for 14 years before taking up the job at Ulster University last September.

"People in the photos range in age from 13 to 70, are both men and women and come from all backgrounds and walks of life, so the problem is not limited to a particular group. If I smacked people in the face with facts, it sort of rolls off, but I hope this makes people think, 'That could be me'..."

She first found out the HuffPost article had gone live in 2013 after receiving an email from someone who had created a fake Gmail account to tell her she was the "grossest thing he'd ever seen".

"Blogs were created, dedicated to how fat and ugly I am," she adds, without hint of bitterness. "I do understand suffering and the feeling of being a victim, but mostly I don't even think of it that way. I think it's just hilarious, the amount of time and electricity that's wasted on these people making these comments.

"For Bully Pulpit, I wanted humour to be present in the photos because I always laugh when I receive or read one of them. I know that I am a bit unique in this reaction and that many are deeply hurt when they are bullied, but I hope to show that, in the end, bullies are just weak people."

Thankfully, her new adopted home in Belfast has been a happy one, while her students have been inspiring and encouraging.

"Culturally, Belfast is not that different to Memphis," she says. "I have found the people very similar: they are kind and always ready to help out.

"Right now, I'm working on new projects, one about people with power and calling them out on things they say, and another looking at body disability. Am I a type of urban activist training the lens back on society? Absolutely."

The Bully Pulpit by Haley Cafiero-Morris can be seen at Belfast Exposed Gallery in Donegall Street until May 18

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