Fat Nation was an assignment that seemed to have all the trappings of a stereotypical look at the prevalence of obesity in the USA. Nelson talked his way in to the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) annual convention, the only photographer they allowed in after a total ban on journalists because they had been so deeply disappointed and humiliated by previous coverage of the event.
Despite his promises, Nelson arrived with all the usual preconceived notions, ready to poke fun. And what happened was quite strange and unexpected. He stayed there for a week, on his own, attending the seminars and hanging out by the pool with the vastly overweight NAAFA members. And by the end of the week he really had re-thought his attitude. He didn’t find a jolly group of pro-fat campaigners, but instead observed a group who said they have been ridiculed, degraded and marginalised for most of their lifetime.
One image from Fat Nation made it into Nelson’s recent book, Love Me. It’s portrait of a seemingly happy “fat fairy” a very overweight woman in a green satin fairy costume at the NAAFA Fairytale Dinner Dance Ball. But the caption next to the image is important, and says it all. Leslie Di Maggio, a NAAFA boardmember painfully recalls, “I knew when I was growing up that I would never go to the prom, never wear that fancy dress, never be picked for the team.”
Nelson returned home with the words of NAAFA members echoing in his ears. Their complaints of being victims of the diet-industry and their hollow promises, and victims of fashion magazines and their unattainable role-models. Nelson edited the images with a great conflict brewing in his head. The “best” images were the most stereotypical and exploitative. He resisted giving the contact sheets to the commissioning magazine, and instead made a careful edit of “fair” images, and wrote a 3,000 word article that reflected his thoughts on the subject. Of course, by the time of publication it may have looked over-simplified and somehow stereotypical, and he supposes that is why he has started focusing more on books and exhibitions as an outlet.