In Defense of Food Photography
There has been a lot of chatter about the psychological repercussions of social media lately; “The Envy Effect,” I’ve often heard it called. While life envy is nothing new, it seems to have been exponentially amplified thanks to the ease with which we can now peer into other’s seemingly perfect lives with a tap and a swipe of our index finger. No place is this phenomenon more pronounced (and induced) than on Instagram.
You know what I’m talking about. The posh vacations we can’t all afford to take (with the weeks of vacation time we haven’t quite built up.) The stylish new outfit so-and-so is wearing out for another fab Tuesday night on the town (while we’re home wearing pajama pants trolling Instagram on the sofa.) The pin-worthy snapshot of a perfectly-executed recipe caressed by just-right rays of sunlight streaming through the window (while we’re spooning up the last bites of Cinnamon Toast Crunch.)
As we embark on what is arguably the most food-centric week of the year in the United States, it seems only appropriate to dedicate a little blog time to food. And it’s that last point I want to talk about today. I have been called out as a foodstagram offender on more than one occasion, but today I’m going to offer up a different perspective. Could it be that all those amateur photographers you see hunched over their dinner plates with an iPhone in hand are really just culinary storytellers cataloging history one meal – and photo – at a time?
Last weekend I spent a few hours perusing old family photo albums. Flipping through hundreds of pages chronicling the lives of my relatives throughout the twentieth century, the evolution of things was undeniable. Fashions changed, hairstyles changed, cars changed, houses changed. And while the world kept on changing, one thing seemed to be a constant throughout the decades: the gathering of people around food. Photo after photo captured it. Family sitting down to Thanksgiving feasts, gingerbread house construction, babies joyfully covered in chocolate frosting from first birthday cakes. The food isn’t special because it looks goods on a plate; it’s special because it is, and has been throughout the history of humankind, a silent and omnipresent character in the story of life.
When you start to mentally thumb through your memories of places, people, experiences and things, you may be surprised to find how many of them are somehow tied to food. For me, those memories are palpable. Though my grandfather passed away more than a decade ago, the flash of light reflecting off a gold Werther’s Original wrapper makes me feel like I could reach out and hug him. Every Halloween that passes reminds me of the year my mother insisted I eat real dinner before Halloween candy (and I’ve held it against meatballs ever since.) I remember standing under the fairy lights of Piazza Navona discovering I couldn’t stand the taste of Nutella and vowing never to taste it again. And that first spoonful of gumbo at a hole-in-the-wall a few blocks off Bourbon Street? That’s a meal – and a moment – I will never forget.
These memories are sensory, alive and vivid. The sentiment isn’t about the meal, it’s about the moment. The food isn’t the story in itself, rather a line or a paragraph from the story of life on any given Tuesday.
Food is a cultural touchstone. We immerse ourselves in the local cuisine in an attempt to understand a new people, culture or place. When we can’t find the right words to console and comfort, we let food do the talking for us. (Turns out a homemade casserole can say a lot without ever saying a word.) We trade sandwich halves in the school cafeteria. We meet for coffee to talk about things. We toast and cheer and slice our way through wedding cakes.
Whether you find yourself green with envy or rolling your eyes at yet another photo of a frothy cappuccino, the next time you’re perusing your Instagram feed past a slew of foodie photos, I implore you to stop and consider this: when we take a photo, any photo, we are telling a story by capturing a memory wrapped in a moment. We’re launching messages in a bottle (or a photo, as the case may be) to the great, great, great, great, great grandchildren we’ll never know. They may be stories of a glorious growing season and the grandest heirloom tomato to ever grace the backyard. They may be stories about first dinner parties in new homes, graduations, Pinterest fails, beer-and-pizza nights or the day you finally mastered the art of that impossible soufflé. Regardless, every photo is a time capsule to the future says something about us – right here, right now. And every one of them, on some level, sends the same message:
“Hey, you. I was here.”
I wish you and your loved ones a happy Thanksgiving. May the meal (and the memories) be photo-worthy. I’ll keep an eye out on Instagram.