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<   No. 3347   2014-08-31   >

Comic #3347

1 {photo of pasta}
1 Caption: Food photos

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11/365 Felafels at El Karim
Felafels.
A fairly common trend in this online, connected world in which we live is for people to take and share photos of their food. You can easily find Instagram accounts and Twitter feeds full of people posting photos of meals they are about to eat. And you can see people in cafes and restaurants snapping away with their phone cameras before digging in.

If you read any photography news sites (as I do), any discussion on the topic of food photos quickly turns into a litany of complaints. People complain that nobody wants to see photos of food, why are so many idiots taking photos of their food, don't they have anything better to take photos of, and so on. I've always found this a bit off-putting, because I like to take photos of food. Over a period of extended reflection, I think I've figured out why.

I take photos for a few different reasons. One is that I like to make beautiful images. I like to see something in a scene with my photographer's eye - something that perhaps most people wouldn't give a second glance to - and capture it in a way that utilises my skill with a camera to produce an image which can potentially qualify as a work of art. I like to stalk changes in lighting, compose with shadows, and reveal something about the interplay of colours in the world.

Another reason is to document things. When I travel, I take lots of photos of the landscapes and architecture and the bustle of people in places I have never seen before, and might be likely to never see again. I want to remember those places and events and people, and having my own pictorial record is a great memory aid. I can look back over my photos and reminisce about being there, the things I did, and the people I met. And you can document not only places, but events. Things which are newsworthy or just unusual or simply outside your everyday experience can be captured for posterity.

Chicken kebab tacos
Chicken kebab tacos.
A third reason to take pictures is to capture moments of emotion. Be they significant events such as weddings or birthdays, or more common fare such as family gatherings or even simply the joy of being alive on a fine summer's day, the smiling faces of family and friends are things we treasure. Photos of such events can transport us back to happy occasions, allowing us to relive the moments and enrich our sense of feelings.

Another reason to take photos is to have fun. You can fool around with a camera, you can set up silly situations and scenes, you can aim to capture quirky and entertaining photos. You can pose yourself or friends, or pets, or even stuffed animals and toys, and create something amusing.

You can take photos as part of engaging in a hobby which is in itself not necessarily photographic. If you enjoy spotting wildlife, or flowers, or exotic fungi, or interesting geology or architecture, you can take photos to build up a visual collection. You can create a themed photo collection from virtually anything. Photos of fountains. Of circular windows. Of shoes. When you spot another interesting one you can snap it and add to your collection.

You can take photos for scientific purposes. You might be documenting an ecological system, or animal behaviour, or classes of galaxies. Or (as I do in my professional life) you can take photos to study the factors that go into making the concept known as "image quality" - the combination of technical and aesthetic factors that lead to people liking some images more than others.

Hot lunch
Meal in a leaf.
You can take photos for a job. Any of the above reasons can translate to something you do for a living. Fine art photographer, travel photographer, wedding photographer, photojournalist, sports photographer.

Would anyone argue that any of the above are not reasonable reasons for wanting to take photos?[1] And so we come to modern things like selfies and taking photos of your food. Briefly, for anyone who might not be familiar with them, selfies are simply self-portraits, often snapped quickly with a phone held at arm's length, perhaps in front of something interesting, perhaps not. A selfie qualifies as either fun, or documenting where you are and what you're doing - and it often qualifies as both. I don't have a problem with selfies, and have taken a few myself when travelling and there was nobody around to ask to take my photo for me.

Which brings us to food photos. "Who wants to see a photo of food?" is a question often found on photography forums. The implication is that there is something either boring or possibly disgusting about it.

I confess, I take lots of photos of food. I take photos of food I have cooked at home, and of food served to me in restaurants. I am shameless when it comes to pulling out a camera (since I don't have a mobile phone I always use a dedicated camera) in public and taking a photo of a meal I have ordered and am about to eat. I do it in cheap restaurants and I do it in fancy restaurants. I do it whenever I travel.

But after seeing one too many of these disparaging Internet comments about people who take photos of their food, I stopped to ask myself: Why do I do it? Why does anybody do it? And I think I have an answer.

Salt & Vinegar
Fish and chips.
Food is something we can all relate to. We all have to eat, at least a few times a day. Eating is an experience we have. And it can be an incredibly varied and sensual experience, in that it stimulates our senses of taste and smell - two senses which most of the time get little to work on.

A food experience can be unique. If you visit a restaurant, it may be the only time in your life that you will eat that specific meal, prepared in that way, containing those specific flavours and aromas. Food is so varied that there are thousands, millions of flavour and texture combinations and experiences.

Almost all of the time, your mouth isn't tasting anything much, and your nose isn't smelling anything much. Imagine if most of the time your eyes could see only a featureless grey fog and your ears could hear nothing. And three times a day you got to look at the most amazing and varied colour scenes while you heard beautiful music for half an hour or so, before your eyes and ears were shut down again. Imagine that every time you went somewhere new you saw and heard wonderful things you never even suspected existed before. Wouldn't you want some way to record or remember those experiences and replay them in your mind again?

Varied and interesting and delicious food is one of the most wonderful perks of being alive. Discovering new combinations of spices and herbs and other ingredients is one of the easiest ways we have of expanding our sensory horizons. We can't yet make a recording of how something tastes and smells, but we can do the next best thing. Because we are highly visual animals, the sight of things we have experienced before can stimulate our memories and allow us to mentally relive those experiences. Seeing a photo of a wonderful meal, or even just an ordinary meal eaten in a special place, can provide some of the sensory feeling of being there and doing those things again.

Goat Curd Cheesecake with Passionfruit Sorbet
Cheesecake and passionfruit sorbet.
Take photos of your food! Don't be ashamed of it! Enjoy life! Who cares what other people think! Your life is your own. Make the most of it in whatever way enriches it for you (as long as you don't harm anyone else). Ignore the naysayers who say taking photos of stuff is a waste of time. Thousands of years from now, archaeologists will be despairing that we didn't record enough of how we lived.
[1] That's a rhetorical question. In this connected Internet age I'm always a bit wary about using rhetorical questions as a literary device in my writing, because inevitably someone will miss the point and write to say, "Actually... Taking photos for artistic purposes is a waste of time, because all art is waste of time," or something like that. Suffice it to say that when Shakespeare wrote, "To be or not to be?" he did not do it in the hope that someone in the audience would yell out, "Not to be!!"[2]

[2] Which is almost certainly an open invitation for somebody to write just to say, "Actually, Shakespeare did expect audience participation during his plays..."

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