Does foodtography ruin our appetite?

Over the past two years, my social media feeds have more or less evolved into a culinary still-life expo. We’ve gone from Facebook to Recipebook. But in truth, why are we meticulously documenting our culinary adventures and sharing them with a virtual public?

A leisurely scroll along what was once a cacophony of people’s concerns and whereabouts has suddenly become more visual – and it’s not merely selfies, but also what people are eating. Because let’s face it, even Nanna’s lampuki pie deserves to have its online moment.

Foodtography is the relatively recent trend of taking pictures of food and sharing them online via social media platforms such as instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest. What I find particularly interesting about this phenomenon is that the photos generally feature food, sans people.

A quick browse through my childhood photo albums shows pictures of people seated at long tables during summer barbecues and anniversary fenkati. But whatever the occasion, the main actor was not food – the focus was on the people and the eating experience as a whole.

On the other hand, with foodtography, the food has become the subject of the photograph, with most photos excluding the diner. Social media does what food does best – it brings people together.

This concept is pertinent in marketing and advertising strategies. Take Foodspotting for instance – this app, integrated with a map of restaurants close to your current location, showcases dishes that people have eaten. The app tagline – find and share great dishes, not just restaurants – encourages diners to shoot, tag and rate dishes under the #foodspotting hashtag. Then restaurants can promote their food while enticing new clients, for free.

Unless, of course, the people you are eating with believe that taking pictures of your food spoil the atmosphere of the meal. Food alone is a basic need for nourishment and survival, but eating together is deeply rooted in human culture. People who gather around a table are present to share more than just a meal, but also a conversation. People come together for special occasions and construct collective memories and experiences over food.

Professor Signe Rousseau from Cape Town University, South Africa, believes that: “Most of us love to eat, and we also love to tell stories through food. We all know that a picture is worth a thousand words, and as communication is becoming increasingly visual, we rely on others to make sense and interpret the food we share.”

Perhaps this is what we are trying to emulate through foodtography – a sense of virtual togetherness.

Self-proclaimed foodie Kim Davidson from Brooklyn, the US, recently ventured into people’s motivations behind foodtography. A former avid foodtographer herself, she explains that: “By combining photography with our storytelling capability, we are able to easily build discourses, especially for those who cannot partake in the meal with us.”

Photos capture special moments, thus providing information to those who aren’t present. Moreover, sharing such moments with an online audience enables people to engage in a discourse where personal memories are cued by photographs. “People’s relationship with food does not only satisfy our biological needs,” she continues. “It is also a profoundly social urge.”

Based on the ethos that sharing is caring, the internet and social media have created a virtual platform for foodie communities to gather and exchange their love and appreciation of good food. “Social media and food have one unique and seemingly genuine commonality, that of integrating people,” Davidson says. Indeed, social media does what food does best – it brings people together.

In this way, foodtography could also be perceived as a means of attracting people to one’s profile, increasing the chances of interaction via likes and comments, and thus satisfying one’s need for recognition. Additionally, the saying “you are what you eat” could also sustain the claim that foodtography could be linked to the online shaping of our identity.

Recently, a group of researchers from Brigham Young University, Utah, the US, found that an obsession with foodtography could be spoiling our appetite. They claim that looking at too many photos of food can make our eating less enjoyable due to sensory boredom.

As far-fetched as this may seem, there might actually be a grain of truth here. After a whole morning shooting irresistible dishes for a restaurant’s new menu, a food photographer friend of mine told me: “I didn’t eat anything for lunch. It felt like my body had already digested the food.”

Pictures are a representation of our environment – they have the ability to evoke emotions and may thus seem to reproduce reality. In this way, when we trawl through foodies’ profiles, our bodies could be fooled into experiencing the food as if it were present in front of us. If you pay close attention, you might realise that you start to salivate as a result of our body’s physiological reaction.

By the end of 2010, 80 billion photos were published on social media platforms – that goes to explain how nowadays, a lot of people don’t just write about what they’re up to – smartphones have facilitated visual communication, such that people also share photos of what they think, do and eat.

Foodtography has also facilitated the exchange of recipe ideas and created a whole new realm for advertisers. Moreover, food diaries may also eliminate the sense of loneliness one may feel when eating alone. However, we must remember to enjoy the company of others during a meal, since taking photos of food can alter the atmosphere when actually eating together.

This article was originally published in The Times of Malta, October 23, 2013.

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