Clicking Away From Culture: Food Instagramming and its Gastronomic Effects
Image Credit: Konstantin Trubavin/Corbis, via New York Media
I have always been interested in the food around me: growing up in the cultural hubs of New York City and Paris, it is hard to not grow passionate about the surrounding culinary wealth. The rise of the social photo-sharing platform Instagram in the past five years allowed for further engagement with unique foods and dining experiences that were now at my fingertips. Other Instagrammers must have felt the same way because, in the six years since its founding, Instagram continues to grow as a platform on which users share pictures of the food they eat.
This social practice of photographing and then uploading meals to Instagram is one that raises questions among those not taking part. Why do people post pictures of their food? What efforts are made to make the pictures aesthetically pleasing? Moreover, it is clear at any meal where the practice occurs that food photography alters the ambiance and sequencing of a meal. How does this transition shift the cultural relationship to food? By analyzing sources ranging from academic studies to personal testimonies to opinion pieces, I seek to understand what prompts, promotes, and motivates the posting of food pictures on Instagram. Pictures of food on Instagram have taken on symbolic roles as they portray the user's artistic acumen, social status, knowledge of trends, and personal identity; but, unfortunately, the trend undermines the humanity of meals at the same time.
Instagram was founded by Mike Krieger and Kevin Systrom in October for 2010 as a platform for people to "share moments" from their daily lives (Kelly 135). This platform quickly grew to become the prominent space to share everyday happenings it is now. By the end of 2015, just over five years after the app was created, Instagram boasted over 300 million monthly active users (Egan). These users are partially a juvenile crowd— 76 percent of American teenagers use the app (Egan)— but Instagram has taken over the social spheres of millennials and older generations as well. In an essay titled, "Slow Media Creation and the Rise of Instagram," Patrick Kelly pulls in views that highlight that the personal context of photographs are not being lost on Instagram. He brings up Ronnie Scott's point that, "to photograph another person means partaking in their mortality, vulnerability, and mutability" (Kelly 134). As people photograph themselves and their lives and post these pictures on the app, they begin to find these qualities in themselves. In this way, Instagram becomes "somewhere between a public broadcast and a diary" (Kelly 134). Posts of the park at the end of the street, of the cute dog seen on the way home, of the unique food eaten downtown, of themselves: this is what an individual's Instagram account looks like. Instagram accounts are public reflections of an individual's intimate self.
Accounts, however, do not need to be opened with the sole intent to document one's personal life. In the past few years, specialty accounts have spread as they dedicate themselves to one thing, whether it be photographs of nature, books, or cars. A prominent theme for accounts, especially in urban, cultural centers, are food-based accounts. These sorts of accounts are dubbed "food instagrams" and are perpetually gaining influence in dining scenes. Some of these accounts focus around a type of meal, like breakfast or "go-to" foods, while others may choose a niche like vegan or gluten-free food. Some food instagrammers choose to base themselves out of a city, in an effort to draw followers and possible collaborating restaurants from one area.
New Fork City (@New_Fork_City) is one of these accounts that only posts pictures of meals served in New York City. In a Wall Street Journal article published in November 2015, the three founders of this account were interviewed alongside other food instagrammers and the restaurants that collaborate with them. In a city like New York City, there are endless restaurants to eat at and new concoctions to be eaten. That is exactly what has allowed many of these accounts to thrive: followers trust the curators to pull together meals worthy of their palates, time, and money, that the followers otherwise wouldn't know are great. Posts gather likes, comments, and exposure for the restaurant showcased. It is no doubt, then, that these Instagrams can play a big part in a restaurant's success, as multiple restauranteurs attest to in the article.
This leaves one curious to know how to create such a powerful account. How do I show off the cool food I am eating? It seems like an easy and light-hearted endeavor—go find delectable food and post a picture of it before it is devoured. Individuals who have lived this strategy can affirm that more effort is required than is initially thought. As Erin McDonnell discusses in her piece, "Food Porn: The Conspicuous Consumption of Food in the Age of Digital Representation," there is an art behind taking an Instagram-worthy food shot. She parallels the tricks for a good food shot to those used in the pornography industry. The "pornographic visual aesthetics" (McDonnell 242) that lead to enticing pictures include styling the object and altering the zoom, framing, orientation, and depth of field until an optimal picture is reached. Many learned these tricks through trial and error or by word of mouth, but as the occurrence happens more frequently cultural savants make the knowledge more accessible. The New York Times, for instance, has a short video titled, "Hungry Photography" to assist its viewers to capture more appetizing pictures at their next meal.
Serious food Instagrammers have taken measures to capture the perfect picture even further. The Wall Street Journal article mentioned earlier also describes the physical predicaments such Instagrammers find themselves in. Alexa Mehraban, who manages the account @eatingnyc, admitted that she and other Instagrammers often hold flashes for each other and stand on chairs to get the perfect picture from above (Hollander). Portable lighting studios are even being produced so that photographers can have optimal lighting and backgrounds when they need to take a food picture (Harris). On less dramatic scales, food pictures may pass as a discreet phone slips above the table to snap a few pictures. Nonetheless, the habit of taking pictures during a meal is a recent alteration to the historic ambiance and purpose of meals and poses challenges to food being something to gather over and to celebrate. What makes these changes worth the loss of culture?
One reason people want to take pictures of their food because it is an indicator of social status. Food has effectively shown the socio-economic status of individuals for ages, as royalty and peasants have seldom eaten the same foods. Indeed, the most popular foods in each country are the foods the peasants could afford, while the precious foods are expensive and commonly found in upper-class settings. In her piece, "Food Porn," McDonnell also argues that food is a "status-laden arena of social demarcation" (McDonnell 241). Food shows who has and who has not. Naturally, the "nouveau riche" and "petite bourgeoisie" (McDonnell) in any society will use food, along with any other means they can, to show their wealth and to identify with those who have.
It is not surprising, then, to learn that food-porn posts appear in global cities that boast cultural capital (McDonnell 243) and where upward mobility is sought. New York City is one of these hubs, where culinary experiences are seen to possess cultural wealth. The abundant and diverse culinary scene in NYC was captured by a post in The New Yorker, as one of the magazine's photographers complied photographs into a slideshow entitled, "NYC Food from A to Z." Korean barbeque, the Union Square farmer's market, mixology classes, soup dumplings, ramen, and zeppoles adorned with filters capture the breadth of unique cultural experiences available in NYC that can add to one's cultural capital.
While people may have humbly kept this information to themselves before Instagram existed, this is no longer the case as hashtag and location options on Instagram allow users to comprehensively document the food they eat; this alters the cultural symbolism of food. A map created by Cewe Photoworld shows the locations of photos with food hashtags grouped together by major cities. This data, which was obtained from over 100,000 photos on the Instagram app between March 10th and 15th in 2015 (Cewe Photoworld), was sorted to show the percentage of pictures of a certain food each major city posted. One particular set of data provided shows that macarons, delicate French pastries, are photographed and uploaded to Instagram more in Bangkok than in Paris: nearly nine percent of all photos marked "#macarons" were posted in Bangkok, while another seven percent were from Seoul and only six percent were from Paris (Cewe Photoworld). This attests to globalization and the consequential value put on foreign goods and cultures that has only recently been feasible on the scale it is executed at in the 21st century. Food and meals have taken on economic and social symbolism in ways they have not been capable of previously.
Individuals are uploading pictures of their food to Instagram to advertise more subtle statuses as well, like self-satisfaction. It is human nature to want to have perfect control over all aspects of one's life and be happy while doing it— a mix of food pictures can accomplish this. A fit woman uploading a picture of a big and savory cheeseburger is like sending a message to everyone saying, "Look at me; I manage to have junk food and keep a great body!" Posting a picture of an açai bowl or a green juice a few days later could then show the moderation and control this woman has in her life. This stream of pictures composing an idealized version of one's life, letting nutritional deficiencies and ill-fitting clothes slip out of the frame. Indeed, as media scholar Judith Lancioni makes clear in "The Rhetoric of the Frame," what the photographer chooses to include in the frame is very much intentional.
Photographing unique food experiences also sends out a message hinting at how fulfilled an individual may be. A study through Google consumer surveys served to judge which New Year's resolution would be the most popular in 2016. The most often chosen resolution was "enjoy life to the fullest" with 46 percent of those who chose a resolution selecting it. The resolution was either the 1st or 2nd most popular one among all age groups, as well as the top resolution in 30 U.S. States (GOBankingRates). Living new and foreign experiences is truly one of life's greatest joys and fulfill an individual's desire to enjoy life. Documenting such experiences lets others judge and infer, perhaps falsely, how enjoyable of a life the uploader is leading.
The expansion of everyday foods in a common diet, combined with the culinary innovations that seem to constantly be surfacing, has allowed food to be more memorable than it has been in the past. It is challenging to make the best local food as everyone else nearby is striving to perfect their recipes as well. But when new recipes are executed, it is easy to be remembered as the host that made an intricate Swiss dish or made the first spring rolls one has ever eaten. The lighthearted and bizarre title of a New York Times article captures the memorable punch food can now pack, as "Remember that Wedding Where We Ate Elk?" is a title not likely to slip your memory. Surprising and delicious concoctions like quail skin chips, bite-size crab cakes with lemongrass, sweet corn waffles with pork mole, and liquid nitrogen ice cream surely stand out to guests. Furthermore, guests are expected to Instagram weddings they attend and to follow their pictures with special hashtags for each wedding, drawing clear links to which wedding was whom's. People want to be photographed and remembered; food is the new avenue to do so. Food choices allow one to stand out, and publishing such choices on social platforms only furthers the identity sought.
Instagramming food has also changed our cultural relationship to shared meals. One needs to take a picture of their food in order to upload it— calling for the table to be rearranged as plates shift, silverware gets turned on an angle, drinks get positioned on the border of the frame. Pictures are taken from above and from eye-level, with and without flash. Truly, as McDonnell alluded to, food porn pictures are an art to be mastered. The focus necessary to take such pictures, however, stops conversation and halts the flow of the meal. As it is simply put in a piece entitled "Enjoy the Food, Not the Twitter Feed," photographing food during a meal takes away the humanity, never mind the culture, from a shared meal. Conversation and ambiance are killed in the process—the opposite of which is ideal, as meals have historically been a time to gather and celebrate a culture as well as connect with fellow diners to enjoy oneself and the food. Changes in personal relationships and routines at mealtimes, which have stemmed from the rise in food mobile-photography, erode this conviviality during meals (Wilson).
In cultures where meals take on a slower pace and customers are encouraged to stay for extended amounts of time, in European countries like France and Italy for instance, the photo-taking trend may not shift eating culture too drastically. Food photography could be a point of discussion, if handled correctly, and could have minimal disruptions on the meal. In a culture where efficiency is valued and social media has stayed away from actual social environments, however, the addition of these behaviors present a significant cultural change. Especially in a fine dining environment, it can be especially disrespectful to the chef's artistry. By photographing food at the dinner table, one says it's acceptable to ignore the individuals momentarily and place technology ahead of the bond that was being developed.
The ambiance in a restaurant is drastically changed and the timeline restaurant staff follow is disrupted, both without the permission of the staff, as a result of these photography efforts. A New York City restaurant owner shared his findings in "Turning the Dinner Table on Instagram," when he set out to discover what effect such practices had on dining experiences and the service he and his staff could offer to clients. By reviewing security camera footage, the owner claims "26 out of 45 customers spend an average of three minutes taking photos of food" during their meal. He totaled the whole process to add four minutes to the meal and "on average another five minutes" to the server's time, as "9 out of 45 customers [send] their food back to reheat" as it got cold as the clients took their pictures (Teitel). The practices necessary for food Instagramming infringes on the restaurant's ambiance and on the staff's duties to clients and to the restaurant.
Taking photographs of food, however, does give more value and recognition to the food— so should restaurants let their food be photographed and allow their ambiance to suffer as a consequence? Food Instagrams hashtagged or geo-tagged with the restaurant's name provide free publicity. As well, a study done by professors in the marketing departments at Saint Joseph's University and the University of San Diego suggests that taking pictures before eating, and the momentary delay in consumption that comes along with it, positively impacts the experience of eating the food. The lag increases pleasure felt in eating when the food is indulgent and when healthy food is made to look more appetizing (Coary and Morgan). Are the disruptions worth the damage done to the ambiance, or do increased pleasure in the meal and economic rationale trump? This adds another argument to the discussion, as this shows a two-fold benefit from photographing food.
Our obsession with taking and uploading pictures of our food reaches outside of this discussion to portray the important social changes that occur as media infiltrates our lives. Individuals become obsessed with their online image and curate their feeds as if they were museums. This whole-body shift to become a vehicle for online content is well explored in a piece by Crysta Abidin focusing on bloggers in Singapore. They are a group of very successful entrepreneurs who shape their lives to be more Instagram-ready, melding lifestyle and work into one. The downsides of this lifestyle are brought forward as there is no, or limited, distinction between work and rest. Once one makes a habit of constantly seeking post-worthy shots, it is challenging to ever get out of that mindset and put the technology-led instinct aside.
Everyday Instagram users are not exempt from this sort of obsession, unfortunately. Instagrammers after a certain feed "look" or theme may compulsively search for shots featuring a certain color scheme; users who keep food diary accounts may intuitively take pictures of their food each time they eat. A meticulous Instagram thus adds on the responsibilities and stress of a job to one's life in ways technology never has done before. People's worries are now shifted from uncertainty over the availability of food to worries of the saturation and pixelation of their meals. Do we lose part of our human nature in such shifts? Do we have the duty, as the next link in the history of humans, to uphold the traditions and ways of life that have been integral to our livelihoods up until now? I would love to discuss these issues over a meal— just don't photograph it please.