No photos please, we’re eating properly

Susan Sontag makes the link between photography and distance, where by taking a picture, we are removing ourselves from whatever it is we are looking at (1977: 9). I’ve never quite agreed with this, as it makes quite problematic distinctions between different types of experience, with some, therefore, being presented as better or more authentic than others. But it’s a view of photography that persists extensively, and which reinforces the denigrated view of photography generally, where taking pictures isn’t ‘really’ living / enjoying something / being in the moment / having a life etc etc. This sentiment is often found in relation to selfies, as I’ve mentioned before, but this week a news story centred on food photography as an example of ‘not doing it right’.

Two French chefs – Alexandre Gauthier and Gilles Goujon – publicly expressed concern at their customers photographing their food, with Gauthier adding a discouraging symbol to his menu, depicting a camera with a line through it. The problem for him was that:

“They used to come and take pictures of themselves and their family…Now they take pictures of the food… And then the food is cold… I would like people to be living in the present”.

This quote is interesting in that he doesn’t seem to have a problem with photography per se, but what is photographed. Pictures of family = fine; pictures of food = not fine. Additionally, his wish for diners to “live in the present” encourages certain behaviours (photography) to be marked as “not living in the present”. Like Sontag, he sees photography as putting oneself at a distance, and an obstruction – but only, presumably, if the subject is food, as after all in his narrative, photographing one’s family is still fine and unproblematic.

As with a lot of the discourse about what constitutes good and bad photography, and what this then implies about the photographer, these distinctions rest on a number of underlying divisions: between social photographic practice, and practice which is viewed as individualistic; between living well, and not living well; and between doing what others expect of you, or not.

The reader comments that appear in response to two articles on this matter, in The Guardian and The Daily Mail, further demonstrate the way in which certain photographic behaviours are curtailed and labelled as devalued. Many of these sentiments are recycled from wider condemnations of contemporary photographic practice, regarding quality and volume:

Taking photographs is just too easy nowadays. People point and click at any old rubbish. Perhaps if there was a threshold for the numbers of pictures you could post on social media before being executed.[1]

The theme of violent prohibition (interestingly, both instances here referring to a judicial sentence passed on exceptionally abhorrent criminals) recurs frequently:

The trouble is that the silly c*&^ts post the effing things everywhere, and even send them to you in emails. restoring the death penalty is the only answer.[2]

Those who take such photos, besides being “silly c*&^ts”, are also found to be living a life with little value, tying in with Gauthier’s assumption that photography is an obstacle to “living in the present”:

People who take photos of their dinner and then post them on facebook have very shallow lifes (sic)[3]

The following commenter makes an interesting distinction between behaviours he can legitimately do – and which do not reflect badly on him – and those which, although identical, indicate a severely impaired mentality for others:

Iv’e been retired almost thirty years – can indulge myself in this nonsense – but the rest of you – nothing better to but photograph food and banter on about it for days – is there no one left with an IQ of over 39?? (sic)[4]

By extension, this devalued subject is not just stupid or unsociable, but also selfish and mean – displaying how a wealth of assumptions can be built up around a certain behaviour:

This is generation [look at] me; far to busy being hipsters to socialise with, yet alone treat their family to a slap-up meal”(sic)[5]

Somewhat surprisingly, besides all these accusations of not enjoying your food properly, or being unsociable, appears the old encouragement to eat up as a sign of respect for those who cannot:

I think that as there are people starving in the world, that the least those people who are lucky enough to be able to enjoy food at the best restaurants in the world can do, is to be appreciative enough to eat it while it’s hot, and forget about taking photos and tweeting.[6]

This adds guilt to an already potent mix of condemnation and derision, implying that enjoying one’s food in a certain way (by photographing it), becomes morally problematic and disrespectful. The implication that a starving person would be affected one way or the other by whether someone else is photographing their food is simply fatuous, as well as curiously egotistical. Shaming others in this way, for overstepping the mark, is a means for regulating behaviour, in which nebulous imagined ‘others’ are used as tools of coercion.

For me, the act of photographing one’s food (like photography generally) is no one single thing, and instead fulfils a number of varying objectives: identity negotiation, taste display, maintaining relationships and so on. But most importantly, it is not an impediment to enjoyment, and must be reframed as a legitimate component of celebrating and appreciating one’s life. I am not, of course, advocating behaviours which limit the freedoms of others – photographing, like talking on one’s phone in public, is a question of etiquette, and needs to be sympathetic to one’s environment. The problem arises when even behaviour conducted discretely is labelled as problematic and objectionable, as such universal attitudes towards photography perpetuate generalisations about people.

Tolerating and perpetuating these views of photography is therefore not harmless, and is certainly not evidence of a concern for others’ enjoyment of their food or life, but is rather a mechanism for ascertaining who is ‘doing it right’ in comparison to maligned and mocked others.

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