Foodtography and the Camera Eats First Phenomenon
Image from Cyn Eats
Whether sitting at a table at home having just made a perfectly beautiful meal prepped lunch you pinned on Pinterest, or out at a trendy new restaurant in New York people now constantly are taking pictures of what we eat. Not only are we taking photos- but we are sharing them as well. Looking at Instagram alone there are over 117 million pictures with the hashtag foodporn. The study below will unpack the history of foodography explaining how we got here, look at how the rapid spread of foodtography on social media correlates to food trends, and conclude with some personal attempts at foodtography employing tips from some pros.
Food is in no way a new subject of pictures, in fact food has been in image since it was in still art in the early 17th century. The first photograph however is said to be taken by Nicephore Niepce in 1827. Niepce took a photo of a table set for a meal, (maybe foreshadowing Southern Living’s obsession with table settings later on).
After that photos of food were mainly found in cookbooks or food related publications. Food was not something people filmed as part of their home videos or added to their scrapbooks- it was not something people took the time to document beyond its relevance to holidays or other family traditions. As people got smartphones and had constant access to a camera a phenomenon developed called Camera Eats First. Dave Hagerman credits the development of this phenomenon primarily to Instagram to represent themselves online.
The idea of using food as a representation of ourselves can be modeled through a quote from Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savrain in 1825,
“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are”.
This quote, although not said in a time when social media was around, still rings incredibly true.
Food and Social Media
People view and define both themselves and others through food. One journalist views these posts as status symbols. He argues, “North Americans use food as codespeak for that verboten topic, class”. His claim illustrates how by posting gourmet booze and eats we are trying to show off. He uses the example about posting a picture of fresh produce from a farmers market and how by doing so, one might be “boasting about her wealth and superiority as a locavore”. This can also be seen with the snaps we post of eating out, how we demonstrate our class and our status through where we choose to post about. For instance- I might not post about driving through a fast food place like Chikfila, but might want to share about trendy brunch place I went to with my family.
Social media also allows us to use food as part of our personal brands. Before, visual representation of ourselves may have included what we wore or what we drove- but now we can have what we eat as part of that as well. An image we post of an artsy coffee shop and funky donut sends a vastly different message than the latest version of the Starbucks cup in spring colors.
Social media serves as a visual curation of themselves for other to see as easily. Therefor, something temporary like a gorgeous plate or perfectly foamed matcha was something much more related to their identity in the moment rather than an aspect of their identity to be evaluated. Food has always been part of us, but looking at it through images comes with the widespread use of social media.
It is also important to note that the Camera Eats First trend has affected a huge amount of people. It is especially prevalent in the groups who use social media more, you guessed it, millenials. It is now estimated that over half (54%) of people 18–24 have taken pictures of their food and posted it online according to News Limited.
Individuals aren’t only posting their own pictures but they are also following accounts that are completely dedicated to food. Some of the popular accounts include @foodintheair which focuses on gorgeous eats in gorgeous places, @feedyourgirlfriend which focuses a lot on trendy ice cream and other treats, and @foodporndaily all boasting thousands and thousands of followers.
Image from @foodintheair
What do these pictures mean for the food industry?
With everyone constantly posting pictures and double tapping on pictures from food accounts, there is saturations of our feeds with pictures of food. At first, this may seem like instant (free) marketing for restaurants and products. To some extent, it is. One example is right here in Athens. Nobody had really heard of Nedza’s waffles but many people started seeing them pop up on their friends snapchat stories and instagrams. As the Nedza social media presence grew, so did the recognizability of their brand and product locally in Athens. The blow-up of certain trends can definitely be credited to social media and lines for the Cronut
or for Milk Bar will probably continue as people post about it.
Yet, these trendy posts (or cooking posts especially) rarely tag or credit the products. Only about 12% of food photos make reference to any specific brand. This is something that food companies are now trying to combat and one of example of that is through snapchat. Instead of just posting a picture of a cup of coffee, the shop might have a geofilter the user could utilize to demonstrate that they were there. This still does not incorporate brands people use at home, which could be due to the face that people want to take full credit for food they have made themselves (because Tollhouse Cookie Dough totally counts as baking).
Beyond marketing that is not always as effective as hoped, there are several other potential downsides to the Camera Eats First mentality for the food industry. One is the violation of the chef’s intellectual property. Some French chefs argue that taking pictures of food at their restaurants can give away their secrets. A chef in New York complained that the taking pictures of food ruined the atmosphere of the restaurant and actually banned cameras.
I asked a few locals in the food industry for their thoughts. Zac Bennett, the general manager of South Kitchen and Bar feels as if the increase in posting food on social media can help business. He referenced a time when they shifted their hours to be open during lunch, and wanted publicity. He said they offered a ten percent off incentive for anyone that posted. He was not as concerned about phones ruining the ambiance or feel of the restaurant but would say he would “consider banning phones” if another restaurant in Athens did as well. Server Trent Perry at the newly opened Clarke Standard viewed “any publicity as good publicity” and was all about the frequent snaps of people’s food.
The constant documentation is also reported to actually change our palates and thus influence trends that will be successful in the food industry with much more widespread viewing of certain images, cookie dough instead of ice cream anyone?
My take, and takes
When originally looking back at pictures I had taken of food, I was disappointed to realize that most of the pictures I had taken of my food were for snapchat in the past. It made me realize that for every picture out there documented forever on instagram there are probably many more documented on snapchat and that the Camera Eats First phenomenon is bigger than I (and maybe other people) realize. Below are some of the pictures I have taken of my food in the past with more photos soon to come the highlight other techniques.