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Food waste and Instagram pics. Can it ever be justified?

July 24, 2017
Lake Geneva in Lausanne

My restrained small bowl of hummus and an Aperol spritz on the edge of Lac Leman

That bountiful food flatlay we see on Instagram, scores of plates of all shapes and sizes cheek by jowl, crammed onto the table haphazardly, or lined up in symmetrical form, enticing our eyes, beautifully photographed overhead with hands reaching in to take, dip, or spoon from the abundant, eye popping, mouth watering feast. It’s a magnet for the double click.

Or the freak shake filled to its foamy brim, stripy straw standing tall, stacked with two or three sprinkle coated doughnuts. Another Instagram craze that our feeds are awash with, that attract adoring comments. “Yum”. “Delish”. “Want”.

But talking of feeds, who eats this food? I do wonder and in fact I have seen people at events pose with a photogenic milkshake or overflowing and alluring plate and then leave it after one spoonful.

Round tables 👌🏻 @koentadyy

A post shared by Flatlays (@flatlays) on

I was thinking of this while dining alone by the edge of Lake Geneva.  It was a hot day, I’d had a reasonable lunch mid-day, so I wasn’t that hungry. Therefore I ordered hummus and a drink. A voucher I’d been given for my meal (as I was invited as media) meant I could have ordered a whole lot more for the camera, but didn’t.

Is this wrong? We know and accept that food photography for advertisements is rarely eaten. It can’t be. The food has been tweaked, handled, poked, prodded and even sprayed with things that are inedible. Food photography can be as valid an art form as any other… and there lies the rub.

Isn’t this the same with Instagram feeds? I presume the lake side cafe in Lausanne would prefer me to take a shot that goes viral or at least garners maximum likes. They get publicity, I eat free and up my Instagram engagement. We all win – except for the left overs.

But something within me just can’t.  I’m the one who takes home anything edible, half empty jars, ends of loaves etc,  from photo shoots so it’s not wasted.  If I prepare food at home for a shoot, I eat it – all of it.

There’s enough food on our planet to feed everyone easily and yet people go hungry. The rich adding food to landfill in unprecedented quantities is wrong. Food producers have tended the land, or raised and slaughtered animals for our sustenance, I can’t morally order or cook food to throw it away. A recent study concluded that Instagram could be fuelling a food waste mountain in the UK (although we mustn’t forget the influencers who give ideas about using left overs and frugal food).

And then there’s the lie peddled alongside the giant pretzel, the stacked burger with strings of melted cheese, the huge box of multi-coloured doughnuts, the ice cream cone piled high with tottering scoops. It’s always a pencil thin wrist holding it, a svelte bikini-clad form tucking into the impossibly huge chocolate chip cookie, slender ankles and tiny feet poking out from under the Nutella laden waffle stack. A recent article I read hypothesises that this promotes an idea if you get your aesthetic just right, if you’re cool enough, if you’re worthy enough, none of that science stuff about food and physiology will apply. I have two daughters. I have witnessed the impact of this continual pressure to conform to a impossible ideal throughout their growing up. There is no way I could add to it (this is also hypothetical given my age and uncoolness!).
So, whether you are behind the camera or in front of it, am I alone in wrestling with this dilemma?
I’d really like to hear your views and opinions on this tricky topic.

*Please note: I am not pointing a finger to individual accounts with the Instagram images shown here – I do not know what happened to the food in each picture after it was taken. They are examples of a particular kind of shot.

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32 Comments leave one →
  1. July 24, 2017 9:50 am

    So with you on the lie peddling of huuuuuuuuuge carb loading by (mostly) women who definitely do not eat that much!! I’d never dream of wasting food or shooting it for Instagram then not eating it, but it has come to light that that’s a problem, and it’s something that should be quite strongly discouraged.

  2. July 24, 2017 10:01 am

    I so agree with what you have said. I also have a grouse against all the fancy plating, especially by home cooks. Think of all the waste and washing up. I am a food blogger myself and everything I make is eaten at home (or by friends with whom I share).

  3. Dave Reeder permalink
    July 24, 2017 10:15 am

    I remember an episode of Kitchen Nightmares where Gordon Ramsay gets them to cook everything on the menu and ends up with tens of dishes, the vast majority of which he doesn’t even taste! A family friend used to work many years ago as a food stylist for advertisements and she told us that most of the food is inedible as it’s treated to look good on camera through the use of hair spray and so on. Yes, food waste for promotional purposes is not good but I’d argue that, in Dubai at least, the horrendously wasteful Friday brunch displays are much, much worse

  4. July 24, 2017 10:43 am

    Well said.
    Agreed with everything you said above.

  5. July 24, 2017 11:35 am

    So I was wondering for a while why my yummy, healthy homemade food doesn’t look good on camera. Cause it’s edible and real😄 joke aside, I’m with you on all the points you mentioned.

  6. July 24, 2017 11:38 am

    This is so sad to think about it. Things we/people do for a like!!!! If there is one thing my mother though me (they are sure hundreds of things as a matter of fact 🙂 ) is that we don`t waste food! I agree with you on everything. One very particular thing that always irritate me is the pictures of recipes made with a ton of cheese and bacon, such as 10 patties in a burger. There is no way a human being would eat that in a single meal. 😦

    • July 24, 2017 8:41 pm

      That human shouldn’t eat that in a single meal! It’s crazy how we tout healthy eating and moderation yet we glamourize via photos oversized, highly fat portions of unhealthy food just for a ‘like’.

  7. glamorous glutton permalink
    July 24, 2017 12:20 pm

    It used not to be as much of an issue as it was the occasional professional photo shoot. But now that there are so many instagrammers, bloggers etc taking these shots and often peddling the impossible it is an issue. However, those overhead multiplayer shots are hugely popular and get great responses as do the multi shakes. I don’t feel I can boycott these kinds of shots on other people’s feeds without labelling then frauds. I think it behoves us all, whether food, fashion, beauty or fitness to be more genuine but it won’t help our stats. GG

  8. July 24, 2017 1:00 pm

    I am extremely frugal so probably wouldn’t use something to make food inedible after a shoot – there might be a market for edible food photography spray. Should look into that. 😀
    Also, I hate food from restaurants and stores just being thrown away – there are so many people it could feed as often there is nothing wrong with the food at all. The balance could go to feed pigs and the like.
    Have a super day.
    🙂 Mandy xo

  9. Dannii @ Hungry Healthy Happy permalink
    July 24, 2017 1:09 pm

    This is something I found really difficult at the photoshoots for my first book. There was so much food that went to waste either because it was handled so much, or the pure volume of food that we couldn’t eat or take home ourselves. We are photographing the second book ourselves, at home, so trying to be much less wasteful.

  10. July 24, 2017 1:25 pm

    Food waste is unacceptable whether you are an instagrammer or not. It is such a precious good and a plant or an animal has to give/sacrifice its life so that it can end up on our plate. No matter what I do, I always try to eat any food that ends up on my table. And if something is not fit for consumption anymore, then I throw it in my compost bin (so I feel less guilty since I know it will be recycled).

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  11. July 24, 2017 3:56 pm

    I have never done a food shot of food that I didn’t eat. But I’ve been on press trips with “influencers” who do. At least save the food for a stray dog!! I find it particularly offensive when in people’s homes and people waste food. Luckily I don’t want to promote single use plastic and fake dye, fake food so there is not chance of me posting a Starbucks Unicorn coffee. I am getting to the point that I want to call people out on it, especially with cocktails. Unless you have a cleft mouth or some sort of swallowing disorder, not taking the two seconds to say “No Straw” is criminal. I want to comment, but so far don’t. something like “Have you been to a beach clean up lately? I have. 90% of the garbage I picked up were straws.” The Narcissistic impulses that fuel social media are going to destroy the planet. I am angry and I don’t give a crap if I offend anyone. Sick of being at the beach and straws are everywhere.

    Maybe people with bigger accounts and followings can use their influence for the positive. Let’s start consuming less, wasting less and learn that yes we will survive without that Moscow Mule shot with a straw.

    • July 24, 2017 4:11 pm

      You’ve put refusing a straw higher up my radar and priorities – I should have done it for the shot at the top of this page. Consumption and waste does seem completely out of control now. I grew up where glass milk bottles delivered by electric vehicles, washed and reused were an everyday thing. It now seems like a different age entirely. I too get angry at the true cost of waste. The companies who make huge profits by selling highly packaged items especially to third world and poor economies should have a part in clearing it up. The rivers in mountainous Nepal where getting things in and out is difficult were full to the brim of plastic and disposable nappies.

      • July 26, 2017 12:07 pm

        For some reason the photos did not load when I read this. Regarding plastics in developing countries. I am sure you remember our trip to Georgia. I was appalled at the amount of plastic all over the place, and in the Spring, if you look at the river in Tbilisi some times it seems like there is more plastic than water. Why? Well, people in rural villages simply throw their trash down nearby streams that run into the bigger rivers. I have seen it many times driving in the country roads. Westerners often think that because we can’t see the waste all over the place, it isn’t a problem. Like those Unicorn Starbucks drinks that were all over IG. NOt only did the IGers not drink them (apparently they were disgusting), they are served in plastic with straws.

  12. July 24, 2017 5:58 pm

    Well given I pay for every dish I order, I definitely don’t over-order for the sake of an Instagram snap! On a similar note, I also will only ever photograph something that I am going to eat – I don’t share anything that I have not eaten. How can one describe it otherwise? That aside, I am with you on minimising food wastage – at home too. Our fridge is near-empty because I only like to buy what we consume! PRs and chefs should take note of your post when organising media events. Well said Sally. x

  13. July 24, 2017 8:44 pm

    Excellent points! I agree entirely. I don’t understand the quest for ‘likes’ or followers and the food porn trend seems to be a permanent staple in our social media society. All we can do is keep on eating our leftovers and vocalize this problem so others are aware (and hopefully feel compelled to stop wasting food).

  14. July 24, 2017 9:39 pm

    Wow. I’ve often thought about the food on photo shoots and on tv, but I had no idea that people were doing this – I suppose I don’t follow any of those sorts of accounts and just never even thought of it. I feel rather naive now! My Instagram photos of plates of food are plates I’ve bought to eat and then thought, ooh, I’ll take a photo of that. I find the idea of people ordering food for likes and then binning it absolutely revolting on every possible level. What utter madness.

  15. Sarah permalink
    July 25, 2017 12:34 am

    I agree with what you have written – since moving to the UK I only photograph food I have prepared for the family or what we are sharing as a meal. We don’t waste food, and what we don’t eat, we ask for a takeaway box and have the leftovers for packed lunches or meals for the next day. I often wonder about people’s photos..are we too absorbed with the online version of promoting our posts to make food look perfect, or should we go a step further and look at the ethical aspect? Even at work, we don’t spend a long time photographing our meals – food is plated according to spec, we take a few quick photos and then it becomes a staff meal. Looking forward to reading what others think

  16. The Real Geordie Armani permalink
    July 25, 2017 7:44 am

    Couldn’t agree with you more Sally, to be honest with you I find flat lay shots a bit boring these days. Its blatantly obvious that outlets that are serving freak shakes are using their product as a marketing tool, which in terms of cost is a cheap way for them to promote themselves so I doubt they care much if it ends up uneaten. I am rather like Foodiva with the fridge comment, my fridge is more often empty than full as I hate to throw food away. I am always making up dishes from left overs too.

  17. July 25, 2017 4:26 pm

    Sally, I can honestly say that 99% percent of the food pictures I take are the food which I personally eat. When I attend as media, in all those dinners the food is shared at the table – first we all take pictures, then it is sliced/divided up and happily consumed. Any reasonable leftovers are taken home. As simple as that. I personally wouldn’t order food just for picture without the intent of eating it – whether I have to pay for food or not.
    Ohh, and the remaining 1%? It is when I take pictures of someone else’s food – then I don’t know for sure what would happen with that food, but this is extremely rare.
    I really get upset with food waste in any shape and form, food must be spoiled or totally inedible to be thrown out in our house…

  18. July 25, 2017 4:54 pm

    Excellent points. Thank you for this. I am totally with you. It seems there often must be waste, overeating, or false advertising. I have never made played just for photos. I may make one dinner plate look prettier and name my kids wait an extra minute. My photos aren’t great but I’m ok with that.
    I’ve struggled with this even with wine samples. I don’t have a Coravin so if I have to open 6 bottles, I alert my neighbors and friends to come share. Can’t stand wasting and always trying to pursue health so careful to not overdo. I think about what we’ve created and if the benefit is worth the cost.

  19. July 25, 2017 6:18 pm

    I have thought this so many times! These skinny girls with huge accounts and 5 doughnuts in hand, 3 hours later, a massive freak shake (which, to me, does not fall in the category of “food”). They are taking a photo and throwing it away, which IS where it belongs in the first place, but it’s still a waste! Good for you for pointing this out. Unfortunately, like many of my rants on my site (I’m not as eloquent as you are), it will make no difference in the sins being committed 😦

  20. July 25, 2017 6:38 pm

    I am a big believer in honesty in photos. What I shoot is what I eat — no hairspray, mashed potatoes as ice cream or shaving cream in my feed. And though I understand the reasoning for shoots like that for magazines and such, I just can’t get behind it.

  21. July 26, 2017 12:16 am

    I’m so glad that you’ve brought up this subject. I’ve been thinking the same for a long time. I eat what I make and put in front of my camera. That’s why my food photos might not be as tempting as those super fancy shots. I could put extra food items on my plate to make the photo nicer but I can’t bring myself to do it and I will stick to my belif.

  22. July 26, 2017 2:36 am

    Great post Sally ☺️

  23. July 28, 2017 6:29 am

    ‘There’s enough food on our planet to feed everyone easily and yet people go hungry’
    Such a touching line.

    I really have never thought about what happens to Instagram food. I thought the people would just eat it, because it looks so good on the picture. But that’s perhaps because I grew up in South Africa. (Spend sometime in Switzerland too, Lake Geneva is beautiful)

    This article enlightened me. Thank you for writing it.

  24. July 30, 2017 11:19 pm

    Your words could have been my own, I’m so bored of photogenic food that isn’t eaten and enjoyed by anyone!

  25. July 31, 2017 5:38 pm

    These are stunning photos.

  26. July 31, 2017 8:06 pm

    Hi Sally, I worked in Photofinishing for decades. We did shoots for McDonalds. They would send us dozens of buns to find the right one for the shot. Later, staff takes home left over buns. Too bad we never shot for Molson or Labatts.

Trackbacks

  1. Food Photography: Ready to Eat? – LIFE IN THE FOOD LANE
  2. Food Waste isn’t a Good Taste – Asian5

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