JAVIER GARCIA, a 28-year-old neuroscientist at the University of California, Irvine, was in the campus pub recently having a grilled cheese sandwich. But before he took a bite, he snapped a digital picture of it, cheese artistically oozing between toasted white bread, just as he has photographed everything he has eaten in the last five years.
very other week he posts the photos on his Web site, ejavi.com/javiDiet, providing a strangely intimate and unedited view of his life and attracting fans from as far away as Ecuador. The nearly 9,000 photos leave nothing out, not even snacks as small as a single square of shredded wheat.
When he lost his iPhone while visiting New York last month, he pleaded with exasperated friends to take pictures of his food and to e-mail them to him, lest his record be incomplete. “It was a nightmare,” Mr. Garcia said, particularly because the unfocused pictures “were not the quality I’m used to.”
In 1825, the French philosopher and gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Today, people are showing the world what they eat by photographing every meal, revealing themselves perhaps more vividly than they might by merely reciting the names of appetizers and entrees.
Keeping a photographic food diary is a growing phenomenon with everything from truffle-stuffed suckling pig to humble bowls of Cheerios being captured and offered for public consumption. Indeed, the number of pictures tagged “food” on the photo-sharing Web site Flickr has increased tenfold to more than six million in the last two years, according to Tara Kirchner, the company’s marketing director. One of the largest and most active Flickr groups, called “I Ate This,” includes more than 300,000 photos that have been contributed by more than 19,000 members. There would be more, but members are limited to 50 photos a month. The same phenomena can be found on other sites like Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, Foodspotting, Shutterfly, Chowhound and FoodCandy.
Nora Sherman, 28, the deputy director of the City University of New York’s Building Performance Lab, which promotes sustainable construction, finds that the pictures she takes of her food are her most popular posts on Facebook, Twitter and on her blog, Thought for Food, (noraleah.com). The immediate and enthusiastic commentary on, say, an arugula and feta salad or a plate of fried okra have given her a sense of connection and community since moving to Manhattan from New Orleans in 2006.
“People I have never met follow my blog and know me through the food I eat,” Ms. Sherman said. She was even introduced to her boyfriend through someone she came to know through his comments on the food pictures on her blog, and who thought the two might be a match.
She said she takes pictures of at least half the meals she eats, omitting, for example, multicourse meals when it might “interrupt the flow.” But she has noticed lately that it’s becoming harder to suppress the urge to shoot. “I get this ‘must take picture’ feeling before I eat, and what’s worse is that I hate bad pictures so I have to capture it in just the right light and at just the right angle,” Ms. Sherman said.
She uses a Canon PowerShot S90 and uploads pictures to her Web site daily, sometimes several times a day, which takes at most 30 minutes a day. The camera, she said, is small but works well in low light. She doesn’t style her photos, saying, “I like to take shots that no pro would ever take — holding an oyster in my hand about to slurp it down, or a bagel with a bite out of it.”
Her impulse to photograph her food and do so artistically has made her a more adventurous eater. “It’s driven me to seek out interesting, photogenic foods,” she said. She is now more likely to eat foods she would have once avoided, like beef tendon, heart and tripe at an Asian shopping mall in Flushing, Queens. And, she said, photographing the food has kept her honest when she has started diets: “When I decided to have salad for dinner during a juice fast, I snapped and posted that.”
Photos are also a means of self-motivation for Mr. Garcia, who began photographing his food after he lost 80 pounds. “It’s definitely part of my neuroticism about trying to keep thin,” he said. “It keeps you accountable because you don’t want to have to see that you ate an entire jar of peanut butter.”
And, ever the scientist, he hopes to one day use the photographs to calculate how much money he spends to consume a calorie versus how much he spends in gym memberships and sports gear to burn a calorie. “People I have dated haven’t been that into it,” he said of his food photo-journaling. “But it’s never been a deal breaker.”
Pamela Hollinger, 36, an independent radio programmer and announcer in Stephenville, Tex., said her husband of eight years is resigned to her taking pictures of her food. “When we were dating, it was like, ‘What are you doing?’ ” she said. “Now it’s a quirk he’s come to accept.”
Her habit began in 1997 as a way to show her mother what she ate on vacations, but she now photographs almost everything she eats, leaving out only insignificant snacks and anything unappealing looking, like a bowl of oatmeal. “I think getting an iPhone had a lot to do with it,” Ms. Hollinger said. “It’s so easy to just take a quick picture of what I’m eating and no one really notices.” Or maybe they think she is just texting at the table.
She e-mails the pictures directly from her phone to a few friends and posts some of them on her Facebook page as well as on Chowhound. “I like to show off what I’m eating or something I’ve made that I’m proud of, like a pork rib-eye roast that became pulled pork sandwiches and then pork tacos and then pork salad,” she said. “I get more comments on my food pictures than anything else. Within seconds, I get, ‘Oh, I’m jealous,’ or ‘Hey, can I come over?’ ”
That some people are keeping photographic food diaries and posting them online does not surprise psychotherapists. “In the unconscious mind, food equals love because food is our deepest and earliest connection with our caretaker,” said Kathryn Zerbe, a psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders and food fixations at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. “So it makes sense that people would want to capture, collect, catalog, brag about and show off their food.”
Photographing meals becomes pathological, however, if it interferes with careers or relationships or there’s anxiety associated with not doing it. “I’d have to ask if they would feel O.K. if they didn’t do it,” said Tracy Foose, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco, who treats patients with obsessive-compulsive disorders. “Could they resist the urge to do it?”
Joe Catterson, the general manager of Alinea restaurant in Chicago, said that, increasingly, people can’t. “One guy arrived with the wrong lens or something on his camera and left his wife sitting at the table for an hour while he went home to get it,” he said.
Such compulsion is apparent even at restaurants where the plating is less elaborate. “They’ve got to take a picture of their pancakes and send it to their friend,” said John Vasilopoulos, the manager at the Cup & Saucer, a diner on the Lower East Side. “I don’t get it because their food gets cold, but I take it as a compliment.”
Evidently aware of the trend, manufacturers like Nikon, Olympus, Sony and Fuji have within the last two years released cameras with special “food” or “cuisine” modes, costing around $200 to $600. “These functions enable close-up shots with enhanced sharpness and saturation so the food colors and textures really pop,” said Terry Sullivan, associate editor of digital imaging technologies at Consumer Reports.
This bemuses Tucker Shaw, the food critic for The Denver Post, who made do with a basic point-and-shoot digital camera to take pictures of everything he ate in 2004; he published the photos in his book, “Everything I Ate: A Year in the Life of My Mouth.”
“It used to turn heads if you took a picture of your food, and I even got in trouble at a few restaurants,” he said. “Now it’s ubiquitous and just shows that we are in a spastic food era — we couldn’t get more obsessive.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Shaw said the year he spent photographing his food (and a year was enough for him) resulted in an achingly honest account of his life that revealed far more than the fact that he ate too few leafy green vegetables: “The pictures, I realize now, are incredibly personal, and by looking at them you can probably deduce the type of person I am.” Moreover, the pictures set off memories and emotions in a way a written journal could not. “I remember every single day, who I was with, what I was feeling,” he said.
Unlike a picture of a flower or friend, a picture of a meal recalls something smelled, touched, tasted and ultimately ingested. Carl Rosenberg, 52, a Web site developer who divides his time among San Francisco; Austin, Tex.; and Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, photographs his food along the way with a Nikon D3.
“You have more of a direct connection with your food, so it forms a more essential memory of an occasion,” he said. He often places a small stuffed animal, a sheep, which he calls the Crazy Sheep, next to his food before taking a picture; reminiscent of the globe-trotting garden gnome in the French film “Amélie.”
“I think photographing food is a more accurate way to document life,” said Mr. Rosenberg, who shares photos with family and friends but does not post them. “Food isn’t going to put on a special face when you take a picture of it.”
FUENTE: KATE MURPHY, NEW YORK TIMES