saving plates

By Jean Teng.

To take photos of food is to document experience and emotion. It’s an artistic process that extends beyond the quality of an image, and beyond the food itself. Snapping photos before every meal, food writer Jean Teng has a vast archive of images — a collection of experiences.

I have a DSLR but I hardly use it. When someone slides a plate of food across the table, it’s my iPhone 7 that will get to hover above it. I might shuffle some cutlery around, shove a napkin out of sight, grumble about the lighting, apologise to my dining partner for making them wait, and only then shoot the shot. Food styling, art direction; I do it all in about two minutes. A delayed bon appetit, mon amie – courtesy of Instagram, courtesy of my (now defunct) food writing job, courtesy of being a cultured millennial in the age of personal brand curation. Courtesy of me really fucking loving food.

My photo albums are filled with every meal I ever had in 2019, and yet I would never self-identify as a photographer. There are many excuses I would give for this: my eye is bad; my concept of what looks good is solely derived from whatever is trending in pop culture; my thumb sometimes ends up on the lens for absolutely no good reason. Despite all this, my albums are neatly organised and my Instagram story archives betray the fact that I take my photos frequently, seriously, and with an overzealousness 2017-me may have found annoying.

Snapping photos of food started out as part of my job and evolved into an instinctual habit ingrained into my hands like muscle memory. As photography, they function in the same way a lot of photography does: as signifiers of meaning. For a food writer, they prop up my brand – show I’m eating at the right places (trendy, new, full of shelves with natural wine) and supporting the little guys (hole-in-the-wall, independent eateries). But they hold personal meaning, too. Instagram stories, as an ephemeral medium, is an easy, non-committal way to keep someone in the loop of your life. Instagram, as a platform, is a powerful way to feel like you belong somewhere, as your content speaks directly to a community which echoes your interests. And, well, “foodies” live on the gram. I’m not going to lie and say I don’t take photos because of that – because of the social capital gained from the act. Social capital in the context of this unstable gig economy means everything, baby. I think it’s a shame that taking photos of your brunch and chucking it up on the ‘gram is synonymous with this idea of a self-obsessed, narcissistic culture chewed over by mid-30 stand-up comedians that are too preoccupied with going for an easy laugh that they would actually begrudge someone posting a pic of their French toast and 11am mimosa. The fact is, these photos – whether they’re carefully, painstakingly styled, or taken in two seconds just for the mems – hold the DNA and mundane minutiae of my boring everyday life for me to peruse, share, or even reminisce over when I’m stuck in lockdown, can’t dine out for at least a month, and just ate my eighth cheese toast of the week. They are a vehicle for universal connection – everybody eats, after all – and, God, I just like taking them. It gives me a little zing of satisfaction that some part of the $80 meal I just vacuumed up into my stomach will live on in the world, somewhere, somehow, even if it is just within the Cloud.