Taking the Biscuit
A food centred photography practise was established from my passion for commercial food photography and documenting food cultures. From advertising-style food photography to getting involved in food communities, my skillset ranges from still-life studio production to documentary and portraiture.
Stemming from my infuriation of the high amount of food poverty in the UK, Taking the Biscuit explores the socio-political issues involved around the topic of food, through themes of portraiture, documentary and still-life. The lack of awareness there appears to be around the fact, ‘In the UK, over 14 million are living in poverty – including 4.5 million children.’ (The Trussell Trust, 2020), proves the shocking absence of care the government provides for people sadly going hungry on a daily basis. I felt the need to expose this ongoing issue surrounding food poverty and insecurity because it is buried by the government and doesn’t get spoken about enough.
Highlighting food poverty issues in the UK and raising awareness of modern day first-world poverty, photography and moving image are effective mediums to provoke change and awareness. As Stephen Bull describes in Photography, documentary photography can make improvements to socio-political issues, which was proved by Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis during the 19th/20th centuries when they documented immigrant and child labour in America. However, photography does have some limitations for issue-based work as Martha Rosler acknowledges. Rosler describes the low-class subjects of documentary photography as, ‘victims of the camera’ (Rosler, 1981), and believes they are exploited by the practise.
Taking the Biscuit doesn’t exploit people living in poverty or attempt to represent them. The project began by documenting local support communities which help to fund the local food banks. The first documentary and portrait photographs from the Waste Not Café demonstrate the irresponsibility of the government in terms of poverty and verify the need for strong communities. Short interviews with people attending the café events revealed the importance of providing awareness and education around food poverty.
By getting myself involved in the café community from the beginning and attending every event, I gained the trust of both the volunteers and attendees. As someone part of the small community, my practise objectively represented the environment and the people attending. The photographs set up judgement for the viewer to make themselves by showing them the attendees and allowing them to read the opinions on the good cause of the café.
Kristian Buus’ Voices of the Vault was poignant to my project research. It comprises of a series of photographs and videos showing users of a food bank in Hackney and shares the stories of those people and how they ended up in such situations. The powerful text with the photographs and the stories articulated through video, show the harsh reality of the flaws within the government’s systems that are in place to help those that are unemployed, or on statutory sickness pay for example. The work educates others which provides the humanisation of the use of food banks that Buus intended through the project.
However, like Rosler described, Buus’ subjects within this project are ‘victims of the camera’ (1981). Buus focused directly on the unfortunate, vulnerable people at the food bank when they were collecting their food parcels. The photographer also removed them from the environment by placing them in a pop-up studio in the annex. As a practise method this isn’t effective in avoiding judgements nor making subjects feel uncomfortable, and the removal of the individuals from the food bank evokes shame in the relationship between them and the environment. In figure 1 it is clear that the woman photographed wasn’t at ease with her identity being fully revealed, which suggests that food banks should remain private and safe places.
Taking the Biscuit was going to document The Rhubarb Farm which I visited prior to COVID-19 restrictions. The farm provides support work for a variety of people, including unemployed, disabled, rehabilitating offenders, teenagers struggling at school with conditions like ADHD and also the elderly. The interest originated from the benefits of growing and harvesting fruits and vegetables, and also raising livestock. Upon visiting it became apparent that the farm supported those who slipped through the net of government’s systems. The intention was to become a part of the community and take portraits of the people who were receiving support from the farm and to find out more about their situations.
However, the project had to adapt around the restrictions which led the practise to evolve into a combination of still-life and documentary methods. Looking at the styles used by Carrie Mae Weems’ The Kitchen Table Series and Mette Bersang’s Untitled Interiors, I decided to use my kitchen as a space to document how a person using a food bank may live, with the limited food they would have been provided to last for a minimum of three days. The information displayed on my local food bank’s website gave me ideas for the foods I should be photographing, for example; what’s in an emergency food parcel, which foods are urgently needed and which food they already have plenty of.
The importance of Weems and Bersang’s work when creating my photographs prompted me to show more of the everyday normality this person would experience, to allow breathing space for the viewer in between observing the brutal realism of food poverty. This led me to create a short moving image piece documenting the shadows and reflections on the wall that pass behind the kitchen table throughout the day, representative of how life continues and people suffering in food poverty are just ordinary people.
Another major issue surrounding food poverty is loneliness, and the effects on mental health because of eating alone. Poverty is more than likely an isolated place, especially as the government provides minimum support. The government also don’t make much effort to reduce loneliness in the UK even though figures are shockingly high, ‘over 9 million people in the UK across all ages are either always or often lonely.’ (Campaign to End Loneliness, 2020).
Three zines presented with the short moving image piece sum up the nature of Taking the Biscuit. The characteristics of a zine for presenting this series are appropriate as they are cost effective and are often given away for free. The medium needed to be reflective of poverty and also accessible to all social classes. A projection of the moving image imitates the beauty of natural lighting on the kitchen wall throughout the day and provides the viewer with a sense of home away from home.
Campaign to End Loneliness, 2020. The Facts on Loneliness [online]. Available at: https://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/the-facts-on-loneliness/ [Accessed 17/03/2020]
The Trussell Trust, 2020. Our Aim is to End Hunger and Poverty in the UK [online]. Available at: https://www.trusselltrust.org/what-we-do/ [Accessed 02/05/2020]
Figure 1. Kristian Buus, 2017. Miss D had to stop working in 2014 on medical grounds [photograph]. Vice Magazine. Available at: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/7xzybz/this-photographer-documents-the-people-who-visit-londons-food-banks [Accessed 29/01/2020]