When We Look ~
While studying at Temple University, I took an informative and inspiring class at Tyler School of Art called Social Documentary Photography, taught by successful and dynamic artist Martha Madigan. The class was designed to use fine art skills to convey ideas about the issues of hunger and food waste, continuing the tradition of documentary photography. We worked with Philadelphia-based food rescue group Philabundance and toured local organizations like Broad Street Ministry and neighborhood gardens like Glenwood Green Acres in North Philly.
My approach to the project was both artistic and anthropological and as a result I created a 16-photo exhibit entitled “When We Look.” The photos are presented in pairs with narrative captions and explore different cultural aspects of food, hunger and waste. In lieu of an in-person exhibit (prevented by coronavirus), I am posting this documentary photo series online (scroll below).
My hope is that these images will inspire you to think about food, your relationship and access to it, and to find out more about hunger, food waste, and food rescue in your community. A term like “hunger” is a word that describes so much and nothing at all if we do not look deeper into what it means and who it affects.
I welcome comments and questions about any of the photographs or ideas presented; feel free to post a comment or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
~ Chris Mason
When We Look by Chris Mason
When I think about pizza.
I’m pleasantly assaulted by a burst of warm air and the smell of tomato, garlic and basil. It takes me back to late nights hanging out as a teenager at Luigi’s Pizza Parlor in Bellevue, a small borough near Pittsburgh, PA. My friends and I spent nearly every Friday and Saturday night at Luigi’s eating cheesy, greasy pizza, gossiping and playing arcade games. It was a home away from home to laugh in, to fight in, to stuff our faces in before heading back to responsibility, chores, homework. It is sad to see cherished neighborhood spots, “mom-and-pops,” disappearing; along with them we lose some of our food traditions, local culture, and community identity.
Diversity is delicious.
Food and culture are intertwined. It is part of who we are, literally and figuratively, and we can share food with others, and our stories of home and who we are. Philadelphia is home to residents from every continent in the world, and nearly 150 languages besides English are spoken by its inhabitants. Despite governmental pushback against immigration from countries outside the U.S., we are still “the melting pot,” where immigrants have called home for generations. Cultural sites like Chinatown, the Italian Market, H-Mart and Fairhill provide a connection to home and identity for both expats and locals. Ensuring access to healthy foods that are culturally significant is part of the battle against hunger.
Not just to survive…
As I sat inside this cozy cafe drinking a deliciously decadent hot chocolate, I listened to the hum of conversations around me. It was cozy and warm and I was content. As I eyed up the homemade cannolis, I think about how often over the years I could not meet up with friends at a restaurant to celebrate a birthday or to cook food for Thanksgiving or to make the occasional splurge of a sweet or savory treat to mark the end of a challenging work week. When I think about hunger and food insecurity, I think about people who may not be able to thrive, to derive a feeling of happiness and togetherness that food can provide when shared with others.
It does not go away.
There is an ugly side to American exceptionalism and over-abundance: waste. Tons of fruits and vegetables rejected by supermarkets because they are not “pretty enough;” the American obsession with “big food” and portions left on our plates only to be tossed into the trash can; and those pieces of fruit growing mold in your refrigerator. Produce and other foods that end up in a landfill slowly decay emitting methane into the atmosphere, a factor in climate change. And another contributor to waste is food packaging like plastics, styrofoam and cardboard, which are thrown away in huge quantities instead of being reused or recycled.
Side by side.
Hunger and food insecurity exist not because of a shortage of food, but because of inefficiency, attitudes about who gets access to the best foods, and profit margins. 40% of all food produced in the U.S. is thrown away. In land terms, this is equivalent to throwing away crops that would cover the state of Pennsylvania. The reasons: supermarkets that only display the “best-looking” fruits and vegetables, “best by” dates that are not federally mandated but decided by companies who want to move products off the shelves to increase profits, and insufficient research, strategizing and implementation of food rescue practices to avoid waste and eradicate hunger.
Every week at the Philabundance Food Distribution Center in South Philadelphia, volunteers and staff are busy organizing, coordinating, and transporting rescued food destined for area food cupboards. On Tuesday and Friday mornings, volunteers from local food cupboards arrive in a staggered fashion to load up their cars, vans and trucks with food for residents in need in their communities. Their expert ability to pack in as much food as possible is impressive. But this is important work: Philadelphia’s poverty rate is the highest in the nation at 25%, and 1 in 8 people in Philadelphia are hungry or food insecure. Without food rescue those figures would likely increase.
The signs are there.
In the United States, we exist with conflicting ideas of abundance and scarcity. Abundance is equated with success and status, and food is considered to be material evidence of that status: from swanky board room meeting refreshments to high end restaurants serving $100 entrees and over-saturation of restaurants in certain urban areas. We may frequently observe what could be called “over-abundance,” and it may be challenging to understand how hunger and food insecurity can exist alongside. Unfortunately, the stigma attached to hunger and poverty often keeps their effects behind closed doors, which makes it easier for well-meaning people to assume it is an individual problem rather than a societal one.
Apathy is a barrier to justice.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” – Elie Wiesel