E14: What's So Political About Food Photography? (w/ Celeste Noche)

Food photography is just about showcasing food...right? In this episode, we talk with freelance photographer Celeste Noche about how an art as "neutral" as modern food photography can actually be loaded with signifiers of race, gender, and class. We discuss the strange positioning of chopsticks in photos of Asian food, the slow trickling down of the Kinfolk aesthetic, and all the things we lose when we divorce food from its cultural context.

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[theme music] 

ZAHIR JANMOHAMED: Welcome to Racist Sandwich, a podcast about race, gender, food, and class. 

SOLEIL HO: I like that every time you do it, the order is different. I like that though. It's cool. 

ZAHIR: I am your co-host, Zahir Janmohamed. 

SOLEIL: And I'm your other co-host, Soleil Ho. 

Today we have a really fun episode about--and I've been working on this idea for a while, but about--aesthetics and food. So, we talk with Celeste Noche. She's a freelance photographer, and she's worked with food publications, with just a lot of lifestyle kind of stuff. And you notice, when you flip through these magazines, there's a look, right? There's totally an aesthetic that a lot of these pieces share. And there's not a lot of conversation about those. 

ZAHIR: Yeah, one thing that I've learned since we started the podcast is the way like, if you're gonna photograph, let's say, a bowl of ramen or a bowl of pho, sometimes the background around it is exotified, like bamboo chopsticks even if it's not used to eat that dish. Or in Indian, curry might have some sort of bindi in it or maybe a toy little rickshaw. And this idea that "ethnic food" has to be dressed up, whereas a bowl of pasta can stand on its own. So, that's something I never really thought about, but now, since I've met you and since we interviewed Celeste, I think about it a lot when I look at magazines. 

SOLEIL: Yeah. There's definitely, even if the food is real--which, of course, we can talk about food styling at another time where they use paint in bowls of cereal--the choices involved in food photography are so intentional and deliberate that of course, there's meaning in every element. And sometimes, it's really bad meaning, and it's like they have one second of the viewer's attention to tell them, "This is Chinese food!" 

ZAHIR: [laughs] 

SOLEIL: Or, "This is from Africa!" And there's textiles, and there's weird, the props are so interesting since I started thinking about it, the patterns that are used in a "12 Dishes for your Fiesta!" The kinds of elements in those photos are so distinct that you can't unsee it once you realize. It's like The Matrix. 

ZAHIR: It reminds me of what my friends who are standup comedians tell me that, a friend--she's Iranian--she says in the first minute of her act, she has to explain to audience members that she's Iranian. And the reason why she does that is because otherwise then, they'll spend the whole act trying to guess her ethnicity. 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

ZAHIR: So, if you watch old clips of comedians on let's say, Conan or Johnny Carson or whoever, they'll always say, "Yeah, you know. So, I'm Cambodian." And they say like in the very first 30 seconds. That way, the audience can then get on to the act. But that’s kind of a sad thing that so many people of color have to do, give these clues, you know? 

SOLEIL: Yeah, yeah. And it almost reminds me of when I was a kid in elementary school, and we had diversity day. And we all had to dress up. 

ZAHIR: [laughs] 

SOLEIL: It was New York City. It was pretty ethnic. There were a lot of us different kids and a lot of immigrants. And we would dress up in our cultural garb, which you bring up in the episode, and bring a dish. And usually, my mom would order take-out and have me bring that to school. 

BOTH: [laugh] 

SOLEIL: You know, single mom realness. And it feels like that. The photos of the food in the magazines kind of feel like that, where you're dressed up, and you're just a normal human. But you put on these accoutrements to signify your otherness. Of course, diversity is very tasty and great, and I loved it. But when you think about it, it feels similar to sort of props, like you're putting props on yourself so that everyone knows where you're from and what you are in a split second. 

ZAHIR: Yeah, like signifiers. Yes. 

SOLEIL: Yeah. 


CELESTE NOCHE: The reason food photography, when I think about race and class and gender with food photography, the focus is, to me, that it's the absence of what is there. So, when I think of what I see online or what people hire me for, it's usually Western food; it's usually European. And so, when you do finally see something that's Indian or Asian of some sort, there are things that are added in order to emphasize its culture. Whereas that doesn't exist for Italian food or French food or anything like that. 

ZAHIR: So, for example, supposing a photography editor asks you, says, "OK, photograph this pasta dish," you would just take the dish and photograph it? 

CELESTE: Mmhmm. 

ZAHIR: That's it? 

CELESTE: That's it. 

ZAHIR: No little maps of Italy on the background? 


SOLEIL: [laughs] 

ZAHIR: No Vespa, the [inaudible] sitting on top of a Vespa? 


SOLEIL: Oh, my god. That's so cute. 

CELESTE: There's no red and white checkered tablecloth. Yeah, exactly. And so, it's interesting. I think when I was thinking about how to define sort of my approach to having this conversation, it was that yeah, Western and European food doesn't have that. They don't need to explain that this pasta's from Italy or that, I don't know, this Shepherd's pie is from the UK. It's just, they just photograph it for what it is. But as soon as you see something that's remotely Asian, i.e., has soy sauce in it, then there are chopsticks in it, or there are Oriental-patterned linens or things like that. Which I think is really bizarre. It doesn't have to happen that way, but because there's such an absence of ethnic food in food photography, in modern food culture, I think, from my perspective, they try to over-- 

SOLEIL: Over-compensate? 

CELESTE: Yeah, exactly. They try to over-compensate for it by adding things that probably aren't relevant or necessary. 

SOLEIL: Yeah. I noticed that when I Googled, "Asian food," and you realize there's only so many ways you can perch chopsticks on a bowl. 

ALL: [laugh] 

SOLEIL: And it's always so jaunty, kind of biased on the side, on the edge. And it's like, who puts chopsticks on a bowl, on the rim of a bowl? 

CELESTE: And along the same thread, I think I saw a post on Pinterest about chopsticks, and I think they were tired of using chopsticks the normal way. So, they actually had the pot sticker on top of the chopsticks. 

SOLEIL: What? 

CELESTE: I'm gonna show you with my hands. But normally, you would go like this, which is the pot sticker, right? This was like the chopsticks, and the pot sticker was literally placed on top of the two. It was weird. [laughs] And so, people are trying to be creative about ways to [laughs] incorporate Asian things into things when really, why don't you let the food speak for itself the way that you let every other dish that you're shooting? 

ZAHIR: Mm, interesting. So, for example, when an editor asks you to shoot, let's say, a bowl of pho, and they want you to overly exotify it--not overly, just exotify it--do you feel that you have space to push back and say, "Yo, can I just-- The dish itself is beautiful? Can we leave all the chopsticks out and stuff?" 

CELESTE: I actually did have-- One of my very first food photography jobs was similar. It was shooting for a tofu brand, and the art director brought in this big-ass banana leaf, like huge. And he wanted me to just put the tofu on it, and I was like, "I don't understand. How does this work?" And he was just like, "Well, I just wanted to give it context 'cause it's like an Asian thing." 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

CELESTE: And it was just-- 

SOLEIL: Asians are monkey people. 

CELESTE: Right. And so, it's hard because these people are hiring you to do a job, but when I'm in that position, I just try to be as explanatory and practical. And so, in that situation, I just said, "OK, well, if you were actually eating the tofu, you wouldn't have it on a banana leaf. So, that's why I'm not gonna shoot it this way." 

ZAHIR: Wow. 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

CELESTE: So, I've never [laughs]-- That was like a really, very strange, one of my first commercial shoots. He also wanted to put mint on the tofu, as a garnish because he wanted some green in there. I was like, "When do you eat mint with tofu?" I just was really confused. And he said, "Well, when people come over, I just wanna make it look nice." I'm like, "That's fine, but make it look nice with something you would actually use." It's just very weird. I was confused at his-- Yeah. 

ZAHIR: That's interesting 'cause one of my pet peeves about photography about India--I lived in India for four years before I came to Portland--is the stereotype about India being colorful. And so, a lot of the Indian photographers who live in India that I respect, they all shoot in black and white partly to puncture that whole stereotype about, "India's colorful! And look at all these people throwing colors in the middle of a festival" and stuff like that. 

CELESTE: [laughs] 

ZAHIR: And so, with black and white photography, you can really cut through that. So, for you, how have you pushed back on that? You gave one example there, but in your actual photography skills, how have you shot these dishes in a way that doesn't exotify what a bowl of pho looks like or what a bowl of ramen looks like? 

CELESTE: I think that when I've been given assignments, it's a little bit harder because I'm in a very specific context. And so, if I'm in a studio or in a restaurant, I can only shoot with what I have available. But in my own personal projects, for example, my mom came to visit me. I just shot her making palitaw, which is a Filipino rice cake dessert. And so, I just shot it the way that she made it, and it wasn't styled. That, for me, not styling it and letting her-- She put newspaper down on my counter because she didn't want it to get sticky. So, I just left that there. I used her actual older hands with all of her crazy rings. And I think just representing things the way they are is, for me, the best way that I've been able to push back against this idea that we have to style things in a specific way in order to represent culture. 

SOLEIL: OK. Can you talk more about what you mean by saying that we have to style things a specific way? So, the big names in food photography in the food media, like Bon Appetít and Saveur, or Saveur [with a French-y pronunciation]. I don't know. I've never known how to pronounce it. Anyway. 

CELESTE: I still don't know. 

SOLEIL: So, also trickle down into grassroots media like blogs and Instagram. So, what is the house style that you've seen, or what is in right now as far as visual media? 

CELESTE: Mmhmm. Well, just to generalize what has been the most, what has seemed the most popular to me, at least in the most recent years is minimalism is really big. Either extreme minimalism or overabundance, so one or the other. And so, there's not really an in-between. And then also neutral, muted colors. It's usually very feminine. Usually, there's a white woman's hands making something. You don't really see a man do it or masculine hands or people of color really making things when they do the how-to shots. And then also, yeah, I guess those are probably the main things that've stuck out to me. 

SOLEIL: So, all these features are sending these messages to you, right, that you're able to say that it's feminine or it's neutral. So, why is that? How do you explain, I guess, minimalism's place in food photography? 

CELESTE: I think it started--I mean, I don't want to attribute this all to one thing--but I feel like the Kinfolk effect has really taken place in food media especially. There's this very romanticized idea of country living and making things by hand and muted tones and simplicity. And simplicity is and can be beautiful, but it also romanticizes a lifestyle that is not accessible or true for many people. 

So, for example, if you look at photo shoots, probably from Kinfolk's earlier shoots, they've since switched to a very design brand, but before, when it was all about simple meals and enjoying solitude and things like that, it was about farm-to-table things and like someone making bread by hand and pulling tomatoes out of the garden. And yeah, so, just this idea. But that effect and the romanticized idea of that, to me, has meant that the food photography that's become popular, not just because of Kinfolk, because of what people respond to and repin and like on Instagram, I think a lot of those things have, it's trickled so that now the things that are the most popular and emulated are very minimalistic. They don't wanna see the background; they don't wanna see the mess behind something being made. They don't wanna see that in order to make this dish, you have to use a canned thing. Like god forbid that you bought something from the canned food aisle in order to make your pumpkin pie. 

But there was an article recently about minimalism and how as it's been trending, I think a lot of design these days values minimalism. People love showing minimalist corners of their houses and things like that. Food is shown very minimally in order to highlight it probably. But my issue with minimalism is that it suggests a kind of privilege: The people who can choose to be minimalist usually aren't in the position where they're choosing minimalism because they have to. And so, getting back to food photography and food representation, minimalism in that extent, when you're showing this great dish of pasta in minimalism, you're choosing to show only that thing. Whereas people of other socio-economic backgrounds, they're "minimalist" because they can't afford more; this is all they have. 

So, I think food photography can be very classist in that way. A lot of things that are represented seem like they're coming from middle to upper class homes. There are gluten-free ingredients, vegan things that are probably expensive and not accessible to other people. And so, in that way, I think that food photography can be very classist in what's highlighted and what becomes popular. 

SOLEIL: In a way, it fits into the idea that a lot of these lifestyle brands are aspirational, right? 

CELESTE: Mmhmm. 

SOLEIL: Like, aspirational being they advertise a life that their readers want. And so, of course, it's going to be classist and possibly privileged-- 

CELESTE: Definitely privileged. 

SOLEIL: --and display a sort of vision of gender and race that is maybe different from reality, right? 

CELESTE: Mmhmm. 

SOLEIL: So, it seems fitting. So, why not do that? You know, what's the problem? 

CELESTE: I don't think there's a problem with dreaming. So, I love photos like that. I think they're very beautiful. I think the issue comes from representation and also accessibility. So, when large food media websites and magazines perpetuate this idea and don't show other aspects, other classes, other ethnicities, the dream that they're perpetuating is very singular in that it's one kind of culture, one kind of socio-economic background, things like that. And so, I think that's what's problematic to me because it erases the fact that there are other cultures that are great and that you can learn from, that you can cook from and be inspired by. It suggests that you can only be inspired and aspire to have this lifestyle from one specific thing. 

SOLEIL: There's other things that people dream about too. 

ZAHIR: Can you speak a little bit about the power of photography in an age in which so much of the way we judge the merits of food is through photography? 

CELESTE: I think part of the appeal to food photography and food representation in visual media is that our society's very impatient. We don't, personally, I sometimes don't read everything. So, if I go on Yelp, sometimes I'll read reviews because they're humorous. But for the most-- I actually don't go on Yelp anymore. That's another conversation. But you just wanna see something and then have that half-second to decide whether you like it or not, then move on. I think the visual stimulus, subconscious and conscious, that you get from looking at a photo of something goes-- A picture can say a lot of things in just that instant. And so, now, when people are trying to make things Instagrammable, there's a crossover between professionals trying to shoot-- I don't think professionals shoot in order to Instagram, but it's kept in mind. They wanna share their work on Instagram. And in the same way, amateur or hobby photographers can shoot things emulating professionals in order to Instagram. 

SOLEIL: I've read an interview with a Filipino chef, for instance, who makes similar dishes but kind of crafts them to look better, right--better being a very loaded term--but look more presentable according to the Western kind of idea of what a dish should look like. And so, I mean, there's that, and there's so many messages in the presentation of the food that mark it as ethnic or mark it as high quality or whatever you wanna say. And I do wanna talk about what you were saying, Celeste, about all of the messages that are frozen in that moment of a photograph. So, what are the different ways in which messages of race and class and gender, I wanna talk more about that, as far as just the kind of setting, the context: That banana leaf, for instance. So, we talked about the chopsticks and things like that in Asian food. But just how are the different ways in which you have seen messages of whiteness and not being other are presented? 

CELESTE: I think that whiteness in a photograph can be the privilege of not having to explain what it is by using different props or things that overcompensate like we were talking about earlier. First, at its core, it's just the representation of "white food" specifically, which is, I think, the most common in food photography and what things are pinned the most or liked the most on Instagram and Pinterest. But then when you think about, I don't know, for example, if you have-- People like to take photos of the process of making bread or something, or handmade pasta, for example. That's a big pain in the butt: Making pasta, getting the right ingredients. Whereas you could just go to the store and buy pasta for like 50 cents. And so, I think, to me, the romanticizing of that labor is privileged in a lot of different ways. One, that you have the time to even make it. Two, that you can afford those ingredients instead of just buying something. And three, that you were romanticizing a process that was probably laborsome for a lot of people in the past. Like people, "Oh, I have to make this 'cause this is the only way I have it." And to some people, that's a very romantic idea that, "Oh, I get to make this by hand." And that's beautiful. That's great. But they don't romanticize other processes in other cultures, I don't think. 

For example, in Filipino food we have a dish called kare-kare, and it's a peanut butter-based stew. And by all white terms, it's not very beautiful. It's brown, and there's cow stomach in it. And yeah, and it's delicious. But aesthetic-wise, I don't think that's anything that Bon Appetít or Food52 would put on the cover, like a front page for them. That's just, it doesn't elicit the same reaction that a photo of something that people are more familiar with would. 

If I see that dish shot the way that my mom would serve it, which is just in a bowl with rice, it would just be a big bowl in the table, and everyone would have their rice. You'd eat it that way. That's probably not the most photogenic the same way that white food is represented. But if it was photographed with mood lighting, and I don't know, as if it came off of a farm. In that scenario, the way we see a lot of food photos now, it might look better, but then we're erasing how it would actually be served. And so, I don't know how you win. Because in one way, you're presenting it in a way that is not aesthetically pleasing to other people, at least in current food media. Or you're representing it so that it is aesthetically pleasing, but it's not honest to how you would actually eat it anymore. I don't know. 

SOLEIL: So, I'm interested in if you had an assignment to shoot kare-kare, what would you do? 

CELESTE: I would probably focus more on the process of making it because I think the hands that make it are as important as the finished dish. The story, to me, is its background, how it's made. The finished dish is not, I don't think, as beautiful, which is loaded. But I would wanna see my mom scraping peanut butter out of a Jif thing. [laughs] Or her making it because I think that's where the story is, that it is made that way. And I would hope, I mean-- 

ZAHIR: That's beautiful. Have you ever done that before, a photo essay about making this dish? 

CELESTE: I haven't had her do kare-kare, but I've been trying to shoot-- Pretty much, once I moved to Portland, then I was like, "Mom, you need to come up here so I can take photos of you cooking." Because I just felt very lonely in that I didn't have any Filipino friends up here. I didn't feel like-- And before finding our POC group, I just felt very alone. I would joke with my friends that I was the only Brown girl in Portland, which is not true. But it felt like it a lot because when my sister came to visit, we would go out to eat, and she would say, "Oh, my god. We're the only Brown people here." And I just got used to it, and that alarmed me that it wasn't a thing on the top of my mind anymore. So, it's something that I do wanna do but I haven't done yet. It's on my list. 

ZAHIR: One thing that comes up again and again on our show, Emiko Badillo, who spoke about a vegan grocery store she stared, and so many other people--Han Ly Hwang--they never really thought about race until they moved to Portland, you know? And for me, I certainly thought about it but not to the extent that it preoccupies me right now. And coming from California, you just, you know, you don't really have to deal with it. I mean, at Berkeley, students of color were the majority. At UCLA, we were the majority as well. So, what's it been like for you in Portland, and how has being in Portland changed your thinking about photography? 

CELESTE: Well, when I first came to Portland, I just thought, oh, cute little town. And that's how I thought it-- Once I moved here and was living here, I still thought that, but it really wasn't until other people would visit me, or I would talk to other people about Portland, where they would say, "Wow. Portland's really white." And then, when I tried to find ethnic food and realizing that it's all the way out on like 82nd and not in the center of--I mean, there is some but not predominantly--the center of town, then I started thinking more about my identity and how it's important to me and how I now live in a place where I don't identify with a lot of the people here. And so, in that way, moving here has made me more conscientious about my culture. And that Food52 piece about Filipino desserts, they paid me $50 for that. 

ZAHIR: No way. 

CELESTE: And that's their rate for food pieces, which is fair. When I pitched it, it was supposed to be a column. And they can--I hope this is OK to say--it's OK for them to have their guidelines, but that was like 12 recipes. I had my mom make some of them. I went to my local-- 

ZAHIR: And they paid you $50? 

CELESTE: Mmhmm. 

ZAHIR: Wow. 

CELESTE: And I mean, I'm sure it's the way they classify it as an article, it makes sense. They didn't say it had to be this long. I made it that way. But the reason I did it was because I felt that there wasn't a lot of Filipino representation, and I wanted to use this website because it had a big audience. And when that story was shared, there was so much response from Filipino people like, "Oh, my god. Finally. My dessert, things that I grew up with are on this popular website." And that was the most gratifying part to me. It doesn't excuse, I think, that the compensation in turn was not great. But that's, I guess, that's part of it. I don't know. You have to, I'm just trying to get more Filipino awareness, I guess, about Filipino food out there because it's really close to my heart. It's part of my identity. 

ZAHIR: Does that ever eat you up? For example, for me as a freelance writer, I wrote this one piece, and it did really well. And I kept getting all these emails. But it just killed me to get these emails 'cause I didn't get paid for it at all. The pay is so, it's exploitative, you know? Not getting paid is, or getting paid $50 for 1,000 words, is just so far below minimum wage. So, how do you reconcile with that as a freelance photographer? 

CELESTE: I think for me that I think about the project, and I ask myself what good is it doing? Because on the one hand, I try not to take work that I don't think fairly compensates me. It's like a standard that you have to take care of yourself, and this is how you make your living. But on the other hand, I don't know, in this case, I just thought I needed to see Filipino food on this website. The fact that they accepted the pitch was great, but then I also was like, it has to be written by someone who is actually Filipino. It has to be on a media site that gets a lot of attention just so that it's out there. I mean, I would've loved for it to be on my blog and to get hits that way, but the fact is, it wouldn't have been shared the way it was if it hadn't been for that website. 

And I don't know. I think it's a case by case thing. It still bothers me that I put that much work into it. I mean, it doesn't bother me that I put the work into it because I think it deserved it. 

ZAHIR: Yeah, it's a beautiful piece. 

CELESTE: Thank you. And I'm really proud of it. But it bothers me that that was OK to compensate someone for that much work based off of guidelines for that little when all of these-- I made half of those with my mom, or I bought them from my local grocery store to shoot or local Filipino bakery. I bought them in San Francisco, flew them back up to Portland with me to shoot in my house. Because I wanted to represent it in a way that I thought was truthful but also beautiful. 

And so, I don't know how to compensate. It still makes me feel weird when I think about it. I'm glad it's out there. I wish that they would have, I don't know, I wish they would've mentioned me on Twitter when they posted it. 

SOLEIL: Yeah, a mention would be nice. A little @-- 

CELESTE: Yeah, a little @. 

SOLEIL: --thrown your way. 


SOLEIL: I mean, I know it's a bitter pill to swallow, but I feel like it's easier to swallow if it's on your own terms. Like with this podcast that we do, we don't get any compensation for it, but it feels fine. 


ZAHIR: Yeah, totally. 

SOLEIL: You know [laughs]-- 

ZAHIR: That's a good way of saying it. 

SOLEIL: --to put ourselves out there because at least it's our fault [laughing] that we're not getting paid! 

ZAHIR: I know, totally. 

CELESTE: Right. 

SOLEIL: It's not someone else saying that we don't deserve it. 

CELESTE: Right. And I think that's why doing more personal projects has been more important to me: Lately, thinking about what is important to me and how I want to represent things so that my assignments aren't only of white food. And so, if someone's not assigning me things with, no one's assigning me Filipino things, then I'm just gonna shoot it myself. Which I haven't done that because of the wedding season, but to be coming soon. [chuckles] 

SOLEIL: Yeah? What other projects are you working on? 

CELESTE: Well, like you and I have been talking about-- 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

CELESTE: --hopefully, talking and photographing more people of color-owned businesses in Portland. Because when we say Portland is so white, it's true, but it's also erasure of that those people do live here. And so, I love to highlight local businesses and people here that make Portland what it is too but are often overlooked because of this Portlandia concept that exists. 

SOLEIL: Right. 

CELESTE: Also, side note, I feel like Food52 is [laughing] never gonna hire me again! 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

CELESTE: But whatever. It's OK. 


SOLEIL: Thank you, Celeste, for coming in. Where can we find you? 

CELESTE: Oh, thanks for having me. I'm on Instagram and Twitter. My handle's @extracelestial, but if you Google Celeste Noche, I'm pretty sure I'm the only one. 

SOLEIL: [laughs] 

Thanks for listening to Racist Sandwich, the podcast on food, race, class, and gender. We're produced by Alan Montecillo, and we record at the XOXO Outpost. 

ZAHIR: Our logo is designed by Jen Tam, and our music is by AF THE NAYSAYER and Blue.Sessions. 

SOLEIL: If you like our show, please subscribe either through iTunes or Stitcher or what have you. You can find us on www.RacistSandwich.com. 

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Transcribed by StoryMinders