Text by Kerri Macdonald, photos by Kerri MacDonald, Janice Leung and Nicole Fung
Sharing is caring – at least when it comes to food, and what better way to share as many dishes with as many people as possible than to photograph them with a smartphone and upload to a social media site? Kerri MacDonald takes a closer look at the ‘foodography’ trend sweeping across Asia.
One spin and the cameras go away. That is the rule when Janice Leung goes out for dinner at a Chinese restaurant in Hong Kong with a certain group of friends.
As the dishes are delivered, Leung and her fellow diners rotate the Lazy Susan on the round table.
“It can only go around once,” she says. “We can never go back – there’s no backflow. It goes around once, and if you don’t take a picture quick enough, it’s your fault, and we’re eating it.”
Not that Leung, 29, is against the practice of food photography. She helped found East Island Markets, Hong Kong’s first
local farmers’ market. She started blogging more than 10 years ago. Over time, her writing has become increasingly food-focused – and with that, her blog, “e*ting the world,” more photographic. Most of the pictures she posts as @e_ting on Instagram, where she has
a following of just over 1,000 people, are about food.
Leung and her group of friends may be exceptional. But as foodies and “foodographers,” they’re not alone in Hong Kong – or elsewhere in Asia. Walk into a restaurant, a café or a food hall and you’ll see someone holding a smartphone over a dish, lifting and tilting it in search of just the right frame. The list of foodographers in Asia – many of them with food blogs – is long.
“I think it just applies to the family that you grew up in,” says Leung, who was born in Hong Kong and spent part of her childhood and early adult years Australia. “I think in Asia it’s more common because we eat a lot of shared meals. And because you’re sharing, you end up talking about the food you’re sharing.”
In Cantonese, a typical greeting, “lei sik dzo fan mei a”, means, “Have you had rice yet?” or, “Have you eaten yet?”
“Food is a way of life here,” says Malcolm Ainsworth, a photographer who has lived in Hong Kong for 14 years. “People just like sharing – talking about food, inviting you to a restaurant with them, making recommendations.”
Ainsworth has been teaching photography for eight years. Last year, he ran a workshop about shooting food. His students, he says, included “everybody and everybody in between,” from a woman working on a cookbook to a foodie who just wanted to learn how to take decent pictures.
There aren’t many other hobbies in Hong Kong, Ainsworth says. “It’s what people do – they either go eating or go shopping or take pictures.”
In many cases, in Hong Kong and elsewhere in Asia, they do two of the three. Not only do most people have smartphones with solid cameras; many use those phones to connect to social media. It makes sense that the sharing – and the excitement – has gone digital.
“Social media has made some people feel responsible – like, as a foodie, to share what they’ve eaten or share interesting foods,” says Leung. “And one of the easiest ways to share it is a photo.”
Text, after all, is more difficult to digest. “It takes longer,” she says, “A photo, you look at it, you’re gonna have this reaction.”
Nicole Fung, a 26-year old who started documenting her food when she moved to Hong Kong three years ago, posts photos to Instagram as @thatfoodcray.
On her blog of the same name, Fung puts it this way: “Wouldn’t you rather SEE pictures/videos of food than read about food? I don’t want to bore you with a novel about how my hamburger tasted.”
She started the blog to keep track of what she has eaten, most of it alongside her partner, Eugene Kan. Far from family in Canada, they wanted to send their food experiences back home.
“The only thing my parents would ever really spend money on was food,” says Kan, 28.
“It was like, ‘OK, let’s spend good money on food and the experience that comes with food’.”
It translates, he thinks, to the generation eating with iPhones in hand – a generation for whom chefs are celebrities and people are beginning to think more about where their food comes from. Food, he says, is “not just an everyday necessity, but also an art or craft.”
Brad Lau, who runs the website ladyironchef.com, was
at first a hesitant Instagram
user. Now, the 26-year-old from Singapore has more than 220,000 followers as @ladyironchef.
Lau says he typically posts seven or eight photos a day – he posted 14 one recent Thursday – and often throws in leftover shots from previous culinary excursions.
“It is something that I enjoy, taking photos that make people hungry,” he says from Singapore, where he lives and posts pictures of local food, like chilli crab and Hainanese chicken rice.
Lau tries to go somewhere about once a month, using his website as a platform
to introduce people to new restaurants and destinations – and as an excuse to eat more himself.
If social media is about inspiring jealously in others,
Lau is doing well. His photos, most of which are shot on his iPhone, come with captions like one he posted on a recent Friday: “Dinner at a local Korean pub: kimchi jjiggae, ddeokbokki with cheese, and spicy chicken.” Or one that accompanied a picture of a cupcake with violet-coloured icing: “Life is just a cup of cake. No matter what you do, make sure you eat cakes.” (More than 11,000 people “liked” the cupcake.)
Lau went to school for marketing and curates his feed with promotion in mind. He knows that he gets more likes when he posts dessert photos. A picture he posted from “Hello Kitty Sweets Café” in Taipei had more than 16,000 likes.
You’d think so much feedback would be stressful. But he says he’s used to it – even when people on the street recognise him from Instagram (he posts the occasional picture of himself).
Leung is less concerned with her audience, albeit hers is much smaller, and more local. She sees photography, instead, as a way to document the food she eats. But she doesn’t photograph every meal. At the hole-in-the-wall café where we met in Causeway Bay, a busy shopping district, she ordered eggs and toast.
The lighting wasn’t great, and although she finished her eggs, they were nothing special, so no photo.
“I don’t take pictures of all the foods I’ve eaten,” she says. “If it’s not incredibly interesting, or if I didn’t have something to say in addition to the picture…”
Her feed is well curated. But many foodographers don’t agree with her retisence – or so a random search of Instagram would suggest. So how far is too far?
“It depends,” says Kan, of @thatfoodcray.
“I think we go pretty far with it,” Fung cut in.
“I don’t think so,” Kan says. “I think we’re okay. I don’t think Nicole’s Instagram is spammy, where she’s eating a 12-course meal and taking 24 photos. She’s got a pretty good pace to it.”
Ainsworth, the photography instructor, says many foodographers don’t put a great deal of aesthetic consideration into their pictures.
“People don’t really appreciate how to really bring out the essence of the food,” he says, though he understands the preoccupation with pictures of food. If you take a picture of your dish, you might be able to recreate it later.
To make a good picture, he says, the plate has to look nice. (“You can’t make a silk purse
out of a pig’s ear, eh?” he says.) Food should be shot as you’d see it from your seat. You don’t need flash or lighting equipment to take a nice picture – just natural light from a window. Some foods are difficult to photograph, he says, like ice cream and many types of Chinese food. Ainsworth prefers Japanese and Thai food, with their vibrant colours and limited oils.
But for foodies like Fung and Leung, it’s still the eating that matters. The photograph has just become part of the ritual.
“The photos help me keep a record,” Leung says, “but I’m not so much about the aesthetics of the photo.”
Lau read something online recently that sums it up: People no longer pray before they eat, he says.
“They take photos of their food.”
This article first appeared in Asia Eater issue 1