Photographer Peter Menzel and writer Faith D’Aluisio are a husband-and-wife team using their combined talents to produce photojournalistic studies from around the world. Traveling the globe for their research, the couple began their work together with Women in the Material World (1996), a book that documents the lives of women throughout the world with photos of women and their material possessions. Recently, the team has focused their photojournalistic eye on the relationship between people and food. In Hungry Planet: What the World Eats (2007), Menzel and D’Aluisio take the reader to 24 countries and illustrate how much and what kind of food an average family there buys each week. What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets (2010) presents 80 people from all over the world and what each of them eats in a typical day. Both books feature a combination of photography, interviews, and writing to paint a vivid picture of the global population’s diverse ways of eating. Menzel and D’Aluisio spoke with Food Tank to share more about Hungry Planet and What I Eat, to describe their creative process, and to share some hints about future projects.
Food Tank: How do you go about choosing the individuals and families to photograph for your projects?
Peter Menzel & Faith D’Aluisio: Our basic premise in virtually every project we do is to develop and tackle a simple question—one that we answer with photographs, text, and data about people across the planet. This includes the question: “What does a family typically eat in the course of a week’s time?” For Hungry Planet: What the World Eats, we chose families in 24 countries, using a variety of criteria (rather than statistically average families, as I did for Material World: A Global Family Portrait, where 30 families in 30 countries took all their possessions outside their homes for a portrait).
In large countries like China and the U.S., we covered more than one family in each, with their week’s worth of food—essentially to bring regional differences and similarities into the conversation. In Australia, we also showed two families because we wanted to cover both a week’s worth of food for an Aboriginal and that of a non-Aboriginal family; and in Chad, we thought it was important and interesting to compare the food of a family from Darfur living in a refugee camp with that of a local farming family. We rely on a network of journalists, NGOs, academics, friends, and colleagues to help us find people willing to participate in our projects. Sometimes, though, we do the research, then fly into a place and do the search ourselves.
When we design a project, we consider the countries we’ve worked in before for our larger body of work (now about 90), and look at a world map to consider others — we plot out countries/cities/cultures/people that complement the mix, or choose places we haven’t previously explored.
In a previous interview about your book What I Eat, D’Aluisio mentions how much work went into each profile. What kind of research had to be done about each person and his or her diet?
For What I Eat: Around the World in 80 Diets, we shot more than 100 people in 30 countries with their typical recent day’s food and then edited the group down to 80. We expanded the book to 336 pages but saw that we couldn’t do justice to the people and their stories if we included more than 80. We also had to leave room for experts’ essays on related topics. In the field, we weighed and measured every bit of food. That was the easy part. When we got home, Faith and her editorial assistants had to determine each food item (and component items of prepared foods), and using various databases, determine the calories in that kind and amount of food. A team of nutritionists at University of California: Davis then went over all the data to both confirm accuracy and add information. This process took many tedious months and was quite expensive. Even in our kind of photography book, one which puts a premium on supporting information, carving out space for text is a fight for precious real estate. In that space, Faith must both put the people we cover into context in their country and culture and provide enough information so that the reader (or viewer) has the information they need to properly understand a person and his or her diet. We also photographed our own typical daily diet and did a calorie count on that as well, which we included in the afterword of the book.
Have there been any meals in your travels that have really surprised you?
We don’t carry a food stash from home when we travel, which forces us to focus on eating locally to better understand our subjects’ diets. Before we worked on Hungry Planet and What I Eat, we photographed and wrote a book, Man Eating Bugs: The Art & Science of Eating Insects, about eating insects all over the world. This was in 1998, before the advent of Fear Factor or Anthony Bourdain’s culinary explorations, and before anyone had raised or lowered the bar on creepy cuisine. Faith faced trepidatious dining decisions about eating the scores of insect species, which we ate in more than a dozen countries with local folks who did this routinely. I didn’t usually have a problem because I am almost always hungry and will eat anything with legs, wings, or scales, as long as it smells good and other locals are eating it too. In Irian Jaya, on the way to eating grubs with former headhunters in the world’s largest and hottest swamp, we found ourselves at a large birthday celebration in Jayapura. The host apologized to us as we joined the group and were handed plates of steaming rice and stewed dog. He told us that there was only one dog in the stew because the second one had escaped out of the sack before it could be beaten to death. Since we had just heard that one of our beloved dogs at home had just died of old age, Faith dumped her plateful onto mine when no one was looking, doubling my delicious, but daunting, doggie dinner.
For Hungry Planet, we had great meals, including arctic char and musk ox stew while dog sledding and camping in Greenland with a seal hunter and his family; steamed lamb dumplings in Mongolia; potato soup in Ecuador; and a spicy poha (rice flakes) breakfast in India. Hungry Planet includes family recipes too.
For What I Eat, we spent a few days in Bangalore, India with a lovely woman who practiced shivambu, drinking her own urine every morning for therapeutic purposes. She had a terrific cook and we enjoyed eating with her and her family, but drew the line on experiencing for ourselves her fascination and commitment to recycling the body’s fluids. Besides drinking it, she washed her hair with her urine. Her family all gave it a go for a time but gave it up for various reasons. She’s been at it for 17 years.
What do you hope that viewers experience when visiting your current exhibit at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo? Is there something you hope that this exhibit accomplishes that is different from your printed works?
We have had exhibits now in a dozen countries and we’re really pleased to see how involved viewers get when they see these images as very large prints. Museums call how long their visitors spend in one place before moving “dwell time”, and ours, we’re told, is extremely long for both young and old. People look at all the details, read the captions, and point out to each other things that they discover — an active real-time comparison and contrast. Just as a number of families and individuals we photographed say they learn a lot about themselves and their diets when they see all the food displayed for the picture (and many have changed their diets and habits to eliminate some that they see as less than desirable), the general public does the same. For the Nobel exhibit in Oslo, we photographed three Norwegian families with their week’s food to give the show a local tie-in. We learned a lot doing this….most notably, how incredibly expensive food is in Norway. Read more about the exhibit here.
Did you find many similarities among the families and cultures that you visited?
Everyone has to eat. In most cultures, the family meal is still the custom, although sometimes the TV is treated as a member of the family, and less conversation ensues when it is on during a meal. Sharing food is an instant entrée into a family’s world and lives. We bring a lot of stories about our own family to the table as well—sharing both food and stories.
We do see a trend nearly everywhere where families have more disposable income— to eat more packaged, branded food. And more meat, and sweets. In the statistic tables page in the back of our books are numbers that put this in perspective from country to country—meat, sugar, alcohol, tobacco consumption per capita, plus the percentage of a population that is overweight and obese.
Do you have ideas for any future projects related to food?
With upcoming new exhibits here in the U.S., and in Europe, Asia, and South America, we’re continuing to travel, shoot new subjects for both of our projects about food, and we present slide lectures on our work. We’re currently working on a large public service campaign that is tangentially related to food, but we can’t talk about that until next year.