How Passive-Aggressive Is Instagramming Your Food?

Author of My Last Supper says it's sharing, not bragging

"Stop!” Your dinner date commands just as that piping hot, delicious-looking steak is being placed in front of you. Knife and fork at the ready, you look up, stunned, like a deer in headlights, by a phone camera’s flash as your date snaps a picture of your dinner. 

Illustration: Kali Ciesemier  

In that disorienting flash, your intimate repast has been converted into social imagery to be widely shared via Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Flickr or Twitter. If you are lucky, just your fork hand is in the shot. But inevitably someone is caught wide-eyed with a strand of bucatini hanging off their lip.

Don’t get me wrong. As a professional portrait photographer, I’m guilty of this sort of culinary hijacking. Just ask my spouse how many times since Instagram launched in late 2010 that I have stopped him mid-bite and practically pulled food out of his mouth—just to get the right shot.

Why do we feel compelled to do this? There are plenty of other avenues for me to share my photography. So why would I bother sharing a photo of my melting Dairy Queen cone before I shovel it in? Am I boasting? Showing off? Or as chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain told The Wrap recently, Instagraming your dinner is a “dysfunctional, even aggressive practice.”

“It’s not to share,” he continued. “It’s to make other people feel really bad. You don’t want people to be eating dinner with you when you Instagram a picture of your food. You want them to be eating a bag of Cheetos on their couch in their underpants. It’s a passive-aggressive act.”

I don’t see it as being so mean-spirited and dystopian. I do it for fun and to share, not to show off. I use it—as it’s intended—as an “instant camera” and “telegram.” When I was just starting my career, I carried a camera everywhere and filed those pictures and negatives in old dusty binders never to see the light of day. Now with a simple click I can share and communicate what I see with my friends, family and followers.

Some professional photographers worry this practice is slowly but surely putting our craft out of business. It’s true that with the help of Instagram filters like Nashville, 1977, Toaster and Amaro, everyone’s pictures are starting to look really, really good. (I find it funny that there are phone photo purists who take pride in not using filters and add the #nofilter comment to their shots.) In fact, I have heard of many people getting actual paid photographic commissions just from someone seeing their work on social media.

But while I always joke during a challenging technological moment on a photo shoot that at least I have my iPhone if all else fails, in all seriousness the phone camera is not a professional tool. There are too many technical limits because camera phones are as basic as it gets. There is no way to change lenses, you don’t need to know what an f-stop is or how to slow the shutter down. You will never have to enter a darkroom. All you need to do is snap and share.

These little photo moments also do have the power to amplify. Photojournalist Ami Vitale uses Instagram as another avenue to access different markets for her work. “It gets people interested in things they might not have necessarily known or cared about,” she says. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the sincerity and genuine interest people have about some of the stories I have posted.”

And it’s not just amateur food lovers armed with smartphones capturing and sharing images of what they are eating or serving or craving. There are also great chefs who are very active in social media. Jamie Oliver, for example, has 1.7 million Instagram followers, and chefs Eric Ripert, Alex Guarnaschelli, Andrew Zimmern, April Bloomfield and Roy Choi have more than 275,000 among them. That’s a lot of people at your spatula tip that you can connect with instantly about the passion of food.

So why not slap a cool filter on that hot dog before you eat it? As long as it’s not intrusive or disruptive to those around you, frame away. I’m glad people are communicating with pictures. Yes, some people who feel the need to document their every move might need to go on an Insta-diet. But I say if the moment seizes you, don’t think about it so much and just take out your phone as you snack and snap away.

Melanie Dunea (@mylastsupper) is a freelance portrait photographer and the author of My Last Supper.