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Image or Text?

The fantastic guys at GastroGays got an interesting chat going on Twitter over the week about the rise of Instagram and the decline of food blogs (according to the Observer Food Monthly Awards) that got me thinking.

I like Instagram much more than I expected when I joined up but I feel very much like I follow a timeline there that’s the equivalent of hanging out with the alternative kids at school who snuck off to smoke behind the bike sheds and wander round with their sleeves pulled down over their hands looking moody.

I’ve deliberately avoided most of the people who embody Instagram food culture because ultimately I find those super glossy photographs with gorgeous grey backgrounds, perfect lighting and a high avocado count to be rather soul-less.

Yes, I don’t care for #eatclean culture generally but more than anything else I dislike the humblebrag and underhand showing off inherent in those photos. They are as much about wealth and class as parking your Audi on someone’s lawn.

I know some people really enjoy and excel at photography and I don’t want to knock that because I don’t. One of my favourite bloggers and Instagrammers is Miss Foodwise who takes stunning photos which show her love of the art of photography and food. A good food photo is a thing of pleasure for sure.

What gets me is the people who have clearly spent hours and a lot of money on their Instagrams and then tried to present it as easy and casual and accessible.

I saw a well known vegan cookbook Instagram account say a few months back that it was simple to get their look. They had set the spare room up as a studio and their basic camera kit was only around £800 to get started. For most people both of those things are beyond their wildest dreams or would need to be saved up for gradually and with a certain amount of sacrifice.

And that’s before we look at the kind of food these people photograph. It’s usually a cold dish such as a salad or ‘Buddha bowl’ or a cake or energy balls that uses obscurely expensive ingredients. It’s never a cake for the office bake off or a kid’s party made at 9 at night or a plate of pasta or even the Sunday roast you are proud of.

It’s always the kind of food that shows you have access to specialist food shops, time to read about new trends, cash to spend trying new stuff out and the leisure time to do it and spend on photography. (That account I mentioned also said they spend around 4 hours per photo all in.)

Not for them putting dinner on a plate and snapping it before it gets too cold to eat or while other people wait for you to sit down and eat up. I suspect many of them can afford to make an extra portion simply for the photo.

There’s a certain sense of posturing to it to me rather than someone excitedly showing you something they want you to share in. Theoretically everyone wants to be seen on social media if they post, but I find this heavily curated style over food to be excluding people. It’s look but don’t touch.

I always wonder how interactive it’s meant to be as the more styled the photo, the more emoji’d the caption and the more the glowing comments underneath, the less detailed or creative the recipe is.

Part of this is that I like the immersive style more. The context of the recipe, the instructions, the whole picture, not just the image of the finished item. Some of it is that’s what I’m more comfortable doing myself. Writing a recipe to me comes naturally and I know it may not to other people.

But when we type the thumbs up emoji under someone’s Instagram of 3 ingredient clean fudge or a doughnut that can only be bought in a very specific place you must be in the know about, what are we appreciating?

Are we simply passing casual comment like saying ‘oh that looks good’ when a co worker brings in lunch or are we rewarding people for being the cool kids? Do we hope some of their sheen will rub off on us by doing so or are we just being nosey?

I do worry that this trend is undermining the people who put time and effort and skill into writing about food. In the same way professional writers worried that bloggers would undermine them, I worry that food media that is entirely about the image (both literally and figuratively) is devaluing good bloggers.

Why spend all week working on a piece about travel or food culture or creating and testing a recipe when you can take a photo of something, run it through an app or filter and post it up to what feels like considerably more and instantaneous attention?

It took me serious time and effort to hone my writing skills as I blogged. I’d never written in a way that wasn’t for academia when I started blogging and I couldn’t cook that well either. The internet was slightly unfamiliar too and frankly it was nervewracking and stressful in many ways.

I wasn’t doing it to garner attention and adulation or get free stuff but because I wanted to. In some ways having that lack of pressure allowed me time to find my own tone and pace, but at other times it felt like I was talking to no one and getting nowhere fast as I had nothing to gauge it against.

I can see why people like the more immediate sense of one image but I do feel it’s even harder to be accepted and well received there on merit rather than materialism. To be a successful blogger, you do have to have some resources that aren’t available to everyone.

Yet with hard work, a USP and the internet connection and basic camera on a phone that many people have, you can make a good readership and presence. There are plenty of good bloggers still using basic and free online tools to stand out year on year.

I wonder how many of the Instagram only people will be doing the same in a few years? Will the change to the algorithms and awards create more of a bubble than now or not?

I’ll still be using the site to get dinner inspiration, feel inferior about my average photography and strangely find cats more interesting there than anywhere else online, but I also won’t be giving up good old fashioned blogging.

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