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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8 replies
  1. Keep Calm and Fanny On
    Keep Calm and Fanny On says:

    Really interesting piece. I love blogging – I love the writing most, and the photography and cooking that I do, but mostly I love it if I think I’ve written a good piece. I do post the end result on Instagram, but to be honest, it kind of puzzles me a little. All you can do is ‘like’ it or make a short comment, it’s not shareable or up for conversation. I just blog for fun, mainly my own, I guess I’m an old-fashioned blogger who also loves cats… I’m sure something else will come along soon to distract them all… I’m gonna carry on writing!

  2. Alicia (foodycat)
    Alicia (foodycat) says:

    I’m pro the old-fashioned blog. I’ve given up even attempting to do the “right” things and mostly don’t even bother tweeting my posts, because mine is not the sort of blog that gets attention that way. It feels pretty much now the way it did in the first year I was blogging, where I assumed no one was reading. It’s quite freeing!

  3. Jessie
    Jessie says:

    I found your article interesting and pertinent from several angles.

    ‘Instagram’ is about image, and much of today’s approach to life seems to be based on this – how we look, as well as our homes, cars, children, pets, and of course food. Much of life seems to be validated by photographing it, and today’s children are surrounded by images all the time – including those of themselves. (This may not be a very postive thing long term…)

    Additionally, polished images of food are only part of a bigger story – food and cooking is not just about a finished product, it’s about an attitude towards smells, tastes, flavours, ideas and memories, and how to capture those in a dish or meal. How to(happily) chop, saute and stir to produce something delicious to eat and enjoy, whether alone or with friends.

    The most negative aspect about ‘perfect’ images of food, whether on Instagram, TV or in glossy cook books, is that it sets up ‘ordinary’ cooks – or potential cooks – to fail. Busy husbands and wives, Mums and Dads, those who want to invite friends for a meal, or to enjoy food they have made on their own, are given impossible ideals to try to live up to, and may well feel that their efforts just won’t be good enough. Result? They’ll grab something pre-prepared, and never try to cook for themselves.

    Illustrations can be informative and inspiring, and I love reading food blogs as well as cook books – but I still enjoy the ones with no pictures at all, and an Instagram is only about one element of a particular dish.

  4. Faith A.
    Faith A. says:

    So true! I write some blog posts with cheap and cheerful family recipes, and regret that my food photos are rubbish. Sometimes I end up putting captions saying “it doesn’t look like much, but honestly it does taste good!”. It’s exactly as you describe – taken in a hurry on my phone before the food gets too cold for anyone to eat, rather than spending hours in a separate studio. In some of my photos you can even see small hands creeping in to grab the food, or the bites where we started eating before I remembered I wanted to take a picture. I remember looking with despair at the beautiful picture of carrot and coriander soup an editor used to illustrate an article I wrote – lovely bowl, designer cutlery, artful placement of coriander leaves. Then I realised I’d never want to eat that version because of the enormous if photogenic coriander leaves, which I always chop up into much less beautiful little pieces. I love cooking but I don’t have the time or cash to faff around with fancy props and lighting. Only justification for my rubbish photos is that perhaps people can look at them and think “I can do better than that” or “that doesn’t look too hard”.

  5. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Alicia: it’s funny you mention the blog hierarchy because that was uppermost in my mind too and I wasn’t sure whether to elaborate on it or not, because I know a lot of these issues crop up there too. I was self conscious of whether people were reading and all about stats for a while and then I remembered, this is meant to be fun and my hobby, not about other people. (And I read your blog and LOVE your Pinterest boards…)

    Fanny: I love hearing people’s voice in their writing. I feel like I get more of a sense of them that way. When things are too perfect, too styled, too crafted, I can’t warm to them. My favourite Instagrammers have this sense of personality about them as do my favourite bloggers. I like to sit down with a stack of blog posts and have a catch up with people I feel I know. I guess that’s why Twitter is my favourite social media. I’m all about words!

  6. Miss South
    Miss South says:

    Jessie: this is a brilliant comment and I completely agree about the perfection being offputting in some ways. I know people tell me they like my slow cooker recipes quite often because they feel approachable not overly styled and show off. And I love that sense of all the aspects of cooking from the shopping to the eating and I’m not too bothered about photos either. (Plus the more photos in a cook book, the fewer recipes!)

    I do like Instagram, but need it in small doses because I do get that creeping sense of not being ‘good enough’ from it sometimes when other people are eating in posh restaurants and i’m having rice for the third night in a row. Blogs can be more like spending time with mates than Instagram’s perfect persona vibe.

  7. Lee Burns
    Lee Burns says:

    Interesting thoughts. I’m finding I read fewer blogs, only bothering with those that either have something interesting or useful to say, or where the writing is nice.

    The amount of crap writing about dull rubbish is amazing, but it’s maintained by a pyramid-selling type structure where comments on popular blogs, SEO and all that guff are the name of the game.

    Instagram is fine to check in on, but my favourite cookbooks tend not to have pictures. Good writing from someone who care has real value. All the rest of it is fluff.

  8. David Kelly
    David Kelly says:

    I much prefer reading a good blog than perusing through a plethora of Instagram images. Whilst there’s a craft to taking a good photograph, much of what I see on Instagram is I pass over. As a hobbyist photographer I’m more critical of what I see as a good image that grabs me, conversely as someone who’d like to set up his own blog after previously being a blog contributor I’m looking to soak up as many blogs as possible to try to understand writing styles, layouts, topics etc. There is of course a craft to writing a good article and that’s a skill I’d hope to be able to hone. Ok so I was only doing reviews of artisan chilli products but like you I put extra time, effort & research into developing my articles; trying to be informative, educative, objective and humorous all in one. My nemesis was the plethora of Youtubers doing similarly themed reviews and (seemingly) putting no time and effort other than grabbing a spoon, a video camera, tasting some of the product and largely saying “nice product” and not much else. Not to say there aren’t some good vloggers out there of course, but there’s something more special (IMHO) about the crafted written word that seems to involve more effort.

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