In the summer of 2022, I brought my beat-up film camera to the field. I imagined snapping photos of the lush Italian summer, the hues of gold- and orange-plastered buildings and terracotta roof tiles, the bustle of small-town life. My intended subjects were tables of food, glasses of wine, and fresh, steaming slices of bread against the backdrop of Bra, Italy, a small city where I had conducted fieldwork among students, activists, and producers associated with the Slow Food movement.
I remembered Bra fondly—I had lived in the city for six months prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. I loved walking down the cobbled streets past businesses and restaurants with their warm interior lights casting out on the roadways in the winter evenings. I craved the persistent fumes of cigarette smoke and the clink of wine glasses when passing an enoteca. Even in the dead of winter, patio tables set with espresso, spritzes, or glasses of wine would be occupied.
When I returned, camera in hand, to attempt amateur street photography of the activities of life, to capture ethnographic events and processes of people in space, I returned to a city I no longer viewed as beautiful. While almost every business remained, the buildings in the same conditions, the rhythms of social life picking up once more after pandemic restrictions had eased, the city had in my mind turned ugly, my expectations of a brilliant Italian summer blinding me to the realities of a dry, hot, and less romantic version than what I remembered. My attempts to capture tables of food and people at dinner parties, of quaint Bra alleyways, the substance and setting of Slow Food? A complete failure.
At the beginning of my return trip, I felt that my camera had betrayed me. Every attempt to capture events of social life in Bra and tables of food spread out as I attended graduation parties and wine tastings didn’t turn out the way I had intended. I was attempting to photograph as an ethnographer and a food photographer. As an ethnographer, I thought I needed to capture scenes, events, activities. People in space. The field in motion. As a food photographer, I also attempted to perfectly frame artfully prepared meals lighted by small tabletop lamps. But the field looked dark, baked, dry. The food looked garish, messy, unappetizing.
Yet, inexplicably, the photos that turned out—that were, in the words of Camilo Leon-Quijano, “good” (2022) in their ability to communicate—were the ones that ultimately did not attempt to capture perfectly set dishes or artfully framed settings or events. They were the blurry, out-of-focus, terribly composed snapshots where I was at the table with friends. They were portraits.
Little has been written on the relationship between food and friendship in anthropology and food studies. Even less has been written about portraiture. Alice Julier (2013) argues that friendship offers alternative ways to understand how people create and sustain social insularity and hierarchy. At dinner parties or at food studies universities, friendship also organizes and produces social life. It is surprising, then, that so little discussion has addressed the role of friendship as a significant relationship by which people come to know, communicate, economize, and politicize food. Often, friendship gets nested under other terms and categories: kinship, community, neighbors, guests, peers, colleagues. Kinship appears to be the more fundamental social relationship, which determines where along the “line between intimacy and distance” (Douglas 1997: 41) a friend or a neighbor may fall. Likewise, discussions of “commensality,” the sharing of meals as a social space of interaction and meaning (Tierney 2016), does not necessarily delve into the complex forms of relationships among those sharing food. In other words, the nature of the relationships, the subjectivity of eaters as friends, for example, and the effects of these relationships on eating and food itself can go unexamined. While researching the networks of Slow Food, I could not assume that relationships could go undefined, or that they had no bearing on what people could experience and know about food. Instead, friendship above all defined how students approached creating their identities as eaters, and yet continually exceeded efforts to “pin people down” as one kind of eater or another. Friendship allowed people to be open to what they couldn’t know about their friends as they continually sought out new experiences and opportunities around food.
“Ti voglio bene,” Lucia says to me, as we practice making carbonara and I try to add too much of the guanciale fat drippings to the pecorino romano and egg yolks. “Sei cazzuta.” I love you. You’re so hardheaded.
“Amioooooo,” Stella, Oscar, and Armando and I call to each other. My dears. My darlings. My loves. Instead of using “amo,” we reference the TikTok trend of the Italian summer, parlare in corsivo (speaking in cursive or italics), an accent shared jokingly among friends, waiting for the quiet pop of a wine bottle being uncorked.
“People tell me I’m too intense. I feel I’m missing out on friendships,” Amelia admits as I watch her pull a roasted squash from the bottom of the oven, her choreography around visiting friends in the quiet mayhem of her kitchen compounding her sense of anxiety. Amelia doesn’t think she’s a good friend to everyone. Maybe her friends think she’s too much? Meanwhile I’m thinking, I didn’t know you could just cook vegetables directly on the bottom of the oven like that, without a tray. I guess ovens are different here. The things you learn from friends.
The vernacular of friendship infused daily life for the people with whom I spent my days searching for air-conditioned cafés, trying to lean away from patches of sunlight as we dined outdoors and drank wine in the intense, hot summer. Taking pictures of friends—my friends—in acts of consumption, in moments between a fixed pose and a candid shot, drinking beer or snacking from a free bowl of chips, seemed the perfect opportunity to capture a portrait of the singular moments of being at the table with friends. Neither were these necessarily typical ethnographic photos—photos of people doing activities, in a setting, with context, where their singularity supports the larger ethnographic scene. In his original work on visual anthropology, John Collier largely focused on analyzing and providing techniques on photographing settings and activities. He briefly describes the ethnographic purpose of portraits, suggesting that making them, particularly of family, is reserved for private use. Portraits should be treated like field notes—snapshots of intimate life in the private domain that rely on established rapport and are kept in confidence (1986: 136). Portraits are private.
Yet, friendship is a public act. It is a political and economic relationship. And around the table, it inscribes relational and social consumptive acts of ingestion. The ethnographer becomes the “authority” on these moments: a frontal portrait “implies in the most vivid way the subject’s cooperation. To get these people to pose, the photographer has had to gain their confidence, has had to become ‘friends’ with them” (Sontag 1979: 40). Alternatively, the photographer of scenes of intimacy captures these moments as a friend as not-photographer, not-curator. For example, in describing the relationship between portraiture and friendship, art critic and writer John Berger lovingly describes Nick Waplington’s photography, particularly Living Room. In writing about the subjects of Nick’s portraits, Berger suggests, “Sometimes, I guess, they were aware that he [Nick] was taking a picture (yet another one!), but they were aware of it as they might have been aware he was smiling, and so he was happy and didn’t have to be fussed over” (Berger 2013: 131). What is outside the frame, precisely the ethnographic, the context, and identity of space, goes unsaid and yet is recognized by the subject within the frame. The table is sometimes invisible.
I would argue that such portraits of friends at table, as I attempted to render our relationships among one another, are much different from the attempts to artfully capture a plate of food or to pin down the identity of eaters as they dine. These photos are not the typical “Instagrammable” subjects of the artfully posed, the hovering fork, and the nonchalant smile, the “you are what you post” spirit of food photography (Kish and Contois 2022). Even at this moment, the Instagrammable subject of food becomes increasingly unsatisfactory—the aesthetic importance of curated dishes slowly falls to moments of candid ugliness that in my own photography I find unsatisfying but which in others signals the “laissez-faire era” of food photography (Makalintal 2022).
Instead, in taking portraits of friends, I worked to resist the attempt to render friends as easily identifiable eaters. Friendships with research interlocutors in the field themselves forced me to reflect on the subjectivity and singularity of friends as eaters, rather than their identities, class and ethnic backgrounds, languages, and food preferences. Friends challenged me on my attempts to render them as identifiable. By taking these portraits, with the duality of photographer as friend and subject as friend, sitting or standing across from one another while consuming foods, I hope to offer viewers the opportunity to embrace friendship as an acceptance of opacity, a rejection of trying to “identify” these people as particular kinds of eaters, as my friends challenged me to do.
In general, portraiture need not render a kind of authority on researcher relationships with people. Instead, it can be about refusing the impetus to capture the identity of eaters, of the ability of food to say something about the person eating it. Portraits can also refuse the classic ethnographic impetus to aspire to holism, to try to capture the scene and signs of context that will make the whole picture a representation of the field sui generis. Instead, they can capture what it takes to build relationships with people in “the field” in their most singular forms, what it might mean to set the table for friendship and render events around food that resist an aestheticizing impulse. Friendship might open the door to think about the relationships among photography, food, and relationships beyond identity, recognition, and the impulse of the camera itself to “capture.” Instead, these portraits invite you to reflect on what you or I can’t know about them—as eaters and as friends.