By Nivriti Butalia
Gregg Segal is a photographer who travels the world and asks kids what they eat in a week. They maintain a food diary. He then photographs them with their week’s worth of food. The project is called Daily Bread. It stemmed from his earlier work, 7 Days of Garbage, in which he shot people laying with the trash they generate in a week. The quantity of food packaging, he tells us, was remarkable to him — as it is to any observer who looks at these photos. Khaleej Times had a chat with him over email…
Did you come up with the idea of both Daily Bread and 7 Days of Garbage together? Because they are linked, aren’t they — what we consume and what we trash? Or did one project follow another?
Daily Bread grew out of 7 Days of Garbage. In the process of photographing people’s garbage, I began looking more closely at food. I was struck by how much food packaging was in their trash and got me thinking, how much of the food we eat is processed and packaged. And yes, the two subjects are interconnected. All of that packaging creates a problem for the environment and at the same time, negatively impacts our health.
Is it safe to say that both environment, matters of sustainability ie, and people’s diets and consumption patterns concern you? How did you grow to be interested in these subjects?
For me photography has always been a means of expressing myself. It’s been a tool for making sense of the world around me. Anyone can take a great photo (especially now, given how facile and immediate the medium has become). But what do you have to say? Do you have a point of view and is it worth sharing and paying attention to? When I was growing up, we had neighbours who seemed to generate a mountain of garbage and I’d wondered, where’s all that waste going to end up? I started doing the math, multiplying this pile by a few hundred million. So yes, I can trace my interest back to childhood. It’s always been important for me to cut to the core of what is important.
What was most challenging about Daily Bread? How did you find your subjects, in India, in Malaysia and closer home? And how long did the project take?
I don’t know that there is any one thing that is most challenging. There are challenges throughout the process. 1) raising the money to shoot overseas 2) finding and organising a crew in each of the places I photographed 3) finding the kids and making sure they follow through with their food journals, recording everything they eat for one week 4) finding a place to shoot with high enough ceilings (the camera is mounted to a steel pipe 10’ above the subject) and access to a kitchen to prepare the foods 5) preparing 84 meals for the shoot day (I photograph for kids in one day). Before travelling to each country, I found a producer or fixer to help organise everything for the shoot. The producer would cast kids and send me a snapshot and a little background info for each. For India, I worked with a wonderful woman who is a sort of auntie of her little suburb in Mumbai. She looks after stray animals and helps out in the community in one way or another. All the kids adore her, so it wasn’t hard to find kids. The goal in selecting kids was to represent the culture at large. So, if the obesity rate among kids in the US is 20 per cent, I wanted to be sure that about 1-in-5 of the kids I photographed were overweight. I’ve been working on Daily Bread for two years. I started in Los Angeles — photographing in my own backyard in Altadena, CA — and last year, I expanded, shooting overseas.
Were the kids/ parents of kids hesitant for you to photograph them?
I offered kids incentives to take part in the project. Without an incentive, few may have participated, to be honest. I gave the kids $50 to $100. In some cases, we gave the kids gifts rather than cash (as the cash would have gone to their parents). In Mumbai, for instance, we bought three of the children bicycles, which for them was a dream come true. I think in most cases, once parents and kids were shown that the project was legitimate and that it was to be published in Time magazine in the US and Geo in Europe, they were convinced of its value.
What have their reactions been like to the photographs? Do you know if you’ve been able to alter people’s consumption of, say, junk food, and restrict their reliance on plastic takeaway?
I’ve been very encouraged by the response to both projects. They seem to have struck a chord — which tells me there is growing concern around diet and waste and that people are ready to take action. The pictures have been published and exhibited widely and these articles and shows have generated a conversation, buzz. Photography is a mirror held up for us to see ourselves from a point of view we may not have considered. The intent of these projects is to encourage people to reflect on their own consumption (of both waste and food). I encourage people to take the Daily Bread challenge and keep track of everything they eat for a week. We seem to enjoy photographing what we eat, judging by Instagram! So, this exercise is sort of an extension of this self-spectatorship.
Would you photograph subjects in the Middle East? We have an obesity problem here, and we do generate a fair bit of trash. Any chance of heading to the desert? If someone in Dubai offered to get you across, would you take that up?
So am I! I plan to photograph in at least one Middle Eastern country, perhaps the UAE, where obesity rates are double the world average. The economic burden of obesity in UAE is estimated to be six billion annually and many are calling it a national crisis. To continue work on Daily Bread, I’ll need to raise funds and am looking for corporate, non-profit or philanthropic sponsors.
Are both projects concluded, or would you continue, given the opportunity to head to new places and revisit some?
With Daily Bread, I would like to include at least 4-5 more regions: the Middle East, as mentioned, South America, possibly Osaka, Japan, Iceland, and the Eskimo culture of Alaska. I’m working toward completion of a book to be published next year.
How many families did you approach for 7 days, how many agreed? Any anecdotes you’d like to share?
I’ve photographed about two dozen subjects in the garbage series including friends, family, neighbours and others in Los Angeles. With sponsorship from Glad Canada, I continued the series in Toronto. Of course, not everyone I approached was willing to lay in their garbage! Those who got on board either supported the project’s message or were encouraged by the honorarium I offered. Some signed on but then backed out — they were repulsed by the stench of the garbage and had second thoughts when it came to laying in it. Others edited their garbage, showing up with very little stinky waste. I had one guy who cleaned his garbage (actually going to the trouble of washing his egg shells). Some embraced the ridiculousness of laying in their garbage and actually seemed to enjoy letting go. The water setting was the most challenging — because the water was cold. So, not only are you floating in murky garbage, you’re freezing. It was important for me to feel what the subjects of my pictures felt, so I convinced my family (wife and son) to lay in our garbage. I didn’t want to be pointing my finger at everyone else; we are part of the problem too. I had to bribe my son with a cupcake before he’d agree, but the experience made an impression on him. A couple weeks later, he said, “You know, Daddy, soon the world will be covered in plastic bottles. They’ll have to make giant towers to keep all the bottles in. But 1,000 years ago, there were no plastic bottles. There wasn’t even one plastic thing on Earth. Too bad — there sure are now!”
How many kids/ parents of kids did you approach for Daily Bread? How many actually translated into photographs?
I can’t say exactly because I didn’t approach all of the kids myself. Before travelling to a country to work on Daily Bread, I hired a producer or fixer to do the casting. They would send me a selection of 6-8 kids and I would choose four for each shoot.
How has your family reacted to the photographs? What has the impact been on the refuse your household produces, and the foods your kids eat?
My family participated in both projects. As for garbage, we’ve reduced our waste to about one small bag (about the size of a head of cabbage) a week. We recycle, of course, and we compost our food waste in our yard. If possible, we buy fresh foods without packaging. We make our own peanut butter, almond butter, yogurt and hummus.
I photographed Hank, my son, as part of the Daily Bread project, too, and in reflecting on the portrait of his diet, my wife and I felt we could do better. There could be more greens in his diet. Hank has a big sweet tooth, so we have to counter his sugar craving with lots of broccoli, spinach and other veggies.
In 15 years or more, what do you think your memories of these projects will be? What would you have learnt? To use a business-y term, what are your key takeaways? Which will be the mental images for you that will endure?
One of the things that makes a picture meaningful and gives it lasting value is what it says about the time in which it was made. For me, these projects, particularly the garbage series, are instant archaeology, a record not only of our food and our waste but of our values — and this record is certainly one takeaway which I think will be strengthened with the passage of time. My hope is that future generations may look back at the garbage pictures and react: ‘can you believe how much waste there was back then?’ I’d hope, too, that in a generation or two, viewers will shake their heads at how much junk people ate. The goal was to represent the spectrum of diets in any given country or region. The point is to illustrate how industrialisation and globalisation have impacted diets around the world.