“Dreaming Food”: A Reflection on Responses and Responsibilities

Photo by  Jack Finnigan

Photo by Jack Finnigan


Despite the recent controversy about Alessio Mamo’s photographs of the same name, when you Google “dreaming food” you are directed to a number of sites aiming to deconstruct your subconscious and explain why you might be dreaming of food. When you Google “World Press Photo,” on whose Instagram page the controversial photographic series appeared, you learn about the organisation and their recent award winners. When you Google “Alessio Mamo” you are directed to page upon page of headlines for articles explaining everything that is wrong with his series.

There is evidently a lot to be said about Dreaming Food. I will try not to beat a dead horse by piling more criticism atop already well-developed arguments, but instead to synthesise and elaborate on key points that others have made.

Key criticisms

A number of articles have pointed to three critical aspects of documentary photography and photojournalism that this series lacks: understanding, empathy, and consent.

Lack of understanding

Fundamental to the premise of Dreaming Food is the idea that a reduction of food waste in Western contexts will have a positive impact on nutrition in India.

As Neeta Satam points out, this premise is flawed. She explains that food waste in Europe or North America is not a causal factor for food scarcity in India: “Studies show that droughts, industrial farming, patenting of seeds, food distribution, pricing, and politics drive food scarcity and malnutrition.”

There is, however, a relationship between food waste and food scarcity more localized contexts, and effective redistribution of food waste can have a very real positive impact on local communities. Manali Shah rightfully asks: “why not depict the very real issues of hunger, homelessness and poverty that exists in Western countries?” If the photographer’s concern is food waste in Western contexts, shining a light on food scarcity in Europe or North America could be very effective. Instead of reproducing stereotypes that link certain geographic contexts to poverty, such a photographic project could awaken people to inequalities that are on their doorstep and could inspire people to participate in food waste redistribution efforts in their local communities.

Connected to Mamo’s misunderstanding about the relationship between food waste in the West and food scarcity in India is the “parachute journalism” in which he engaged. Parachute journalism is when a journalist produces work about a place, situation, or issue without prior knowledge of the context and without dedicating sufficient time to understanding the context. Satam explains: “A lack of understanding of the cultural and historical nuances of an issue often results in stereotyping people, place or culture.” Unfortunately, this is what we have seen manifest in Dreaming Food, in which Indian villagers are portrayed without dignity or agency, waiting for “the West” to send their leftovers their way.

Lack of empathy

Connected to the need for understanding is the need for empathy. Empathy is about getting to know and understand the people you are working with, and telling their story with sensitivity. Empathy is critical in order to represent people with dignity.

While it can difficult to pass judgment on a photographer’s process without having been there, Mamo’s photographs do not indicate that he approached his subjects with empathy. Priyanka Bansal points out that even the way in which the photographs were shot betrays the photographer’s lack of empathy. The point of view from which he took his photographs literally looks down on the people in his images.

Peter Beaumont interviewed Guardian photographer Antonio Olmos who identified parallels between this series and another series by Peter Menzel which documented what families around the world ate each week, but he noted the critical difference: “[Menzel] illustrated so well the gap in diets around the world, while at the same time giving people some dignity because it also showed the wide variety of cuisine and palates. And it was real food.” Contrastingly, the spaghetti in Mamo’s photographs is plastic, and has nothing in common with the local cuisines of the people pictured.

Perhaps Mamo’s photographs are so lacking in empathy because they aren’t really about the people in them. In fact, we do not even see them. They are stripped of their identities; each is asked to cover his or her face, becoming a stand-in for any impoverish person in India. Manali Shah and Harsha Vadlamani explain they are “reduced to props” because we learn nothing about them through the images. The photographs are not informed by their individual experiences, and are not shaped in any way by their participation. The people are used to represent something that is about their lives, but which comes only from the photographer’s imagination.

As a conceptual piece — rather than anything true to photojournalism, as pointed out by Nina Berman and Maria Thomas — I would argue that it would have been more ethical to shoot this series with hired actors. Having professional actors populate this stage and represent this scene from the photographer’s imagination would be far better than using people in vulnerable situations — and the series would be no worse for it since we learn nothing about the people in the images anyway. The fact that he used actual people in poverty did not make this series more authentic; it made it exploitative.

If this series were shot with empathy, I believe it would tell a very different story. He could have told a story about nutrition through the experiences of the people he met in Uttar Pradesh. Or, better yet, he could have first listened to their experiences and told the story that mattered most to them, taking their lead in how they want to be represented.

Lack of consent

While consent is not always made explicit in documentary photography or photojournalism, co-producing a series like this requires discussion and buy-in from the participants.

In his statement on Dreaming Food, Mamo explains that he recruited the participants through a relationship he developed with a local organization that provides support to people in vulnerable situations.

As Neeta Satam and Laura Elizabeth Pohl rightly point out, obtaining access to photograph people through an organisation that provides them with services is highly problematic unless carefully negotiated. As I have written elsewhere, there are many reasons why a person receiving support from an organisation might feel pressure to consent to being photographed by someone who is associated with that organisation, whether formally or informally. In these situations, it is especially important that the photographer obtains informed consent.

Informed consent is when a person consents to being photographed after first understanding where, how, and why the photographs will be used. In a situation where a photographer’s access is through an organization and the photographic subjects are beneficiaries of that organization, it is important that the subjects understand that consenting — or not consenting — to being photographed will not impact their care in any way. They will not receive additional benefits for consenting. They will not cease to receive support if they refuse.

Mamo’s description of the context in which he shot this series is unclear about any process of informed consent:

Anytime we went into villages we used to spend time meeting people, speaking with them and eating together. After I explained the idea of the project and found the volunteers we prepared our set. Most of the people enjoyed spontaneously to be part of this and photographed behind the table. The people I photographed were living in a village and they were not suffering from malnutrition anymore, they were not hungry or sick, and they freely participated in the project.

While he does say that he spent time with the people before photographing them and that he explained the concept of his series to them before participating, he does not make it clear that they understood that participating does not impact their relationship with the aid organization. It is also unclear whether he explained where the images will be viewed, how they will be presented, or how he might profit from them.

Authors like Upasna Dash and Manali Shah explain that people in lower income contexts might not fully understand what they are consenting to when a photographer takes their picture. This may be because they have no Internet access, so they cannot fathom the kind of global reach that pages like the World Press Photo Instagram account affords. Ultimately, it is the photographer’s responsibility to make sure that they communicate effectively so that the people they photograph understand the ramifications of participating in a photographic project.

Although the subjects of Mamo’s photographs “freely participated,” it is not clear he fully explained what it was that they were freely participating in.

World Press Photo

Many articles pointed to the role that World Press Photo played in this controversy. Although Dreaming Food was produced in 2011, it wasn’t until the series appeared on the World Press Photo Instagram in account in July 2018 that it was publically questioned.

Following the waves of criticism that flooded the Internet after its publication, World Press Photo released a statement to defend the publication policies for their Instagram page. World Press Photo explained that they leave the selection, captioning, and publication of images to the discretion of the photographer selected to “take over” their Instagram page each week.

On one hand, this publication process could be seen as a great opportunity for World Press Photo to give photographers a platform to get more eyes on the work that they care about most, which is not always the work that photo editors most value and which might not get as much attention otherwise. On the other hand, this lack of publication oversight deprives photographers of what Chirodeep Chaudhuri describes as “hierarchies of judgment.”

As Manik Sharma and Suryasarathi Bhattacharya further explain: “An individual photographer may not always be able to spot what (if anything) is questionable about his/her work. But when there is a system of editors who are also looking at the same photographs, then they should certainly be able to flag any problematic representations or concepts.” In a publication process that requires the oversight of individuals who have more experience or different perspectives, the photographer has the opportunity to learn through feedback and critique.

With so many photographers working independently, Chaudhuri fears that the systems that should help to cultivate photographers through their hierarchies of judgment are not doing their job. Photographers are producing work that is ill-conceived because they are not part of a system in which they can bounce ideas, receive critical feedback, and learn from colleagues.

While World Press Photo’s instructions for the Instagram take-over are not restrictive, they do advise photographers to consider the following points:

- The language used in captions, particularly on controversial subject matter

- Whether graphic and violent photographs are necessary for the story presented, especially when they involve images of children

Ÿ- How pictures and stories might be received and understood in different parts of the world

Yet simply offering recommendations, however sound they may be, cannot teach someone to see something that they do not yet understand. This is not an adequate substitute for feedback and discussion.

In response to criticisms for not removing Dreaming Food from their Instagram page, David Campbell, director of communications at World Press Photo, told Maria Thomas: “We believe that controversies are not best handled by deleting images. We think they should be debated in a constructive way. We do not think it serves transparency to remove the photographs and the associated comments.”

When photographic series like Dreaming Food surface, we are called to a moment of self-reflection and debate. So, while I am uncomfortable with the continued promotion of Dreaming Food on their Instagram page, I agree that hiding contentious issues like this is not the answer. The debate must continue.

Of course, this debate does not begin and end with the photographer. It is a bigger debate about the systems that drive photography and the industry as a whole. As Sharma and Bhattacharya ask: “While photographers are held accountable for what they shoot and for bringing about social change with their work, what about the system itself?”

Satam writes that the creation and publication of Dreaming Food is indicative of a wider problem: that the photography industry suffers under the perpetuation of the “colonial gaze.” This is a problem that cannot be solved by photographers alone. It has to do with what kinds of stories and perspectives are privileged over others, what kinds of photographers are hired, and who is given the power to tell the story. These are decisions made by photo editors and influenced by consumers. As Satam succinctly states, “the viewers and photo community hold the power to change the existing visual narrative on the developing world.”

Ethical Literacy

Mamo wrote in his response to the uproar: “I’m always open to be criticised in my work, but I have never in my life felt hate like the comments directed at me in recent days.” Although many people expressed outrage at World Press Photo for allowing this series on their Instagram, it is still largely the photographer who bares the brunt of scandals such as this.

If photographers are going to be working increasingly independently of formal systems or organisations, they need to be ethically literate. They need skills to navigate ethically complicated contexts and to engage in self-critique. This is not simply to avoid finding oneself in the middle of a similar scandal, but to ensure the dignity of our subjects, to protect the integrity of the industry, and to tell better stories — stories that are actually about the people in the pictures.