I hope the pictures reveal something deeper about societies that are rich enough to use food this way – and what it means to stuff oneself, not just with food, but with consumer goods – since consumption is praised in our culture, but is also doing us in.
When Food Becomes Competition
Competitive eating is a largely US phenomenon. Contests typically last two to ten minutes, with participants competing to stuff themselves with vast quantities of food for cash or other prizes. Eating competitions grew out of traditional pie-eating contests at county fairs, but gained popularity nationwide through a Fourth of July hot dog eating competition on Coney Island that has been run as an annual event since the 1970s. Nina Berman explores the American subculture of eating to win, in a world overrun with consumption.
Q: What led you to take on the subject of competitive eating?
Years earlier I had photographed the iconic Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, which takes place on the Fourth of July each year in Coney Island, New York. I found it both hilarious and a bit horrifying, so I thought there may be more to do on this particular subculture of competitive consumption.
Q: What did you need to consider when planning your shoot and how long were you on the road for?
I researched various competitions, looking for a good mix between professional competitive eaters and amateurs, as each affords different options and has their own vibe to them. I also realised that I needed to consider the colour of the food, since I was looking for close-ups and didn't want everything to be just one colour or texture. I went to several locations in the New York area, and also one in Florida. It took me a few months, on and off.
Q: How did you choose which competitions to shoot?
I chose the locations based on the type of food that was being eaten and whether I could get close enough, since the shoot needed me to have a face fill a frame with a 180mm lens. I also used a lighting assistant for off-camera strobes.
Q: What was the biggest challenge for you on this project?
Not to laugh so hard that I couldn’t press the shutter. And the speed of the competition – it was all over in a few minutes.
Q: What was the most surprising aspect of this shoot?
I imagined it one way, but after the first shoot I realised that the pictures could be deeply symbolic and emotional in ways I hadn’t imagined. When someone comes up for air in between bites, you have this look of simultaneous suffocation and desire which kind of sums up our culture. I also didn't realise that of course it's a competition against players, so there would be these shots of victory and defeat.
Q: Is there a single image that stands out for you?
I really like the woman with the blueberry pie. The shot makes it look almost like a religious experience. I love it when pictures reveal something I hadn’t imagined or maybe even seen in the moment. That’s the magic of photography, right?
Q: What’s the issue that you wanted to highlight with this project?
That we're consuming ourselves to the point of suffocation and for some reason we see this as entertaining.
Q: Which camera and lenses did you use and why?
I shot with the D800E, which was the camera I was using at the time. It had the best file size and quality, in my opinion. I used the older 180mm manual focus lens because I didn’t have a 70-200mm zoom and I needed a long lens. Plus, when I was shooting in the analogue days, I really loved this lens.
Q: How do you want readers to feel when they view these images?
Intrigued, attracted, reflective and a tiny bit repulsed.
Q: Is there a realisation or call to action you’d like to spark in those who see this story?
Definitely not a call to action as in go and join eating competitions or boycott eating contests! Really, I hope the pictures reveal something deeper about societies that are rich enough to use food in this way, and what it means to stuff oneself – not just with food, but with consumer goods, since consumption is both praised in our culture, but in the end it is doing us in.
Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring photojournalist taking on a similar project?
Have fun and find your own visual approach.
Q: Given the chance to shoot this subject again, is there anything you’d do differently?
On reflection, I’d have liked to have shot a few slow-motion videos.