Everyone already knows that their clothes, music choices and quirky obsessions tell a whole lot about them. But what about the contents of the jars and containers in their fridges? Artist and photographer Mark Menjivar has travelled the length and breadth of the US over the last four years documenting just that, in scores of strangers' homes. We chatted to him about his photography series You Are What You Eat and how it speaks volumes on food culture, social standing and the push-pull dynamic of desire and lack.
Main image: Midwife, 3-Person Household (including dog), First week after choosing to buy all local produce.
Bartender, 1-Person Household, Goes to sleep at 8AM and wakes up at 4PM daily.
Thanks for chatting to us, Mark. First, you've outlined the exploration of food issues as the inspiration for your project. Where did that journey start for you?
The project began in 2007 while I was working with another artist on a documentary about hunger in the United States. I found myself wondering about where our food came from, the choices we make on a daily basis, our responsibility to society and the land - these led me to begin to explore food issues visually.
We've seen from your site that you travelled to several cities and states for the project. Which were some of your favourites to see?
I really love the State of Texas - even with all of its quirks. Getting to see so many different areas of the state was great, but I also really love Portland, OR.
As you collected information for the project on the road, what sort of format did you envisage the piece taking? When did the photography medium start to take hold?
As I was already working as a visual artist, I started with photography. What I wasn't expecting was to be so drawn into the inviting of complete strangers into the project. I am passionate about food issues, but what really sustained my curiosity over the four years was the interactions I was having with such diverse people. This way of working has shifted my art practice to now seeking to have engagement and conversation as my primary medium.
University Students, 3-Person Household, Drummer for death metal band.
Where does your fascination with food culture and food issues come from?
I am fascinated with food because it is something that we all relate to. It can be so simple, yet so complex. Most of all I still find myself intensely curious about food and it's surrounding issues. I have been semi-obsessed with Food Deserts lately and am beginning a new project here shortly that will begin to explore them in different ways.
You must have really met some characters along the way, and connected to strangers through the intimacy of food and consumption. Which people, if any, stand out in your memory? Why do you think that is?
I truly met some amazing people while working on this project and I am thankful to each of them. Right now I have been thinking a lot about the family that participated in the 100 mile diet for one year. As my wife and I have been trying to source more food locally, it is a real commitment to undertake. Making significant changes for something you believe in is difficult and I am really inspired by their dedication.
Botanist, 1-Person Household, Feels more comfortable among flora and fauna of his era than people.
There's a real element of sadness and dark humour to how the contents of a fridge can speak volumes about its owner. Where do you think the boundaries of hunger, income and patterns of habit cross?
I think that hunger and food insecurity are very complex. It is about broken relationships, lost dreams, tragedy, illness, mental health and so many other things. Each situation is unique and I was constantly amazed at how people found strategies to make it through the day.
Defunct Amusement Park Owner, 1-Person Household , Former WWII Prisoner of War.
How long did you travel around the country to document the fridge interiors? Were there any particular similarities or defining characteristics you noticed from one town to the next?
I worked on the project for four years. Some trips were taken to specifically work on the project, but I also took my 4x5 camera with me everywhere I traveled during that time. I of course saw some regional factors in regards to brand but as soon as I started to think that a fridge would be a certain way, I would be nicely surprised.
Your choice to only show the fridge, and never its owner, is quite a powerful statement. What do you think the contents of one's food can really reveal about a person?
I started out the project photographing the owner of the fridge and the fridge itself. After six months of this I felt that the project was becoming more about judgement of the person than about self reflection. I threw out all the work and started over again. I think that we can learn something about people through their fridge - whether that be about their lifestyle, locale, priorities, habits - but the real richness comes when we use them as a launching point for our own imaginations to envision new ways of living and relating.
Street Advertiser, 1-Person Household, Lives on £265 fixed monthly income.
Finally, we have to ask: what's in your fridge right now?
Oh, gosh. Here's a list:
Leftover vietnamese food
And a few other items!
See the rest of the You Are What You Eat series on Menjivar's site here. He is currently travelling through Portland, Milwaukee and Minnesota for his work.