Revealing The Revolting Beauty Of Food Waste

Apr 14, 2012
Originally published on May 23, 2012 8:52 am

Isn't rotting food beautiful?

Nobody likes to see good food go bad. But Klaus Pichler's photography series One Third, which portrays food in advanced stages of decay, is a feast for the eyes — even if it turns the stomach.

The project was inspired by the fact that much of the world's food goes to waste — one-third, according to a 2011 United Nations estimate.

The U.S. and Europe waste about 10 times as much food per person as sub-Saharan Africa or Southeast Asia, that report found. In the developing world, storage problems are the main culprit. But in developed countries, consumers throw out lots of food that is still perfectly edible.

Pichler says the rampant waste is a symptom of a culture that commodifies and devalues food.

"There are lots of spontaneous decisions in the supermarket," Pichler tells The Salt. He says people often don't stop to think about whether they're buying too much, or whether they could reuse leftovers instead of throwing them away.

To highlight the overlooked value in everyday foods, Pichler approached his project as if it was an advertising photo shoot for a high-end brand. He started with common items from the supermarket, like cheese, strawberries and cauliflower. After letting each food fester for a few weeks, he arranged it in his studio for a luxurious portrait.

Pichler admits to using standard advertising photography tricks, like invisible string and tape, in about half of the shots, and a few — like a carton of curdled milk, spilling onto black fabric — are composites of multiple images. But the spoilage, he says, is au naturel, produced by whatever spores and bacteria each item normally carries. Black backgrounds and dramatic lighting bring out vivid colors of decay: moldy blues, fungal greens and putrid yellows.

The contrast between rot and luxury is certainly striking. But we wondered: Can the harsh global consequences of food waste, which include economic exploitation, malnourishment and starvation, really be addressed through gorgeous art photography?

"If you look at [the photos], you get provoked," Pichler says. "Then you begin to think about your own consumer behavior."

To drive the point home, each photo is accompanied by information on where, when and how the food was produced, the distance it traveled, and its carbon and water footprints.

For added realism, Pichler conducted the entire project, from purchase to putrefaction to photograph, in his home in Vienna. And it wasn't always pretty. The worst was when he had raw chicken and octopus decomposing at the same time.

"These two smells united, and it was horrible," he says. But he felt it was important that he "coexist with the rotting food" to develop a greater appreciation for the food's value, and tie the project back to a household.

"If you go through the whole series, I think you'll see more than one picture that you've experienced in your home," he says.

Pichler is working on partnerships with nonprofits to incorporate One Third into activism campaigns. "At the moment I feel like I'm pointing my finger at this problem, but I'm not doing anything about it," he explains. There are also plans for an exhibition at Vienna's Anzenberger gallery early next year. In the meantime, you can see the full set of photos at Pichler's website.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.