Q&A with Emily J. H. Contois and Zenia Kish, editors of FOOD INSTAGRAM

Emily J. H. Contois and Zenia Kish, editors of Food Instagram: Identity, Influence, and Negotiation, answer questions on their influences, discoveries, and reader takeaways from their new book.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book?

We edited the first book on food and Instagram, in part, because we couldn’t believe such a text didn’t already exist! A quick Google Scholar search returns more than 7 million publications about Twitter, more than 6 million about Facebook, but less than 3 million about Instagram. Even within the growing subfield of digital food studies, Instagram hasn’t yet emerged as a primary focus. And yet, we know Instagram has profoundly influenced our food culture, global food system, and our broader media environment. In our book, we go so far as to codify “food Instagram” as a quasi-genre on the platform, since food is far more than just one of Instagram’s most popular subjects. It points to a visual food space with distinctive stylistic conventions, popular influence, and complicated modes of engaging with food production and consumption. Overall, we were interested to not only document how Instagram changed what and why we eat, but also why scholars have been reluctant to study it.

Q: Who were your biggest influences?

A number of scholars and books from both media studies and food studies inspired us, two of the biggest being Tama Leaver and Fabio Parasecoli. We were overjoyed that they both generously blurbed our book. We have also benefited from the contributions of digital food scholars including Tania Lewis and Deborah Lupton; writers exploring food porn, such as Tisha Dejmanee, Ariane Cruz, and Anne McBride; as well as the work of Lachlan Macdowell and Lev Manovich on the aesthetics of Instagram. Our guiding questions were also shaped by influences in our daily lives, from the insights of our students to emerging visual food trends to the changing ways that people used Instagram during the pandemic.

Emily J. H. Contois is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Tulsa and the author of Diners, Dudes & Diets: How Gender and Power Collide in Food Media and Culture.

Q: What is the most interesting discovery you made while researching and writing your book?

For us, doing this book together affirmed the value of edited collections. While the two of us could have co-written a very interesting book on food Instagram, we couldn’t have imagined the diverse methodologies, approaches, case studies, transnational examples, and poignant stories that the book’s twenty-three contributors did. From their work, we were delighted to discover how farmers use “the darkgram” to share and help one other through agricultural fails, how populist politicians and restaurateurs cultivate dedicated followings with anti-food porn (“ugly food”), or how food aesthetics can shape markets, such as certain traditional Hong Kong foods losing popularity because, for example, “brown foods” aren’t considered Instagrammable.

Q: What myths do you hope your book will dispel or what do you hope your book will help readers unlearn?

For one, “food porn” is a poorly understood and overused phrase within the world of food Instagram and a theoretical concept that some scholars are quick to dismiss. We defend its ongoing utility for understanding food’s visual aesthetics across a variety of media forms, but especially on Instagram.

Zenia Kish is an assistant professor of media studies at the University of Tulsa.

For another, each chapter reminds the reader that food images are not trivial or limited to surface level readings. Their significance is always embedded within wider webs of social and cultural meaning. To get at these complex meanings, interdisciplinary methodologies and insights are needed from food studies, media studies, and many other fields represented in the book.

Many of our authors also open up the importance of analyzing the work that goes into making food images and sustaining the feed’s endless appetite for fresh content. This work is shaped by many factors, from gender and class to evolving photographic styles, and provokes many different forms of consumption, from pleasure to critique. Our book undercuts popular perceptions that Instagram is a less political platform, a place to post quick snaps with little effort or thought. Instagram is quite serious, meaningful, and worthy of our critical attention.

Q: What is the most important idea you hope readers will take away from your book?

For all readers, we hope they’ll appreciate how the book invites us to have fun with the range of food images and food practices that fill our social media feeds, at the same time as we can deepen our critical thinking about them. We sought out chapters that interweave celebrations of community, sexiness, satire, feminist play, beauty, and solidarity alongside questions about exploitation, power differentials, toxic gender norms, commercialism, inauthenticity, and so much more. We can bring critical attention to food and social media while still finding space for pleasure and playfulness.

For academics, we hope those researching in media studies and food studies will be newly inspired by the fruitful intersections between these already interdisciplinary fields. There remain many rich opportunities for applying media studies frameworks to food studies and food studies insights to media studies. We hope that our book provides a map for future efforts, and we sketch more possibilities in our Afterword. We are eager to see this area of study blossom.

Q: What do you like to read/watch/or listen to for fun?

As media studies professors we consume, analyze, and teach a lot of media! Emily recently did an interview here for the university student newspaper about her wide-ranging media tastes. As the mother of a 1-year-old, Zenia’s media diet is currently hijacked by textured books, cartoon lullabies, and sing-alongs, but she also loves to read non-fiction and wind down to travel shows.

About Kristina Stonehill