Every year, Americans throw away nearly half their food. Half! That discarded food is estimated to be worth nearly $165 billion a year, which is not only a fairly damning indictment of modern consumer society, but also bad business. Of course the macro view—while good for grandstanding—isn’t always the best way to look at things. Sometimes it’s better to get up close and personal with the ugly side of life, which is just precisely what the photographer Joe Buglewicz did with his series, Rotten, a visual exploration of spoiled fruit, vegetables, and (in one instance) a particularly odorous sandwich. The images are vile, but also serve as an artful reminder of just what perishable really means.
Here, the photographer shares his thoughts on taking pretty photos of ugly things, our hopelessly wasteful culture, and which rotten foods produced the most pungent odors.
While the images immediately conjure ideas of waste, sustainability, and the passage of time Buglewicz says the project didn’t start with any sort of ideology in mind: "It just started off more as a personal motivation to waste less food around the apartment. But over time I started reading more about food waste in the U.S., and the numbers kind of floored me."
What if we redirected those billions of dollars a year? During these economic times, it’s a rather shocking fact that so much money could be saved by just simple planning and thinking ahead. "At the time, the news cycle and government were talking all about deficit reduction, cutting funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, PBS, etc.," says Buglewicz. "It kind of amazed me that if we curbed our waste even by less than half, that money could pretty much fund both programs. I know in the end it’s a much more complicated system than that (I’m definitely no expert), and this isn’t a distinctly American problem, but the thought kind of kept me going and has made me think about where to take the project next."
The entire project calls into question our priorities about food and spending, but on a broader aesthetic level, it also calls into question the notion of standards of beauty, by artfully depicting things that are fairly revolting. "At the time, I was shooting a lot of restaurants trying to make [their food] look appetizing, so I wanted to photograph these spoiled items with the same care that goes into shooting normal food," he says. "People go through such an effort to make things look delicious and beautiful, even to the point of spraying all sorts of chemicals on them, so it was also fun to play with those conventions of food photography.
Buglewicz’s work also alters how we view rotting food. When you find it in the refrigerator, you want to get it out of the house as quickly as possible. At the remove of viewing the photos, you can see the beauty in nature’s natural disposal process. Says Buglewicz: "It was fun to kind of strip out the environment and provide an odor-free way for people to gawk at the 'beauty’ of mother nature."
And how did the more utilitarian aim of the project—to create less waste in his own life, go? Not so well, in that he continually had items to shoot. "All the items were shot in my apartment over the course of this year. None of the food in the images was intentionally left to go bad, so it was all just a matter of circumstance," he says. "Living with four other people can really fill up a fridge, so most items ended up being buried or stuck in the bottom on the vegetable crisper. Generally once every few weeks the fridge would provide me with a few subjects. I would open the door, smell something disgusting and start rooting through to find the culprit."
What’s next? Finding ways to expand the idea of this project to a larger statement on the food system: "After reading a lot of the statistics and numbers, realizing that everything is pretty interconnected, I’d like to maybe apply that somehow. Also, I’ve been thinking about how our culture continues to get more and more visual. For better or worse a page full of numbers just doesn’t have the same effect as a good visual. It might be fun to try and find a way to portray it in a relatable and aesthetically similar way."