When we discover those mold-covered strawberries we forgot at the back of the fridge, most of us probably quickly toss it away. Austrian photographer Klaus Pichler, however, spent nine months studying rotting food in detail–setting up a lab of decaying chicken and moldy noodles in his bathroom, and then shooting the smelly results.
The project was a reminder of a simple fact: One third of all the food grown in the world is thrown away. In richer countries like the U.S., the number is closer to 40%–the equivalent of $165 billion in the trash. It’s an issue that has gotten plenty of attention, but Pichler wanted to take a different approach, photographing food waste as if it was in a luxury ad.
“I decided to make the food look like expensive ads, because food is indeed luxury, especially if you compare our industrialized-part-of-the-world perspective with the perspective of underdeveloped countries,” he says. “We have the luxury to choose between an array of food which is available 24/7, which is, even if we are used to it, nothing but pure luxury.”
He also hoped the carefully staged photos would provoke double-takes. “By staging the food as glossy still lives, I wanted to create an effect and maximize the gap between the ‘wow!’ as a first reaction when looking at the images for the first time, and the ‘eeeew!’ when realizing what you are actually looking at,” Pichler says.
Each photo is paired with facts about the food–the price, where, and how it was grown, how far it traveled to get to Pichler’s apartment, and how much carbon pollution and water it wasted. A fuzz-covered pile of blackberries, for example, came over 6,000 miles from Mexico, partly by plane, along with a massive carbon footprint.
“It was obvious for me from the beginning that I just had to include a whole lot of data–call it the personal story–of each and every food item,” Pichler says. “The photography was meant to depict the issues in a really abstract way, and the data was meant to ground the images, to add a second, scientific layer to the images.”
Since he couldn’t easily get the data from retailers, Pichler spent time sneaking around grocery stores to photograph freight labels, calling distributors posing as an over-eager consumer, and doing more research with help of nonprofits. In total, he photographed and researched 55 different foods, ranging from staples like bread and milk to produce, snacks and dessert.
Spending nearly a year with rotting food has changed the way he eats. “I am trying to only buy food from sustainable production and organic farmers,” he says. “I am a member of a food co-op now, and by that I have the feeling that I have a much more close relation to the food I consume. I rarely ever throw out food anymore.”