10/14/2014 10:29 am ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

Instagram Food Photography and the Search for Meaning


Over the past several months, I have unwittingly embarked upon an extremely topical social experiment. I have become, I wincingly admit, an Instagram food photographer.

If you have an Instagram, or if you've dipped even the slightest toe into this social media black hole, you'll know that the amateur Instagram "food photographer/blogger" is a current phenomenon. These photographers fill their profiles exclusively with photos of food. From homemade, chia-seed covered, agave-nectar-smothered pancakes, to perfectly scooped artisan ice cream cones, to minimalist tuna tartar to something as simple as a well-filtered protein bar, Instagram food photography is all encompassing. It is nondiscriminatory. If you have a smartphone and you're having lunch, you, too, can be a food photographer.

That being said, there is a definite demographic which has taken to Instagraming food most voraciously. Unsurprisingly, American college girls seem to be taking more food pics than anyone else. Presumably, they have the time and, more important, the money to buy fancy, visually appealing foods that are completely nonessential to any basic diet, like cereal-encrusted/covered donuts, lattes with designs etched into the foam, and, my personal favorite, cinnamon toast bagels with birthday cake flavored cream cheese. Yes, that is a thing, and we have Tompkins Square Bagels in New York City to thank for it. These girls have handles like "eatinginnyc01," "ilysmfood247," "betchesluvnycnoms" (I made these up, but you get the picture) and almost anything else incorporating their location, (in this case, NYC) their objective, (food, noms, eats) and their persona (bitches, freshman, foodies). The hashtags used to garner likes for the photos are almost identical (#nycfoods, #foodporn1) and when clicked on, one can find thousands, and, sometimes, tens of thousands of photos.

But Instagram food photography is not limited to these girls. Real food photographers -- those who actually photograph food for a living -- also find a home on Instagram. Their professional skills and appealing presentation are comforting, especially when juxtaposed against @thisbetchlovesnycfood's poorly lit grilled cheese. Among these already established photographers, one can also find talented amateurs capitalizing on easy Instagram fame, as well as established and non-established lifestyle and fashion bloggers, snapping photos of their lunches to gain extra likes.

Some other groups whose food photos appear in notable-sized clusters: 30-something male hipsters living in places like Brooklyn and Portland, and teen girls from Eastern Europe and Asia. I've come across "nutrition" bloggers from Poland and the Czech Republic, who bombard me with pictures of colorful smoothie bowls speckled with bee pollen and hemp, as well as minimalist Singaporeans, whose sparse plates are laid out to what seem like mathematically calculated proportions.

Instagram foodies may seem overwhelmingly female; in fact, some of the more famous food-centric Instagram accounts, like The Infatuation, which is also a website and foodie's paradise, are run by men. One of the highest honors a lowly food-gramer can receive is a regram from The Infatuation, by using the hash tag #EEEEEATS, under which there are currently over 240,000 photos. Regraming others' food photos is another way to gain and establish one's fame in this strange world; if you're being regramed, it feels like you're "making" it, while those who dole out regrams are the ones, presumably, who have made it.

On the flip side, accounts like @cookingforbae and @youdidnoteatthat, with 150k and 142k followers, respectively, have risen in response to the overwhelming outflow of food photos, serving to mock those whose casserole looks more vomit-worthy than mouthwatering and those who appear to subsist on little more than water and lettuce, yet pose with face-sized cheeseburgers.

So what's the point of all this food Instagraming? Why partake in it, assuming it's not solely for the purpose of promoting business or any other such practical purpose? My own amateur Food-stagram account was not conceived of as such, yet I found posting pictures of my ice cream cones and lobster rolls combined with a few hashtags garnered many more likes than did pictures of almost anything else I posted. And I liked the likes. Quite simply, getting lots of likes makes me feel good -- useful, almost -- at a time in my life when feeling good and useful is a rare phenomenon. I'm a recent college grad, looking for employment and studying for graduate school exams. It's one of the least glamorous and least edifying times in ones life. Anything that lets me feel like I'm contributing to something bigger than myself (I certainly wouldn't venture to say "to society") or being recognized, no mater how menial the recognition, is wildly gratifying. So, that, folks, is why I'll continue posting my PB&J, at least until I move into a more substantive period in my life, which I certainly hope will be soon.

Is this why everyone else is Instagraming their PB&J? Who knows. I imagine some have motives similar to mine. In any case, you can find me at @a_polkes if you're interested in seeing the Food-stagram phenomenon up close and personal.