Over a period of nine months, fine art photographer Klaus Pichler turned the bathroom of his studio apartment into a curated collection of plastic containers, each containing food items available to the average citizen of industrialized Europe. The strawberries rotted in a week and a half. The smell of the decaying chicken kept him up for two days.
It helped that he lived alone at the time, and not with his girlfriend and her cat. “I wouldn’t be able to do it again,” he tells me during a recent conversation.
We are discussing Pichler’s project, “One Third,” which was sparked in 2011 by a U.N. survey on global food waste. No matter how rich or poor the country, the report found, one-third of food produced for human consumption goes to waste, due to factors such as consumer decisions and lack of distribution channels, while over nine hundred million people are starving.
These findings struck a personal chord for Pichler, who grew up in a rural province in Austria which he describes as “a little Bible belt”—where eating and raising meat were an important part of the culture. Having rebelled against this with the decision to be a vegetarian, he was used to thinking critically about his own diet. The idea to create a visual expression of this survey came to him almost spontaneously, he says. And so he got to work.
“It was quite a challenge,” Pichler says. “I was definitely not the first one who was making photographs of rotting food but to make myself credible, I decided not to rent a studio but to make it in my apartment. This was quite a conscious decision. When I am working on a project, I want to really be in the middle of it.”
Periodically peeking into these containers, he observed the blossoming of mold and rot, marveling at the diversity of shapes and textures that normally flourish when food is living out its last days in the trash can, out of sight.
“I remember the greek noodles,” he says, “It was really strange because I stored it and there was nothing for almost one week,” he recalls, “It was a Friday evening and I detected some small white spots. Then I left for two days in the country and when I came back it looked like the noodles had a fur coat. So incredibly strange and it happened so fast. I was really stunned by that one.”
“It was like a chemistry set for grown-ups,” he laughs.
When they were at their most photogenically putrid—some things required multiple attempts to catch before the slide into visual oblivion—he placed the items against an elegant backdrop, elaborately staging them for their final portrait. An exercise in deceptive beauty.
“From the beginning, it was obvious for me that I wanted to quote the aesthetics of advertising photography, because I thought there is a little bit of a twist if I really style the food and make it look perfect. On first sight you react with ‘ok that looks nice,’ and then you realize what you are looking at.”
But the photographs of waste are just one half of the project. Accompanying each of these compellingly repulsive still lives is the food’s life history, and the resources needed to transport it from field (or factory) to shelf. These two aspects, waste and transportation, are two sides of the same coin.
Pichler gathered all of this data himself, which was as challenging as making the photographs. Since European law says that while the origins of food must be kept on record, retailers and producers are not obligated to share the information with consumers, Pichler met a wall of silence when announcing his intentions.
Finding what he needed to put the pieces together involved some creative trickery, from sleuthing around supermarkets (he got kicked out several times for photographing food packaging) to going undercover as a giddy consumer so impressed with a product he wanted its personal history. Flattery gets you everywhere.
There was also the potentially awkward moment when this project might not only be a sacrifice of an odor-free living space or free time, but of his personal mores as a devout vegetarian (and now vegan):
“There were some moments when I was shopping for meat, standing in front of the refrigerator cases, when I thought, if I were to meet a friend, what would I tell him? ‘Oh I’m doing research for a project. It’s not for me’, imagining the conversation—and ensuing skepticism. “Like some men who attend porn cinemas, I felt absolutely the same.”
While Pichler was relieved when the project was over—”the thing I like best is that the project is finished and I don’t have to do it again,” he says—his dedication came with an unexpected reward: a call from the U.N. agency behind the survey, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
Pichler had assumed that an organization such as the U.N. wouldn’t be interested in the abstract art he was creating. But, just as he had read a newspaper article about their work, they had read one about his, and found “One Third” to be a perfect representation of their survey. They now exhibit his work at their annual meetings and food waste events.
And with “One Third” continuing to make the rounds of galleries in Europe, Pichler now partners with the FAO whenever he can. While he sees this as an art project, borne of personal creativity and dedication, linking his vision with the facts-based message of how food is distributed and consumed is where the true satisfaction lies. “The content is the most important thing.”
The May issue of National Geographic magazine, kicked off an eight-month series about the future of food. As part of that effort, Proof is highlighting independent projects that look at food production and consumption.