A film crew prepares a shot of food

Food for Thought

09.20.2022

Nivi Shaham’s bite-sized vignettes unveil the highs and lows of mealtime upkeep

It’s where cuisine meets cutlery and families break bread. It’s that hastily arranged sandwich pre-commute, a nine-course tasting menu à la carte, the gloopy broth slopped across soup kitchen pots and pans. It has its own economies, cultures, and circumstances – defined by scarcity and abundance, taste and quality. The patterns of consumption may differ, but the rituals of food remain.

We’re all thinking about it, but Nivi Shaham ponders nutrition more than most. Four years ago, the UCD freshman was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), and overnight, her dietary changes were drastically altered.

“I had to learn to prepare my meals in a very different way,” she begins. “Weirdly, that’s when I really fell in love with cooking, and by extension, photographing the process.”

What began as a strict necessity swiftly became a beneficial routine. Connecting with the plethora of culinary content that circulates social media channels, Nivi’s interests were refined by a glut of recipes and vlogs – enthusiastic demonstrations of an appetite that she too shared.

“I was ingesting a lot of media, produced in a very specific style. This all happened during my freshman year of college, in 2018.

“I owned a camera, but barely touched it that year. I’d neglected photography because I was so focused on academics. I figured I could merge both of my pastimes, so I decided to try my hand at blending the two.”

Caught in the midst of a rigorous political science degree, Nivi was poring over her studies, cramming in additional hours as and when she could. A prospective career in law loomed. The workload was exceptionally demanding.

“I was on track to become a lawyer, but something changed along the way. I didn’t even know food photography could be a career path. It took stepping away from school to help me realize what I should be pursuing.”

Photo 2022 © Justin Stailey | FUJIFILM X-H2S and XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/40 sec at F2.8, ISO 800

Whenever a free moment presented itself, Nivi jumped at the opportunity. In many ways, snapping up snacks represented an escape from mounting university pressures, nurturing a sense of enjoyment that would only continue to flourish.

“I started photographing my own recipes, and it just grew from there,” she says. “I absolutely loved doing it. I called local restaurants to see if I could take pictures of their items, and slowly but surely, began building a portfolio.”

In 2020, Nivi was awarded top prize in our Students of Storytelling contest. Her winning project focused on the impassioned accounts of various chefs, exploring their exploits and motivations in kitchens across America.

“That competition kick-started my interest in commercial photography. I learned so much. It was a great introduction to the idea of telling a grander story.”

Building upon previous success, she was recently nominated to contribute a project with FUJIFILM X-H2. Operating in the world of advertisement styling, Nivi planned to construct a series that extended beyond the glitz of a well-made advertisement, or some flashy billboard sign.

With more reflective considerations in mind, she ultimately produced Misconceptions: A thought-provoking examination of what food can signify in certain thematic contexts.

Split into five episodic portions – Scarcity, Nourishment, Efficiency, Indulgence, Joy – each installment interrogates a particular idea, picking apart the nuances with delicately crafted snippets of stop-motion.

Photo 2022 © Justin Stailey | FUJIFILM X-H2S and XF16-55mmF2.8 R LM WR, 1/40 sec at F2.8, ISO 800

“Three of the five segments speak to the choices faced by those living with food insecurity. It’s about challenging perspectives, and shining a light on those experiences.”

Sifting through the meticulously arranged details of each chapter, you’d expect the creator of these scenes to have some familiarity with the topics at hand. The reality is quite the contrary, but no less admirable.

“None of this is autobiographical. I come from a position of privilege and wanted to highlight an issue that doesn’t get a lot of airtime,” Nivi explains.

“I read How the Other Half Eats, and that opened my eyes to the ways we consume, based on specific factors. I realized that if you’re not experiencing it, you simply don’t understand the realities. I sought to question that sense of ignorance, and hopefully inform others about the challenges these people face.”

The title of Nivi’s series transmits the confrontational nature of her work. Saturated and whimsical, her style may appear aesthetically fanciful, recalling the quaint palette of Joan Steiner’s Look-Alikes books. Delve deeper and you’ll realize that this is precisely the point – a clever reworking of a time-honored style, communicating pressing messages about contemporary fears and uncertainties.

“Scarcity was about that sense of anxiety, and what it can look like,” she continues. “If you were a family and purchased food for the month, this piece showcases just how quickly resources can dwindle, right down to the point where you end up with completely barren pantry shelves.”

In a subtly observed addition, Nivi slows the speed of each stop-motion transition as the video concludes. The metaphor is an effective reminder of how some families must conserve and slow their expenditure, so as not to max out their resources.

“The reality of being in that situation is not knowing if you’ll always have access to something no one should ever struggle for,” she says.

‘Scarcity’ © 2022 Nivi Shaham | FUJIFILM X-H2 and XF33mmF1.4 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F11, ISO 125

Offering additional commentary to this theory, ‘Nourishment’ underscores the ways in which class differences can prevent meaningful sustenance from being obtained. Framed like a still life painting, a selection of ingredients chop and change across a long wooden table, set up like some kind of lavish regal feast.

Adorned with crackling candles, the iconography is a vivid reminder of excess and greed, reaffirmed by the addition of dollars dwindling, then re-emerging in the center of the frame. If anything, this section illuminates the importance of spending power, and how capital ultimately affects access to selected types of food.

“This was all about stressing both sides of the ‘healthy foods’ debate. We begin with a full stack of money, and that’s when we observe the more expensive stuff like salmon, avocado, pistachios, and kale. As it progresses, the transitions reveal changes in the meals – more specifically, cheaper alternatives. Peanuts replace pistachios, for instance.

“It’s important for people to acknowledge the differences between healthy types of foods, depending on your financial status. I’m not explicitly saying either is worse, I’m just making a point about availability. The more you’re able to spend, the more likely you are to garner access to purer, baseline ingredients. You’re losing the additives and preservatives, and getting something unadulterated instead.

‘Nourishment’ © 2022 Nivi Shaham | FUJIFILM X-H2 and XF33mmF1.4 R LM WR, 1/25 sec at F11, ISO 400

“Efficiency was created in a similar vein. That was about having to make the quickest food possible, out of pure necessity. I created this night scene… I feel like it alluded to somebody working long hours, stuck for time. In those contexts, some end up foregoing nutritious options, simply because they can’t afford to prepare something more considered, over a longer period.”

Throughout all these sections, the might of X-H2 helped to simplify Nivi’s aims. Thinking through technical considerations, she speaks to the importance of specific techniques employed, and how our newest X Series camera brought abstract ideas into fleshed-out fruition.  

“I had to make sure I used an F-stop that cascaded across the image, to maximize the level of detail. I also had to assess the distance between the lens and the table – then choose glass that suited that. In the end, I used FUJINON XF56mmF1.2 R and XF33mmF1.4 R LM WR. Usually, I’ll use a macro to bring out the idiosyncrasies. I think they’re fantastic for textural items. With these primes, I was surprised at the level of minutiae you can retain. It’s still so incredible.”

Clarity and definition are integral in the creation of anything commercial, and here, they epitomize the precision of Nivi’s imagination.

“Switching from manual to autofocus streamlined the process, particularly when dealing with stop motion. The colors that come out of that camera are also incredible. It makes things so much easier in post,” she reasons.

‘Efficiency’ © 2022 Nivi Shaham | FUJIFILM X-H2 and XF56mmF1.2 R WR, 1/125 sec at F11, ISO 125

“As I’m working, I tend to adjust highlights, and lean into a warmer palette. I work through various adjustments – I open up the blacks and shadows, for more contrast. Obviously, it’s image dependent. I left the darker scenes much colder in their tonalities.”

Although the bulk of these sketches concentrate on the darker, more solemn consequences of food insecurity, Nivi does incorporate two sections that reflect her love and passion. Marked contrasts to the more somber episodes, ‘Joy’ and ‘Indulgence’ are comparatively brighter and upbeat – optimistic depictions that counterbalance the starkness.

“Joy was about the happiness that comes from sharing one’s culture, what’s meaningful and important,” Nivi outlines. “Cuisines are a part of that. I’m Israeli, so a lot of my intrigue stems from that place. The foods are very particular, and a reflection of who I am. I chose to demonstrate that for other traditions too.”

As the rotations of a Lazy Susan showcase Vietnamese, Mexican, Indian, and American Southern cooking, the importance of food is underlined as an essential part of all cultural identities. It defines our individualism, but in another sense, it’s something we all share.

‘Joy’ © 2022 Nivi Shaham | FUJIFILM X-H2 and XF56mmF1.2 R WR, 1/13 sec at F11, ISO 400

Encapsulating this sense of mutuality, the final part of Nivi’s cycle concludes with perhaps the most integral message of all. The affinity of ‘Indulgence’ is suggested in pension paperwork, strewn across a table in the corner of the frame. Empty boxes of typical party nibbles populate the image, as a neighboring puzzle is steadily completed.

It’s as if this scenario exists as a snapshot of an extended family gathering – generations of relatives assembled for the simple yet powerful act of dining together as one.

“Indulgence features a lot of fast food items. Being able to purchase all this food as a family – what does that mean for the relationships at large? I envisioned them all sat around, devoting time to one another, sharing this meal.

“There’s this misconception we have about low-income people spending money on fast food. We think it’s a waste. This last piece is supposed to confront that perception. I think you have to consider what else these elements provide, beyond just the provisions.

“In this particular instance, it’s about quality time, enjoyment, and the power of food as a whole. Regardless of our circumstances, we should all be able to participate in that.”

‘Indulgence’ © 2022 Nivi Shaham | FUJIFILM X-H2 and XF56mmF1.4 R LM WR, 1/125 sec at F11, ISO 125