9 minute read
Polished products sell well. Whimsical food commercials are Nivi Shaham’s bread and butter – driving revenue and engagement in quaint bursts of stop-motion. This time, she’s using her commercial acumen to underline how diet defines our lives
It’s a smoke screen we all buy into. Glance at a burger billboard and the sandwich seems livelier, juicier, more… appetizing. Turn on the TV and ice cream swirls and flows in seemingly milkier clumps. Soda pops and sizzles with a crisper fizz, bubblier and foamier than any can sourced from the store. Coffee looks darker. Cheese melts in gooier strips. Bread fluffs and tears with a suppleness seldom seen.
The art of the food commercial is a carefully planned enterprise. When the eventual objective is profit, exaggerated embodiments of these products are always going to be favored by the suits and execs. After all, they provoke the consumer – prompting our awareness with intensified representations that seize attention, tempt with allure, and ultimately enrich markets.
When all that’s left are crumbs and wrappings, have we been duped? Do we acknowledge the levels of brazen manipulation involved in these advertisements? Plainly speaking, do we even care?
Nivi Shaham defines herself as a ‘food and still life’ photographer. For years, she’s worked with a variety of leading names in determining their marketing output. For her, ads are performative slices of the real world, no different to the art and entertainment we cram and stuff ourselves with. They’re creative endeavors that augment and distort reality, and should always be viewed as such.
“So many brands position themselves in this way. A lot of that is to do with heightened styles,” she explains. “From the customer’s perspective, the ad and the actuality might not necessarily align, but that doesn’t matter. Movies are dramatizations of reality, and we operate in much the same way.
“It’s a theatrical version of what you eventually end up getting. That’s what makes it fun. It isn’t a total antithesis, but you definitely require some suspension of disbelief to buy into what’s being presented.
“When you work with these sorts of clients, you’re focusing on what will be popular. For obvious reasons, something that looks huge and luscious is going to sell better than its flat, disheveled equivalent. It’s my job to ensure the food looks good.”
While studying for her political science degree at University of California Davis, the then-budding lawyer was diagnosed with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). The findings precipitated a complete overhaul of her diet, and though unwelcome, it was this discovery that kick-started a passion for cameras and cuisine.
“I had to learn to prepare my meals in a very different way. Weirdly, that’s when I really fell in love with cooking, and by extension, photographing the process,” she remembers.
Stemming from an engagement with creatives on social media, Nivi tried her hand at user-generated content, fashioning picturesque reflections of her own recipes and dishes. In the beginning, she operated on a solely individual basis, constructing images that would eventually land her gigs with some of the world’s foremost food labels.
“When I started, I was in charge of all of the roles. Props, food, everything. It’s funny, because the pictures on social media tend to look bad, but weirdly, they still perform well. In that space, it’s more about usability. It’s smaller scale, less propping, more depth-of-field. It centers around one recipe, as opposed to an entire menu or telling a story through food. For me, I prefer the process of making items aesthetically pleasing to the eye.”
Realizing that this approach was far more suited to a business perspective, Nivi started recording the menu items of her local restaurants. Her portfolio steadily grew, culminating in a prize-winning contribution to our Students of Storytelling competition – a series that explored the motivations of various chefs across America.
Now, Nivi’s back with an X-H2 project. Drawing on her commercial experience, Misconceptions is a slickly produced sequence of stop-motion vignettes, centered around five separate sketches. Each episode is defined by a particular thematic focus – Scarcity, Nourishment, Efficiency, Indulgence, Joy – picking apart the implications of each idea, and how these effects pertain to mealtime upkeep.
“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. 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.
“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.”
Accustomed to the constructions and assemblies of adverts and billboards, Nivi aimed to utilize the marketing vernacular in a new and refreshing way.
“It’s harder to style for realism than it is for aspirational purposes,” she says. “For me, it’s a balance between making it look visually pleasing, while also allowing for a sense of truth and realism in the image. That’s what I was teetering with – portraying both of those things.
“When it came to stop motion, I saw other artists using the techniques in their work. I was really intrigued by that merge between stills and motion. Telling a bigger story with multiple images – that idea appealed to me. It’s such a cool tool. For this project, it felt pertinent.”
Working with a system of fragmented images was somewhat figurative, illustrating the nature of disorganized food consumption, scheduled mealtimes, and, for some, the sporadic nature of sustenance.
The first segment of Nivi’s project communicates these apprehensions – specifically, the worries a household may face when ‘stocking up’.
“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 cleverly observed addition, Nivi slows the speed of each stop-motion transition as the video concludes. The metaphor is a poignant reminder of how some families must preserve and reduce their spending, to not run out of supplies.
“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.
Offering further evaluation of this theory, ‘Nourishment’ emphasizes the ways in which class differences can inhibit meaningful nutrition from being attained. Framed like a still life painting, a collection of ingredients chop and change across a long wooden table, set up like some kind of lavish royal banquet.
“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. When I got on set, it fell into a space with a lot of drama. The blackened surroundings and the way the light fell around the table – I leant into those elements. I felt like it was really impactful.”
Embellished with crackling candles, the iconography is a dramatic reminder of extravagance and greed, reiterated by the addition of dollars disappearing, 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.
“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.”
For this section, the power of X-H2 was particularly noticeable.
“Pixel shift allowed me to move the sensor, take 20 or so snaps, then merge them all together into one large canvas. To capture Nourishment at its most full, we took a pixel shift image. It aids the artistic intention. It allows your eye to jump around and properly appreciate the detail.
“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 went with FUJINON XF56mmF1.2 R and XF33mmF1.4 R LM WR. Usually, I’ll use a macro to bring out the idiosyncrasies – 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.”
Designed in a similar vein, ‘Efficiency’ imparts the necessity of creating food when time is of the essence. For those juggling heavy assignments and challenging deadlines, ‘quick’ meals are more of a necessity than a choice.
“In those contexts, some end up foregoing nutritious options, simply because they can’t afford to prepare something more considered, over a longer period,” Nivi observes.
Although the majority of these sketches focus on the bleaker, more somber effects of food insecurity, Nivi does integrate two sections that reflect her love and passion. Marked contrasts to the gloomier episodes, ‘Joy’ and ‘Indulgence’ are comparatively lighter and upbeat – hopeful depictions that offset the harshness.
“Joy was about the happiness that comes from sharing one’s culture, what’s meaningful and important,” Nivi describes. “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 value of food is underlined as an indispensable part of all cultural identities. It defines our individualism, but in another sense, it’s something we all share.
Encapsulating this sense of affinity, the final part of this sequence concludes with perhaps the most important message of all. The kinship 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 misunderstanding 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. You have to consider what else these elements provide, beyond just the provisions.”
The comprehensive range of Misconceptions is evidence to the ways we use food to identify our feelings, traditions, and personalities. With or without realizing it, mealtime is more than a formality. As Nivi Shaham so powerfully reveals, it’s a fundamental manifestation of who and what we are.
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