Talking to…Photographer Mark Menjivar

Food Artist | New York, NY | 1-Person Household | Runs small vegan bakery from her apartment. | 2009

What we eat reveals a lot about us. So as social experiments go, photographer Mark Menjivar stumbled on a great one by documenting the contents of peoples’ refrigerators with his photo project, “You Are What You Eat.” Over three years, Menjivar, a native of San Antonio, traveled to 20 communities in about 12 states and photographed 45 fridges (and he plans to do about 5-10 more before he wraps it up). You can see more of the photos on his web site.

Here, we talk to Menjivar about his time looking deep into the fridges of America.

You said you traveled the country for three years exploring the issue of hunger. Was that for this project or something else that this grew out of?
I was working as a project manager of sorts for a documentary on hunger by artist Michael Nye. Michael is great and really encouraged me to pursue my own project as we traveled. About half of the places I visited were due to working on that project, the others from my own dealings.

How did you find your subjects?
I have found people all different kinds of ways. At food banks, local pantries, restaurants, walking up to strangers on the street, etc. Some are family members or a friend-of-a-friend type thing, but most were strangers to me when I invited them to be a part of the project. 

I have really approached the project like a portrait project. When I am drawn to someone for some reason I ask them if they would like to be a part of the project. For me, it is not about getting as many people as I can but a diverse group.

How much explaining or convincing did you have to do? I’d imagine some people would just be naturally incredulous or suspicious.
For sure. I usually end up talking to them a bit before I tell them what I am doing. Most people think it is pretty odd, but only three or four people over three years have said no. I totally respect that as I would be pretty hesitant to let someone come home with me to photograph [my fridge]. There is always this awkward hesitation in the conversation at some point. Some people start to make excuses or say this is an off week. I really love these interactions and almost always have a good conversation with each person.  

Did you find people were embarrassed or shy about having you see their refrigerators?
Some. But most are pretty okay with it. The fridges are photographed “as is.” Nothing added, moved or taken away.

On your web site, you say these are refrigerators from “Vegetarians, Republicans, members of the NRA, those left out, the under appreciated, former soldiers in Hitler’s SS, dreamers, and so much more.” Tell us about the former soldier. How did you come upon him?
I met him at a food bank in the desert. He was a volunteer there and a really hard worker.  He is a food hoarder due to his past experiences with not having food as a POW. In his house there were probably 30 boxes of food lined up in the hallway, and the kitchen was packed. Each night he would head to the dumpsters to reclaim food that had been thrown out.  

Carpenter/Photographer | San Antonio, TX | 3-Person Household | 12 Point Buck shot on family property. | 2008

I love the freezer packed with bags of a 12-point buck and a bottle of tequila. Did you find the owners matched their contents?
That family is actually one of the healthiest families that I met. They pretty much only eat meat from sources that they can identify. The meat is from a buck that he killed on his family’s land. He does not use any deer stands, but heads out on foot and sees it as a very respectful act. They also have huge garden beds in the backyard that they share produce from.  

Did you notice any commonalities by region, education level, or any other sort of demographic?
You can always tell who the regional grocer is by looking at the brand of items in the fridge. As soon as I say “Here is a pattern,” one comes along and breaks it. I am always surprised.  

In reading about you on the web, I came across a commenter who said “Seriously, what is so brilliant about a photo of a fridge?” How would you answer that?
I have met many people who really dislike the project and am totally okay with that. I think there is enough room for all of us. I started this project out of a deep curiosity and it has kept my attention for quite a while. I still get excited when I meet someone who wants to be in the project.  

Bar Tender | San Antonio, TX | 1-Person Household | Goes to sleep at 8AM and wakes up at 4PM daily. | 2008

Is that an American flag in the bartender in San Antonio’s fridge?
It is actually an American flag towel. I didn’t ask.

What’s next for you in terms of photography?
In November I am heading to El Salvador to document the lives of people who fled during the civil war in the 1980s. I lived there as a child during some of the most difficult years of the war and have been wanting to go back for a while now to explore what continues after times of great violence. I am really excited to be partnering with Habitat International and some other organizations for this project. This will be the first of several trips over the next year.

Competitive Food Eaters/Yoga Instructor | New York, NY | 3-Person Household | Holds records for eating most burritos, cannolis, buffet food, green beans, sushi, pancakes, ramen noodles, tamales, tiramisu and sweet corn.

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