There’s a small honors class I’ve taught for several years at Michigan State University about industrial food. It’s an interdisciplinary class, and over the semester the students and I explore industrial food from all kinds of angles, using approaches from history, sociology, economics, philosophy, nutrition science, anthropology, and more. The class is designed to get students talking to each other, to get them used to presenting their work in public spaces, and in general to get them out of their comfort zones in the service of making them think.

The assignment that makes them most uncomfortable at first but which, I’ve found, yields high returns in terms of thoughtfulness and reflection, is one I call “Refrigerator Photography.” This is what I tell students: “For this assignment, you will find someone willing to let you photograph their refrigerator – ideally with little or no advance warning. You don’t want them to clean or prune it before you get there. The person you find should know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, and you can assure them that they will remain anonymous. The person should not be someone you already know, and the person should not be a Michigan State student. You can work alone, with a partner, or in a team of up to three people (no more). After you take the picture, think about what the contents of someone’s refrigerator can potentially reveal. For example, you might be able to glean information about tastes and preferences, shopping habits, income levels, alcohol consumption, dietary concerns, etc. You might also think about what we can’t necessarily assume based on one photograph of one moment in time.”

unnamedThis assignment was inspired by the work of an artist named Mark Menjivar, who traveled for three years photographing the unedited contents of people’s refrigerators. Menjivar approached people all over the country, and he considers his refrigerator photography a kind of portraiture, one that can be uncomfortably intimate. One person told Menjivar that “the question, ‘May I photograph the interior of your fridge?’” felt like being asked “to pose nude for the camera.” When my students first hear about the assignment, they are sometimes skeptical. Are you really asking me to do this? And can a picture of someone’s refrigerator really be a kind of portrait?

But the skepticism usually fades after the students take their photographs and start thinking about them. I ask them to write a few paragraphs on the experience and to post their writing and images to their class blogs. Then, in the following class, we look at the images and discuss everything together. The students introduce their photographs by briefly describing the process of obtaining the picture – sometimes approaching a friend of a friend, sometimes by soliciting a picture through social media, occasionally by knocking on a stranger’s door. And they describe their preliminary thoughts on what a refrigerator’s contents might or might not reveal about its owner.

As we look at the photographs as a group, it can be strange and sometimes moving to see picture after picture of the refrigerators of anonymous people. Some of them are crammed with Styrofoam take-out containers. Some are filled with greens and beer. Many contain nothing but highly processed foods. In some nearly empty fridges, the ketchup bottle is the loneliest thing you’ve ever seen. By class time, students have often fully come around to the idea that refrigerator photographs can be highly revealing portraits, but during discussion many also start to question how much a snapshot of a single moment might mislead or conceal. Students tend to make a lot of assumptions in the short essays they turn in before class, but as they discuss picture after picture in class they often second-guess themselves. Does a sparse fridge necessarily mean poverty? Does a stuffed fridge mean its owners always have enough to eat? Does a bottle of vodka imply a drinking problem? Does a messy fridge mean its owners live in filth? Does the absence of vegetables mean the refrigerator owners care nothing about nutrition? Students sometimes ask bigger questions, too, about the nature of sources, the novelty of our dependence on this particular kitchen technology, and in the best discussions, about what these pictures say – and what they can’t say – about modern American eating at large.