Should Restaurants Really Ban Food Photography?

ByKerry Saretsky

I have to start this off with a confession. First, as a food writer, I am one of those people who take pictures of food in restaurants. Second, I absolutely, fundamentally, indefatigably hate doing it.

Why do I hate it? Yes, it’s embarrassing. Yes, it invites the usual judgments about the kind of person I am. But more than anything, I dislike the interruption. When the food arrives, in all its gasp-inducing, drool-seducing glory, I have to stop, point, aim, adjust, and shoot ... with everyone watching. I write about food because I’m hungry and greedy and in love with it, so anything that delays my gratification is unwelcome. But I’m not only putting glass and plastic and pixels between me and my food, but also between me and my fiancé, or best friend, or mom, who is sitting across from me. I don’t think they appreciate the, “Oh, can you hold on and let me shoot that too?” that inevitably delays the collective first bite. And frankly, I don’t love it either.

So why do I do it? I do it because mealtime is about sharing. Once upon a time, the only people you could share with were those seated next to you. Now, thanks to the digital world in which — and we must accept this, however difficult we find it — we live, our table is a lot bigger. Over the years, sharing the food I have made and eaten, I have connected with people around the world. I specialize in French food, and while I may run around my actual, analog dinner table trying to drum up enthusiasm about the duck rillettes we are eating, that enthusiasm never ever comes close to the camaraderie I find at the virtual table of my blog. I accept, and agree, that we must never neglect our real companions for our virtual ones.  And aside for the 10 seconds I spend shooting a dish, I don’t.

I’ve read some of the articles online concerned with why restaurants in my hometown of New York City are banning food photography. I don’t really worry myself about other diners, because digital cameras make next to no noise, and anyone who shoots food often knows not to use a flash (it makes food look greasy). I don’t mess with the presentation on the plate to make the restaurant look bad (why would anyone do that?). And I’ve already dealt with the third main issue — the interruption of the momentum of the meal. There’s no way around that, but I struggle to see how I disturb anyone’s but mine and my dining companions’ at my own table.  It seems to me that the problem is not the photography itself, which can be discrete, but rather a lack of etiquette surrounding an activity that is, simply put, rather new and undefined.

But can a restaurant really crack down on etiquette? What ever happened to "the customer is always right?" I remember sitting in a restaurant uptown in New York as a woman chomped on spinach with her mouth open, some of it falling back down onto her plate. I was unable to eat, but of course, no one would say anything. I would be horrified if they did. A few weeks ago downstairs at a restaurant in London, I watched as two individuals sat on the same side of their table avidly kissing and licking each other’s faces. No one stepped in. And how many times have I been in a restaurant when the table next to us is loud and rowdy, and we roll our eyes at the disturbance? These little acts went undeterred despite the fact that, while they disturbed other customers, they did not provide the free advertising and word of mouth that food photography promises. 

The debate reminds me of going wedding dress shopping just a few months ago.  I was living in London, and my family and friends were back in the States. This dress was a huge decision, a singular expense. I asked the woman at the salon if she would take a single picture of me in each of the final three dresses I liked, to send to my mother (my own mother!) so that she could help me choose. “I’m sorry, madam,” said the woman. “We do not permit photographs of the dresses.”

The gall of the comment made me walk straight out of the store, shaking, leaving the dresses behind. It was so embarrassing, and I was so affronted, and it made to feel so gauche. If I sent the dress to China and had it reproduced; if I sully your restaurant’s good name by distorting the image; if I really do disturb someone — by all means, come after me. Tell me to cease and desist. But please don’t lose site of the wonderful fact that you have made something so breathtaking that someone wants to share it. 

As a 30-year-old, I think people my age have the unique capacity to remember an analog world, while being fully immersed in a digital one. We are a world now that is defined by connection, and by sharing. By the table in front of you, and the virtual table.  Food has always been made to be shared. Let us share it.