Erik Marcinkowski’s Self Portraits Explore a Difficult Relationship with Food

All images by Erik Marcinkowski. Used with permission.

Photographer Erik Marcinkowski is a commercial shooter with vibrantly bright, colorful work. He has recently turned the camera on himself to examine his relationship with food, the path to self-love, and embracing male vulnerability. His project, aptly titled DiscomfortFood, is exceptionally crafted technically while providing the opportunity for many important and necessary discussions about our society.

Phoblographer: What initially inspired this project?

EM: I have always liked shooting self-portraits, and many of them have been whimsical and silly. There was a photograph that I shot in 2015 called “I am the Nightmare that Children Think Of,” which is my face in a bowl of fruity cereal. It ended up being the prototype for what became DiscomfortFood.

Onset at the first shoot, which was “Sugar” and “Two Beef Patties” on the same day, I knew I wanted to convey weight, and pressure, and my own difficult relationship with food. At this point, in mid-2016, I was eating very poorly and looked at the food I was abusing; it was a lot of fast food cheeseburgers and full-sugar soda. This is how I got to my heaviest weight at 486.6lbs (220.7kg).

Back then I thought it would just be some one-off self-portraits like others I had done. It was later when the idea to do more kept churning in my head and I knew I had to continue it as a series.

“In my normal life, I try to completely reject the feeling of anger or any sort of “machismo” kind of stuff. I also don’t feel the need to aggressively perform my “heterosexual manliness” or try to hide the fact that I have emotions.”

Phoblographer: Have you always related to your body and food like this? If not, what prompted it?

EM: I have always been overweight and have always had a difficult relationship with food. One thought pattern that comes up a lot is “well, I’ve already eaten terrible food all week, what is one more pizza.” Another is “I ate well all day” or “I went to the gym, so now it’s time to reward myself.” These are complicated self-justification patterns I use to convince myself it’s okay or that what I am eating really isn’t nearly as much food as it truly is.

The new aspect of this all, however, is turning all of these thoughts and patterns external, into art that others can view, and that I myself can kind of view. Normally, I am a very private person but this series has helped me to open up to others, to myself, and try and examine and change that relationship to something less negative or shameful. After we shot the first photos, I stopped eating fast-food burgers for many months. Even now, it’s something I am able to avoid (mostly).

Phoblographer: The juxtaposition of bright, vibrant colors with somber or disheartened expressions is a powerfully jarring experience. Can you walk me through the decision making process regarding the aesthetics for such a heavy project?

EM: For the series I want a lot of the look of the images to be similar to commercial lighting and imagery, the kind you see in advertising. The burgers in “Two Beef Patties” are real cheeseburgers, but I wanted them to be bright and warm, and shot similar to how they would be in an ad campaign, but waaaayyyy too real. I wanted them to look like how they really are when you get them and unwrap them: greasy and gross. If you see an up-close version of the image, that’s what they are. That kind of dual imagery is something I like as well, as if the lighting, the colour choices, the photo itself is lying to you: it seems bright and cheery but it is not.

“The new aspect of this all, however, is turning all of these thoughts and patterns external, into art that others can view, and that I myself can kind of view. Normally, I am a very private person but this series has helped me to open up to others, to myself, and try and examine and change that relationship to something less negative or shameful.”

There is something that FEELS correct when I have ideas. Each and every food I am going to feature in the series are foods that I personally abuse: burgers, doughnuts, sugar, soda. A friend of mine suggested fried chicken, which could be great in a photo, but fried chicken is not something I eat very often, and so it’s not something I am going to use for the series.

I often brainstorm and iterate with sketches until I can boil down an idea to a unique concept that also conveys what I want. The final idea then goes in my sketchbook. When it goes in the sketchbook I fill in the technical details such as lighting, camera placement, set design, and crew list. Usually, by that point, I have made all of the creative decisions about the final image and the actual shoot is just “assembling the final image”. A by-product of this process means those original drawings usually are highly accurate when compared to the final art.

Of course, there are compromises: there are technical limitations of my equipment, studio space, and what sets and props I am able to build. As I get further into producing the series each new image becomes even cooler than the previous. I’ve got all sorts of zany ideas for some cool setups.

“I often brainstorm and iterate with sketches until I can boil down an idea to a unique concept that also conveys what I want. The final idea then goes in my sketchbook. When it goes in the sketchbook I fill in the technical details such as lighting, camera placement, set design, and crew list.”

Besides artistic expression, my ability to plan what I am going to shoot, down to the smallest details, has improved dramatically. It is super-rewarding to show up on set for a complex #DiscomfortFood or #BreakfastParts (a companion photo series) day of shooting and having the confidence to produce my vision and to trust my artistic skills to come through in the end. Taking a photo idea from concept through production and finishing with the editing is difficult and it is wholly satisfying to see the original sketches beside the final artwork.

I edit with Capture One for colour correction and image selection and Photoshop for retouching and compositing and final export.

Phoblographer: How have unrealistic body standards for men influenced your life and experiences growing up? Do you think social media and Instagram culture add to the toxicity around it?

EM: I’m not an expert or a psychologist, though, so I don’t know how much I can or should comment on this. There are some specific things that I think have an effect on me and it’s not so much body standards for me as much as fashion. I carry around this idealized version of myself in my head, and when I look in the mirror I’m kind of reminded of what I look like and that’s not a great feeling. I wish I had more hair on top of my head, I wish I could fit into more fashionable clothes, I wish I had a wider range of colors available in pants. I have paranoia around taking up too much physical space, or being imposing or intimidating because of my size and height.

I think I’ve tried to become someone who I want to be in an emotional and intellectual way to make up for my poor body-image. I try to be thoughtful and non-judgemental, be loyal to my friends and family and to be a kind person. I feel like this is kind of a response to my general dissatisfaction with my physical body.

I got onto Instagram when I was already grown up. Even for me now, as an adult in my 30s, it’s so easy to be overwhelmed by so many images of beautiful people and then be disappointed when you look at yourself. This is even when you know the psychological tricks, you know the process of what is happening. I can’t imagine having to go through this as a teenager or a twentysomething, when you are still forming your identity and self-image.

“I wish I had more hair on top of my head, I wish I could fit into more fashionable clothes, I wish I had a wider range of colors available in pants. I have paranoia around taking up too much physical space, or being imposing or intimidating because of my size and height.”

Phoblographer: What message do you ultimately hope to convey with this work? What do you most want people to walk away with?

EM: I would like to think that this series, in the end, will be about me learning to love myself. So I hope people are able to get a sense of seeing me come to terms with my poor self-image and maybe see themselves in that. This is actually an end goal that I’ve only recently come up with.

This project has been gestating for at least 4 or 5 years, but only in the last few months have I figured out how I want the later images in the series to feel. As well, a few weeks ago I came up with the core concept for the ending of the series. I’m keeping it under wraps for now!

The full series is intended to be around 28 photos in the end, of which I have finished four. I am also working on some poetry to be featured alongside the images in a book I would like to put together at some point in the future. My poetry skills could use some work, but I am enjoying what I have written so far.

Phoblographer: You show a lot of vulnerability, sadness, depression, fragility – emotional traits frequently seen as negative due to their feminine connotations. You instead commendably chose to embrace and share them. What informed the decision to reject the ‘machismo’ b.s. associated with not revealing emotions?

EM: Thank you!

For this series, I’ve sort of chosen to specifically NOT talk about gender issues or toxic masculinity. My hope is that by excluding those issues from the series and focusing so entirely on my personal journey with food it will end up that anyone can identify with me in the images. You are correct though, I do hope the series shows a casual embrace of being a fully fledged, emotionally literate person. Men are entitled to vulnerability, sadness, fragility, and more importantly, entitled to not be ridiculed for displaying those emotions and to get help with them. Perhaps some people will see me displaying these kinds of emotions and feel more at ease expressing themselves.

In my normal life, I try to completely reject the feeling of anger or any sort of “machismo” kind of stuff. I also don’t feel the need to aggressively perform my “heterosexual manliness” or try to hide the fact that I have emotions. When I was younger I had a harder time communicating about my emotions but that’s not something that I have a problem with in most contexts these days.

Phoblographer: How do you think the lack of freedom for men to fully express their emotions contributes to toxic masculinity? While your work does not comment on that directly, I see a direct correlation between pent up emotions and poor/unhealthy expression of said feelings. How do you see this idea relating to your work?

EM: I think that toxic masculinity is a really big topic that is beyond the scope of my project and I don’t want to comment too much on it specifically. I will mention that being able to express my emotions is important to me, especially in artistic ways, sketching, photography, poetry. The most pent-up emotion that I have carried around with me, which feeds back into the look and design of the photos, is a feeling of shame. Around myself and when I eat food, and my body. Opening up about that has been great, and I am happier with who I am now, but I still haven’t gone back and dealt with past negative thoughts from when I was younger. I hope to get some professional help to deal with that.

Phoblographer: What feeling does reflecting on this project now leave you with?

EM: It feels strange to think back to a time before I started shooting this series. The first two images, “Two Beef Patties” and “Sugar” photos were shot on the same day, and it was only about 3 years ago now. However, they’re now also so much a part of who I am, my identity, that looking back to some other self-portraits I did before is a bit hollow. The DiscomfortFood images are very clear reflections of me. I even use them as my dating profile images sometimes. I also want… I don’t know where to talk about this, but I want to convey just how fulfilling these images are to me. On the one hand, they are portraying physical weight, sadness, heaviness, depression, self-image issues while on the other hand shooting these images has been so personally rewarding.

When I’m on set, I am not sad. On set I am performing or channeling a version of myself from when I was in much worse shape and my eating habits were intensely bad.

“I will mention that being able to express my emotions is important to me, especially in artistic ways, sketching, photography, poetry. The most pent-up emotion that I have carried around with me, which feeds back into the look and design of the photos, is a feeling of shame.”

During a production day, a couple of things happen: firstly, I am worried about the technical aspects; lighting, focus, where the power plugs in. Another thing is a lot of self-doubt that I have on set; sometimes the ideas are really strange, but after several of these shoots I have proven it to myself that I am capable and I can trust my artistic instincts.

This series is also me aggressively challenging myself to learn new photography, retouching, compositing skills, as well as leadership and communication. It’s forced me to open up to others and I’ve gotten a lot of practice at explaining my ideas. There is a large project management aspect as well that goes along with this series. One of the most rewarding aspects is working with great teammates, especially my brother Ian who has so far helped out on the two biggest shoots from the series.

Phoblographer: With a project like this, it’s a lot easier to be behind the camera instead of in front of it. What made you decide to take on the bold position of self-portraiture?

EM: This project is so deeply personal to me, I could not imagine using others. Especially since all of the food featured is stuff I personally have a problem with. In a way this series is also about learning to say goodbye to the unhealthy food I’ve eaten over the course of my life.

I didn’t want to put anyone in the position of trying to convey my emotions. I have said for a long time that if I am going to ask a model to do something, it should be something I’m willing to do myself. I know that I can express the exact thing I am trying to convey with my face and body.

Phoblographer: We live in a society filled with blame when people are overweight or obese, and as a culture we frequently engage in fat-shaming and body shaming. Is this something that you’ve also been subjected to, and have those experiences informed this project?

EM: I have, in my life, been subject to fat-shaming, but not nearly as much as some people. For me, most of it is internalized and comes from myself. I am not exactly sure where it has come from.

For a long time I didn’t think I was worth taking care of. I wouldn’t sleep, I’d sit around not exercising, I wouldn’t go out of the house. I have hated myself and what I did was I performed that hate by eating terrible unhealthy food. To make my self-worth manifest externally in my body.

Phoblographer: What was the experience of making this project like for you? Was it therapeutic, motivating, exploratory? I’m sure it was a myriad of emotional processing: I’m curious as to how you would sum up that experience.

EM: An interesting thing is that this series is still so new, at least in terms of images that I’ve produced!

I have ideas for about 20-30 images, but they’re so complex and require a lot of effort, so I’m getting to one about every 16-18 months or so. In my actual health journey I am a lot farther along than the images that I’ve produced thus far would suggest. If it were a book, I would only have done the first few chapters so far.

Personally, right now, I am further along my journey of self-love than the photos would suggest, and I am so happy that I get the privilege of sharing these photos with everyone.