The photographer who turns military rations into haute cuisine

CNN  — 

Food photography isn’t a medium often associated with social commentary. For most of its practitioners, their modus operandi is capturing pizza cheese that pulls away perfectly, kebab meat that sizzles or frosted glasses of beer that scream “drink me.”

Shining a light on the ills of society isn’t usually part of the job spec. But for photographer Henry Hargreaves, it’s a form that can do just that.

The New Zealand-born, Brooklyn-based former model is determined to use this medium for something more profound – and something more disturbing. His approach had to be different from the start.

“I’m not a good cook,” he explains, “which separates me from most other food photographers, who usually have a culinary background. I wasn’t trying to make food look like you might want to eat it, so I was able to focus on telling the stories.”

Death, war and food

The stories he tells are generally bittersweet glimpses of the modern world told through the unlikely prism of food – as seen in his acclaimed “No Seconds” series, which recreated the last meals of death row prisoners to chilling effect.

henry hargreaves last meal 6

Hargreaves endowed these innocuous portions of fried chicken and mint chocolate chip ice cream with uncomfortable truths about capital punishment and mortality. The series subsequently won him acclaim and attention all over the world.

His new project “MRE to Michelin” again looks at the connection between food and state-sanctioned violence. This time, he’s opened up the little-seen ration packs (generally known as MREs – Meals Ready to Eat) of armed forces across the world, and transformed the ingredients into highly complicated haute cuisine, with the help of chef Chuck George and videographer Jimmy Pham.

The project is full of childlike creativity and subversive humor, taking aim at both the horrors of war and the pretentiousness of modern restaurant fare.

A Lithuanian MRE full of plastic sachets and vacuum-sealed biscuits becomes “Mystery meat on crackers with chopped almonds and a drop of jam, black tea dust.” The American version brings forth “Diced pear, energy bar with dry roasted nuts, peanut butter and chilli lime hot sauce,” and the Chinese offering ends up looking like something from a high-end Cantonese restaurant in Mayfair or Manhattan.

The common denominator

For Hargreaves, “No Seconds” and “MRE to Michelin” are closely related.

“I think there’s a theme that runs through a lot of my work, about how food can be this common denominator between you and someone else,” he explains.

“We understand food, we’ve got emotions tied up in it, so when we get presented with somebody’s culinary requests or what they’re eating, you can empathize with them.”

henry hargreaves usa dessert
Turning military rations into haute cuisine
01:38 - Source: CNN

“We’re brought up to see something like the Russian military as this big, evil beast machine. Then you see how the poor unfortunate troops eat and become it all becomes humanized. You start to see them as people rather than just as an abstract”.

The idea came about from the project’s culinary collaborator, Chuck George.

“Chuck, grew up in a military family … He always had his dad bringing back MREs from the base, and as a kid it was a fun thing to play with, but as you get older it goes from being a kind of novelty to just being pretty awful food,” he says. “We then decided it could be a really cool visual project to work on, highlighting how it’s the worst food in the world served to the bravest of us, and the levels of irony in that.”

Inevitably, Hargreaves is often asked who has the best food, and who has it worst. The answers, however, aren’t necessarily what you’d expect.

“Russia and France are the ones that looked the most like food … To me they were like plane food. It all came in little packages and things that you might recognize if you came from those cultures,” he says.

henry hargreaves usa bag open

“Whereas the American and the Chinese ones looked like the kind of things that were served to secondary people … The Americans had this disgusting taco paste which was meant to be your main course … It looks like baby food.”

It’s almost amusingly predictable that the French wouldn’t scrimp on food – even in wartime – was there a sense that some of the countries involved were somewhat conforming to national stereotypes?

“I think there’s something really interesting, where people come in with their own predetermined hypothesizes about what military food in these countries might be like,” Hargreaves replies.

“I always think it’s fun when those hypotheses are confirmed, but also challenged.”

Gingerbread architecture

Death row and MREs aside, Hargreaves’ work isn’t all blood and guts.

There is clearly a (rather dark) sense of humor running through “No Seconds” and “MRE to Michelin,” which he’s balanced with more light-hearted projects like his “Gingerbread Art Galleries” series. Here, modernist art galleries like the Pompidou and Zaha Hadi’s MAXXI Museum are recreated using gingerbread.

“That came about when an American candy store chain said they wanted to promote a show of mine at Art Basel. So I thought ‘candy, art, Christmas, America’ and mashed it all together, ending up with the world’s most elaborate art galleries in gingerbread,” Hargreaves says.

“A lot of the architecture is straight lines so it’s much easier to make out of gingerbread, than say, something Gothic. So there was a practical reason for it too.”

With another project about the restaurant staff meals of around the world, Hargreaves is clearly still fascinated by food and what it says about us, as are his audience.

I ask him where he thinks the enduring interest in his work comes from. His reply is simple: “Food and death: two things that happen to us all.”