Attaching Faces to Numbers

National Geographic just finished an eight-month series, The Future of Food, which offers multiple perspectives on how to feed the projected global population of 9 billion people by 2050. One particularly important aspect of their series is the rehumanization of people who are frequently overlooked. We tend to have a massive disconnect between our food and where it comes from, often forgetting that our food is produced by real people just like us. We also tend to experience a disconnect from people struggling with hunger and/or food insecurity, generally characterizing these people as lazy or ignorant. We so often forget the plasticity of life and that we could easily find ourselves under the same circumstances.

National Geographic photographers set out to bridge both of these gaps, attaching faces and stories to people who are otherwise overlooked as mere statistics. Jim Richardson, the author and photographer behind “Finding the Faces of Farming: A Peruvian Potato Harvest,” explained how his picture editor, Dennis Dimick, set the tone for the project: “Show us the people who feed the planet. Face to face. Let us look into their eyes and see who they are. Meet them, know them as real people, not just visual ciphers for agricultural jargon.” Richardson then traveled the world to capture farmers in the midst of their work, highlighting the understated yet common characteristics that connect us all. The twinkle in one’s eye, the weary-yet-proud smile, the gentle hands: the forgotten features that remind us of our humanity. Richardson’s project pushes us to relate with the people who grow our food and encourages us to see their lives through a more nuanced lens. Via this process, we begin to decrease the gap between production and consumption. We begin to understand where our food comes from and whom is affected during the process.

A three-part series also sought to understand what hunger in America looks like, consequently defying popular preconceived notions of hunger. The series, called “The New Face of Hunger,” examined food insecurity in three different environments: Iowa’s breadbasketBrooklyn neighborhoods, and Texan suburbs, photographed by Amy Toensing, Stephanie Sinclair, and Kitra Cahana, respectively.

Each photographer found that the families they photographed diverted from the common narrative of hunger, showing that food security is a complex issue and is often experienced by people whom, on the surface, one would never expect. For instance, many of the families photographed have cars or smart phones and yet still struggle with consistently putting food on the table. The average person tends to look at such a family and question their priorities, but simultaneously forgets the necessity of a car to get to their job(s) or the possibility that a smart phone is their sole source of internet. We often jump to the conclusion that people are lazy or ignorant rather than considering the systemic realities and restraints that shape people’s actions. In her interview, Cahana remarks that “1 in 6 Americans are food insecure, so I just don’t think you can point a finger at a sixth of the country and say ‘you’re just making bad choices; if you were making better choices, you wouldn’t be in this position.’” Rather, through each photographer’s project we see the need for larger systemic changes and we realize that we are all part of the problem and therefore are all part of the solution.

By connecting faces and stories to people we otherwise forget to consider, we become more aware of the needs of our peers and how their needs are inherently connected with our own. We become more aware of the dynamic nature of life, and the need to find solutions to problems even if those problems are not currently our own. Through this remembering of each other’s humanity, progress is certain and our influence potentially unprecedented.