INTERVIEW: George Steinmetz, 2017 Food Sustainability Media Award Winner

by Helen Reeve
Thursday, 22 February 2018 08:18 GMT

Photographer George Steinmetz photographes women of the Yi ethnic minority planting rice in Yuanyang, China. Photo taken by Qiao Li.

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We sat down with the winner of the Food Sustainability Media Award's published photography category to hear more about his passion for covering food sustainability and what the Award has meant to his work.The Food Sustainability Media Award aims to recognise the work of professional journalists and emerging talent from all over the world for excellence in reporting and communicating issues related to food security, sustainability, agriculture and nutrition.

Where did your interest in food sustainability come from?

I first became interested in large scale food production a few years ago when I was asked to do a story for National Geographic about the challenge of meeting the future food needs of humanity. I specialise in aerial photography and wanted things of great scale that would show the magnitude of the task, and went to Kansas to photograph the wheat harvest. My first week in the field, I got thrown in jail by the County Sheriff.  The charge was criminal trespassing, as I had been flying over a feedlot without asking the owner’s permission, which was a perfectly legal thing to do. I just thought it was very odd - this is our food supply and it bothered me that they were trying to prevent people from documenting what they were doing. So it made me double down on my interest in food. I also find big food fascinating as a visual artist.  Humankind started agriculture about 11,000 years ago and it's become the biggest imprint we have on our planet. I realised that it's an ecological issue too as the demand for food has caused us to take out more and more natural landscapes.

What role do you think journalists can play in addressing these challenges within our food systems?

The key thing is to have transparency and show people the realities of food production. I spent a lot of time in Brazil looking at the food supply and how much of the Amazon is being gobbled up for soybean and corn production. I don't think people are aware of that. Most of that production is now going to China and might be used to feed shrimp that ends up in the United States or Europe. People aren't aware that wild fish caught in the United States are sent to China to be filleted and then shipped back to the US. It's a very interconnected system and I don't think there's as much transparency as there could or should be. Revealing that is the role of journalists. I'm not trying to change people's minds with a particular point of view. I think everybody needs to make their own decisions about what they feel comfortable with, but there needs to be more transparency so that we can make informed decisions.

What do you see as the main obstacles that you or others reporting on issues within food sustainability might face?

There's a reluctance from companies to let you in. They see transparency as a potential problem. I've run into some food companies that realise it’s their obligation, but those are quite progressive organisations and it’s not the norm. There was one company that I photographed in Illinois – a very large dairy operation – where they actually have school tours. You can go inside and hear an explanation about what they do and go on a bus tour of their CAFO (Confined Animal Feeding Operation) with pigs and cows. I think that's really healthy for people to be able to see.

Could you tell us a bit about your experience since winning the Award?

As a journalist, one of the biggest challenges I face is finding support for this kind of work. I’ve worked for National Geographic, The New York Times and similar organisations for over thirty five years, and it's getting more and more difficult to fund the creation of original journalistic work. I'm spending increasing amounts of my time trying to get things approved and find ways to get money for basic field costs.

Over the course of your career, have you seen coverage of food and food sustainability grow?

I've been a generalist for most of my career so covering food is a bit new to me, but it has made me aware that there's a lot more interest in the general media for recipes and beautiful food pictures than there is about where it comes from. I think there's a reluctance to be more reality based. Maybe the general public is just more interested in looking at food porn than they are in looking at agricultural reality, but I’m sensing that things are starting to change.

So now to your winning submission. What gave you the idea to look at food production from the wide angle view that you did?

It was actually National Geographic’s idea! I've done a lot of work for them. I spent the last fifteen years photographing all of the world’s extreme deserts and I used a motorised paraglider for that, which is a weird sort of aircraft.  It has a parachute style wing and a backpack motor and I run to take off and land. I used it for some of my winning entry too. It lets me fly low and slow in remote spots. I'm now using drones more than paragliders but that kind of low altitude and big and wide view is how I have been seeing for a long time.

What's your favourite picture in the series?

I photographed the biggest calf farm in America, with all the young cows in their little hutches up in Wisconsin – that was really impressive. Almost like you're looking at a computer chip of cows, and that was something that stuck with me. I'm also fond of a picture I took of the cranberry harvest where it looks like a pair of red Ray-Ban sunglasses, and the one I took in the Pacific on the biggest fishing boat in the US fleet. When you see food at this scale it's really quite astounding. You see the efficiencies of it and that's one of the hallmarks of our time. A thousand years ago, almost everybody was spending their life just trying to scratch together enough food to eat and now only a very small percentage of people in the industrialised world are actually involved in gathering food. Everybody else is doing other things because we've become so efficient. When you see these large operations you’re really seeing the cutting edge of that.

What's next for your food sustainability coverage?

I want to explore the global food supply a bit more. I've looked at some of the most interesting issues but there are other countries, other kinds of food systems that I want to see, particularly in India and Africa. I’m also starting a new project about our global seafood supply and its relationship to aquaculture. There’s still a lot of important work to do, if I can find funding for it.

View George’s winning entry hereApplications for the 2018 Food Sustainability Media Award are open until 31st May. Visit the Award website to find out more.