ARTS & CULTURE

Artists Probe The Inside Of A Famous Chef's Stomach, All In The Name Of Art

Mar 18, 2014 | Updated Mar 19, 2014

If you have two eyes and an Instagram feed you've likely noticed that food photography is the photo craze that doesn't seem to be dying down anytime soon. Although we too enjoy indulging in the occasional zoomed-in cinnamon roll or bougie Brooklyn brunch, we've been hoping more photographers would explore a more provocative take on the eternal trend.

Then we heard about "Journey to the Center of the Gut," and our prayers were answered.

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Experimental food artists (and part-time mad scientists) Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, also known as Bompas & Parr, were desperate to open up the conversation surrounding food photography. The pair devised a high-tech plot to capture food at a very different point in its lifespan, after the restaurant Kodak moment... after it's been chewed and swallowed... in its afterlife in the human belly.

With the help of a team of scientists, Bompas and Parr scoped out the insides of glamorous celebrity chef Gizzi Erskine, through the live lens of a SynMed pill-cam. In front of a live audience this past weekend, Erskine swallowed the minuscule camera embedded in a pill capsule, giving onlookers (and a chunk of the internet) an intimate view of her stomach and its many inhabitants, from pizza to gummy bears. The resulting images -- trippy, grotesque, informative and oddly hypnotic all at once -- show just how intriguing, and unappetizing, food photography can be.

We reached out to Bompas to learn more about his incredible journey.

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Gizzi Erskine

How did you first come up with the idea of photographing the inside of a belly? We have a real sense of wonder at the glories of the human body and the dark mysteries that we all conceal. With food [being] the most photographed subject on Instagram, we wanted to take a look beyond regular gastro-photography. Artfully lit shots of unctuous plates have their place, but they only document the start of the human digestive journey.

The original idea for the project was inspired by a strange tome, "Memoirs of a Stomach" published by Sydney Whiting in 1853. The book is written entirely from the point of view of a querulous and at times rebellious stomach. All our projects address this most sensitive organ but the book spurred us to look at food photography from a much more intimate perspective.

As an early experiment I tried to use a GoPro to take a tongue’s eye view of my lunch and choked on the camera. We managed to dislodge it from the back of my throat. Though it would have been a wholly appropriate death for someone who spends their life exploring the outer reaches of culinary experience we realised there had to be a more appropriate approach.

At that point we discovered medical science had far more sophisticated (and suitable) equipment -- the SynMed pill camera that travels along your digestive tract and is used by medics to discover what’s going on inside their patients. It’s like something out of science fiction, the story from "Innerspace" or "Fantastic Voyage" made reality. We were determined to track one down and the experts who would be able to help us use it and understand what was going on inside as we pushed the boundaries of taste.

All we needed at this point was a spirited volunteer to sit in front of an audience of 300, swallow a pill cam and have them all see their insides in real time! This is where Gizzi Erskine boldly stepped in.

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Gizzi Erskine


How did you choose Gizzi as your, erm, muse? Gizzi's awesome. She's one of the few people I could call up and ask to swallow the pill cam in front of a live audience. Gizzi's got the swashbuckling flair to do it with style and panache and make everyone feel involved. Watching back the footage you realize how brave it was. Especially considering she could have discovered she had something wrong with her in front of the entire audience. Luckily, we discovered that Gizzi has a beautiful healthy stomach, that was blushing slightly (stomach's have a large number of blood vessels so they can blush just like your face).

What was the biggest challenge of the project?The greatest challenge was the live nature of the event. We could only afford a single pill cam (and they aren't reusable!) so there could be no rehearsal -- just straight into the main event! The challenge was to get the right balance between making it informative and entertaining.

pill cam

If you could describe the visuals of a stomach's interior in terms of something else -- a view of outer space, an oil painting, a rumpled sheet -- what would you say? Watching the footage again makes me realize how extreme and intimate the project is. Gizzi held the capsule in her mouth, giving glimpses of her teeth, before swallowing it down. The fast trip down the esophagus was thrilling, like blasting through a fleshy hyperspace. The peristaltic music from Dom James and his Alvine Argonauts ramped up the exhilaration, climaxing when the pill popped through the cardioesophageal sphincter and into Gizzi's stomach.

The thing I found extraordinary was how much movement there is within your own body that you are unaware of. On the film you can see the powerful stomach contractions as the organ went to work on the new material that had been introduced. This increased in magnitude once Gizzi swallowed whole gummy bears which we saw bounce around inside her.

It wasn't all spectacle though. We learnt a huge amount on the evening. Your stomach contains brain cells and is now being hailed as the "second brain!" There are over 100 million neurons in your stomach and gut, as many as there are in the head of a cat.

Is this your mission, to combat the usual boring trends of foodie photography? Are you doing anything else to mix up food photos beyond the brunch pic? We're keen on giving people a "naked lunch" and looking again at what's on the end of their fork. Hopefully projects like this will help folks reflect on the huge biological, social, cultural, architectural, physiological and experiential implication of even the most simple dishes.

There are a number of projects in the pipeline that will continue to do this. We are currently working on "Spread," the world’s first scratch ‘n sniff food pornography as well as the reprint of "Memoirs of a Stomach." And there's a lot more to come! Here's what my business partner Harry Parr says about it: "We are not talking about the populist cookbooks that Jamie Oliver bangs out. Some of our publications will probably disgust, others are pretty drool-worthy. We won’t sell many, but our books will be bought by people with well developed tastes."

See Gizzi's glorious insides below and let us know your thoughts on this bold experiment in the comments.

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