Is it rude to photograph food in (Taiwanese) restaurants?

Recently, I was somewhat taken aback to read an article in The Weekend Australian that suggested it was the height of rudeness to take photographs in restaurants.  The article then went on to slam people who (like me) photograph food and then later blog about it, saying that:

“… it’s the photography of dishes destined for blogs that have become a hot issue among chefs, who not only resent their food being shot without request by amateurs in often poor lighting conditions but also the too-common outcome – when those images end up accompanying ill-informed restaurant reviews. The art of food photography is a difficult enough discipline for accomplished professionals, let alone the critiquing of the cooking itself.”

Ouch!  I must admit that as a food blogger this article touched a bit of a raw nerve with me.  Am I breaking a rule of modern restaurant etiquette, or even worse, being amateurish and causing offense?  Are my photos, many of which are unavoidably shot in the restaurants that use mood lighting, so bad that chefs would cringe at allowing bloggers to make them public?

Let me state at the outset that my purpose as a food blogger is to share special meals and preserve and treasure the memory.  Some restaurants clearly have a passion for what they do, and I think that vision should be applauded and shared.  I also feel that it is import to record the stories behind food, especially Taiwanese cuisine where there is a close link between food and culture.  I have never posted a ‘flaming’ review on my blog, although I was very tempted after suffering abysmally poor service at a Taipei restaurant owned by a multi-Michelen starred chef.  I figure it is best to respond to this by NOT writing about it rather than giving it profile.  (That said, I do plan to visit again to ensure it was not just a one-off event.)

I frequently photograph food at restaurants (at times I get excited and photograph way too much) and I have never encountered any complaints from Taiwan restauranteurs.   On the contrary, wait staff at most restaurants are happy to assist: at banquets, they often bring over dishes for me to photograph before dishing it out in individual portions.  And my fellow diners are usually understanding, and many themselves have food blogs or post food photos on Facebook.  Taiwanese are food obsessed:  if they are not eating food, they are talking about it, reading about it, or photographing it — or maybe even dreaming about it.

At this point I should thank Scathing Weekly for recently writing a review in my defence.  Scathing Weekly suggests that in some cultures such as Japan and Taiwan, it is considered not only normal to photograph food, but is also a compliment to the chef.  She also argues that chefs need not be shared of restaurant reviews; if the food is fantastic, any informed review will reflect this.  Moreover, in today’s society ‘customer reviews’ are increasingly gaining traction: people relate to them as there is generally no bias or ulterior motive behind the review.

I don’t consider it rude to photograph food in Taiwanese restaurants.  But for some reason I often hesitate to take photos at formal occasions, especially if there will be other Westerners there.  And I often prefer to use my HTC smartphone to take photos rather than a camera, as it feels somehow more discreet and less planned to do so.  I am, however, learning to be brave about bringing the camera out.  And so far, no-one has darted disapproving stares in my direction.

I occasionally ask for permission before taking photos, but no restaurant has ever refused.  Often, I contact the restaurant after I have conducted my review.  They generally appreciate the feedback, and sometimes put a link on their websites (or Facebook) back to my blog.  Who doesn’t like free advertising?  And while my reviews are usually flattering, I do try to be honest as well.  Nothing (or no-one) is perfect, and I reflect this in my reviews.  Recently, I contacted Taipei French-influenced restaurant L’Idiot to advise them I had reviewed my restaurant.  My colleague had not enjoyed one aspect of his meal, and I had mentioned this is my review.  This was their response:

 “Thank you very much for being our guests and writing us a wonderful article. It is very encouraging for L’IDIOT team to receive guest comments like yours, as we are trying our best to provide a different western cuisine dining experience to local customers. The menus are changed from time to time, just to make sure all the ingredients are fresh and in season.

Your detailed and honest comments are inspiring, and we will take them seriously to improve ourselves. Thank you again, and we look forward to seeing you at L’IDIOT soon!”

This is definitely a restaurant that I will go back to.  And I hope other people will, too.

So what do you think?  Am I being rude, or am I on safe ground to take photographs?  Are you a budding photographer who likes to take pics in restaurants?  Or does it really annoy you when people whip out their camera and pretend they are paparazzi?  Please vote to let everyone know what you think:

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About taiwanxifu

‘Taiwanxifu’ (pronounced ‘shee foo’) means ‘Taiwan daughter-in-law’ in Chinese and has been my nickname ever since I married my Taiwanese husband, Sam. I love sampling Taiwanese food, even local specialties such as stinky tofu, pigs blood cake and Taipei beef noodle soup with offal. But there are many other options on the menu. Promise!
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15 Responses to Is it rude to photograph food in (Taiwanese) restaurants?

  1. THE Steve says:

    Rude or not? Hmmm. Firstly I think that any restaurant that is afraid of reviews by “guests” is doomed to failure, for poor food or, if the food is good, then their arrogance or pride will take them down.
    It is great to always review what we ourselves do, to make sure that we are not doing anything to harm others or just being really annoying…but for me taking photos in a restaurant – if done discretely – is not annoying at all. To me it is about the situation and the manner in which you take them. Formal events, agree with you, should be treated with more respect and a flash going off behind me when I am eating would be very irritating. Just be sensitive and I don’t think it is a big problem. Someone talking loudly or, almost impossible to see these days, smoking would be far more annoying…take heart and continue with your very interesting blog. And after all -regards the restaurants- isn’t customer review what keeps them open?

  2. umm.. that depends.. there are idiots who call themselves ‘food bloggers’ who love clicking photos when others – complete strangers, that too – are eating. i hate it when someone else clicks photos of me or anyone else while eating. but if you are clicking photos of just the food… then thats fine :)

    • Taiwanxifu says:

      How awful! I find it hard to imagine people taking photos of people, and then posted it online, without asking for permission first. A few weeks ago, I went out to lunch with a former talk-show host turned polician. I still took photos of the food — and the restaurant interior — but did explain what I was doing first, and was careful not to photograph her. I am sure she would not have minded, but that’s not the point: I don’t think you should photograph people without asking first.

  3. Scather says:

    Thanks for mentioning my post (http://scathingweekly.blogspot.com/2011/05/how-to-guide-to-or-morelike-debate-on.html), Taiwanxifu. It’s been interesting to read your well-written blog on the subject, and the comments from your readers. I agree with Rashmi – I hate it when people take photos of others (including other people’s children) without permission, especially when they upload them to the internet! Inanimate objects like food, on the other hand, I am fine with ^_^

  4. Taiwanxifu says:

    Scather, thanks for ‘scathing’ on my behalf on this issue. Apart from photography, I think you raised some interesting issues regarding the (perceived) impartiality of blogging reviews versus paid/journalistic reviews. This theme was explored recently during Anthony Bourdain’s appearances during Sydney Writer’s Festival events: Bourdain argued that food critics are corrupt. (http://www.notquitenigella.com/2011/05/23/anthony-bourdain-interview-2/).

  5. Jan says:

    I like to photograph food I am eating whether it is at home or out of home. I never take photos of people eating it, just my own meal.
    Personally I think some people get a bit too precious about things.
    Continue to enjoy blogging about the food, many people enjoy reading your posts.

  6. Ivy Chen says:

    Reading this issue wakes me up from a midnight browsing, Serina. It seems that photograph on food is often found for Asian. That’s true from my experience about teaching different nations of people. Now, I am in Paris, I never find ANYONE taking photos on food in restaurants or food places. I feel guilty while I take photos even my French resident Taiwanese friend does the same. When I visit the French markets or food shops, I take photos by researching reason and I do ask for permission, they granted and thought I am a Japanese.
    I do agree with you that putting photos on blog makes advertisement for the restaurants. However, I understand that a bad shooting (bad camera, lighting, technique and setting) will ruin the dishes and the fame of the chef or restaurants.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Hi Ivy, thanks for your comments. Sounds like you are havng a wonderful time in France. I look forward to seeing all your photos when you are back.

  7. Phong says:

    I think the vast majority (as seen by your little poll) shows that most people think it’s Ok. I recently did a big trip around Europe and took all sorts of food photographs from Poffertjes in a Dutch cafes to Bratwurst sausages in homely German restaurants and there were no disapproving looks from the waiters or shop owners… mind you, like what Ivy wrote, I think apart from us tourist, I didn’t see as many people taking food photographs as you would normally see in Asia.

    • taiwanxifu says:

      Hi Phong,
      Thanks for your reply. So you like to take photos of food, too? I often drive Sam nuts with taking photos of food. But it is a lot of fun, and I am glad there are now other people doing so in Europe (even if only tourists).

  8. Pingback: Taiwanxifu returns | Taiwanxifu 台灣媳婦

  9. Ann says:

    I was about to reply “It’s okay to take photos of food in restaurants” but after reading the comments, I think I’ll try to be more careful next time. :) I mostly snap food pics just for my own viewing. However, sometimes, I get taken by cute kids who do cute things or just generally pose for your camera. Since I’m a foreigner in Taiwan, I don’t know and am shy to look for the parents to ask permission first. My mistake! Thanks for your informative blog. I know better next time!

    • taiwanxifu says:

      I’m sure most parents would not mind you photographing their kids, but if you can find them I am sure they would appreciate being asked. I recently left my camera at home when we went to a swanky ball — husband didn’t think it was appropraite. When we got there, EVERYONE was taking photos and I regretted only having my smartphone with me.

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