The Book of Hunger

J Swofford 5/2005



Editor's note: This is the full version of J swofford's undergraduate thesis paper. It describes some of the ideas behind the first eleven images made for the title series. As in all things in life, it should be taken with a grain of salt.



             Desire has teeth and hunger drives people crazy.  We are forced to dance to the whip of our internal emptiness, be it spiritual, physical, mental or sexual, and sometimes it makes us do strange and irrational things.  Hunger, at its extremes, makes addicts into whores, lost travelers into cannibals, and the abused and neglected into psychotics.  Hunger is one of the most primal motivations, never quite extinguishable, existing since the first bonding of amino acids.  Human consciousness has developed around hunger and, like all organisms, feels it deeply and instinctually.


I am moved, almost at every moment, by my desires for food, sex, drugs, and alcohol. It’s the same compulsion that makes adolescents cut themselves, or makes people eat without control or thought.  With this series I wanted to explore the symbology of hunger in dreamlike photographic imagery. I was also challenging myself to work in a more expressive and deliberate way by not looking for photographic subjects out in the world, but by setting each shot up guided by my imagination.  This way of working was new for me.


Since I was working in a new way, it took a little time to find my voice.  At first my set-ups were amateurish, sketchy, and static.  As I reflected, it became important for me to establish a reference to dreams.  I found a way to do this quite by accident.  During a visit to my brother’s home I was thinking about the compulsion to consume as he was preparing to eat fried chicken.  It occurred to me to place a magnifying glass near his mouth while he ate to produce a chicken filled maw.  The results were less than satisfactory.  I kept playing with the glass and found that when it was placed just in front of the camera lens it produced a nicely distorted image with a small area of sharp focus near its center.  The effect is called radial distortion, and is common with poor quality plastic lenses.  I was immediately excited and knew this was the connection to dream imagery I was looking for.   I used the magnifying glass for all subsequent shots.


I shot all the photographs with a large format camera, in order to make the area of sharp focus as clear and crisp as possible.  I used large format as a way of slowing down my working habits and proceeding more deliberately.  Large format also recalls the “original camera”, a design that dates back to ancient Greek experiments with apertures and camera obscuras.  I chose to shoot black and white film to accentuate the surreality of my tableaux, and to connect with the continuing history of photography as a medium.  A final technical note was my choice of lighting.  For most images I used a single point flash attached to my shutter by a sync cord.  Lighting of this kind produces hot highlight against inky, garish shadows.  This heightens the drama as the tension between these two extremes is stretched taut, similar to 1950’sfilm noir.  Any movements of the subject are frozen—although this is not necessarily evident, except for the image of the milk spilled on the subject’s toes. I reasoned that this type of lighting would function in much the same way as the magnifying glass focus in that it skews any implied narrative by highlighting some objects and obscuring others with the same myopic, narrow point of view of dreams.

              Directly referencing dream imagery was important for a few reasons.  The first and most important was my desire for these images to be read as elaborate symbols.  Dreams seemed a reasonable way to do this.  Psychoanalysts have been concerned with dreams as deeper symbols from the beginning of the twentieth century. Two quotes from Carl Jung’s book Man and His Symbols were significant to my thinking on this project.  The first …“Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human comprehension, we constantly use symbolic language to represent concepts we cannot define or fully comprehend… Man also produces symbols unconsciously and spontaneously in the form of dreams.”  The extremes of desire cannot be fully comprehended by the human mind.  It followed, then, that everyone, including myself, has some kind of internalized symbolism tied to hunger that can be explored in the form of dreams.  I needed more than lighting, however, to the produce dream imagery.  I needed some storytelling elements.


            “Very often dreams have a definite, evidently purposeful structure, indicating an underlying idea or intention—though, as a rule, the latter is not immediately comprehensible” .I interpreted this second idea of Jung’s to mean that to reference a dream I also needed to entice the viewer to construct a story.  This is a tricky edge to ride, as I needed to include just enough elements to suggest a story, but not so much information as to make my version of that story obvious or didactic.  I decided that one of the essential elements of an implied narrative is unanswered questions, or, more accurately, unanswerable questions.  I restricted all the images to the simple elements of subject, object, and action, allowing  all other elements of the scene to melt away into distortion and shadow.  In this way I can push the narrative in the general direction of tone and mood, and the viewer fills in the gaps with his or her own imagination.  I liked this idea a lot and it forms the foundation of this series.

              Mood was important for me as well.  I wasn’t much interested in the positive attributes of desire.  As I said at the beginning of this essay—desire has teeth.  These dreams are dark warnings bordering on nightmares.  Desire at this level is destructive and cold, and I wanted to avoid references to fulfillment, comfort, or mutual love.  Therefore I chose symbols of consuming, being consumed, violence, seduction, vulnerability, and desperation.  In this vein, one of the symbols I use in various ways is the cannibal.


              In doing research for this project, I came across many accounts of cannibalism, both factual and fictional.  The subject sparked my imagination.  Here was an act that occurred in the most desperate situations—either physical or mental.  It makes for a rather horrific story, and fits the mood I wanted.  I decided at first to use food as a symbol of the vacuum-like consuming nature of desire, but I extended the symbolism to cannibalism.  It retains all the connotations of food, but at the same time includes individual personalities.  As the viewer fills in the narrative gaps, they become, alternately, the consumer and the consumed.  One of the symbolic layers of the work is a warning against the dangers of social interaction.  The desires depicted in these images are really about communication and connections between people.  As the work continued, the cannibal became any two parties interacting in a way that is destructive to one or both.  My thinking was that the cannibal, in their desperation, pursues and/or uses the victim to fill their internal emptiness.  All consumption involves a giver and a taker.  This quality is inherent in our social interactions as well, especially the most intimate ones.  In other words love and relationships can be seen as reciprocal cannibalism, with each party giving up something of themselves and devouring something of the other.  In destructive relationships this give and take is grossly out of balance.  If a person has gone a sufficient length of time without love, they may enter into a relationship in which their own personality is sublimated or supplanted by a more dominant personality.  Love then loses its nourishing, warm qualities and becomes a tool of abuse.  This is the realm of the cannibal. 


I’m not the only person intrigued by cannibalism.  I found Cannibal: the Story of the Monster of Rotenberg, a sensationalized novel based on an actual case of cannibalism in Germany.  The author painted the main character, Armin Meiwes, sympathetically as an individual twisted by an unhealthy relationship with his mother and one ostracized by society.  The imagined workings of Meiwes’ mind were treated rather symbolically and were instructive in thinking about this part of the project. 

            “Ingestion was also a symbol for sex as well as sacrament, Armin discovered.  Lovers

bite each other, he reasoned.  In Armin’s mind, sexual cannibalism was the highest

form of intimate behavior.  He thought he could find in cannibalism the kind of

intimacy that he had yet to find with another human.”


The book was not especially well written, being on a par with a romance novel, but it did give me an account of extreme desperation on an emotional level.  This is exactly how I wanted to use the symbol of the cannibal.


The symbol of the cannibal also afforded an opportunity to establish a skeletal narrative upon which to base my tableaux. 


Dinner at the house of blind cannibals, feeding each other, each other.  All in a dark, sweet sauce—strong as moonshine, thick as blood.  Some devour without thinking, some think they don’t want to eat, but the more they have the more they want.  The more they eat, the more intoxicated they become, desperate to stop, yet desperate for more. 


I wrote this little poem as a sort of yardstick against which I would judge the images.  Did they fit this narrative?    It wasn’t the be all and end all of the editing process, but it was often a place to start.  More often than not, I used the poem and the general idea of the cannibal to guide my thinking.  The images don’t have anything to do with literal cannibalism.  They all, however, reference communication and relationships. I packed each picture with my own symbols of dangerous relationships colored with the filter of horror show cannibalism.  Taken by itself, the cannibal is one of many layers of possible interpretation.  In my own head it is a thin, connecting thread of a story running through each image. 


Eating utensils, especially knives and forks, are related to the symbol of the cannibal.  These are the piercing, aggressive items used to consume and these tools are associated with the aggressor in cannibal-like relationships.  In the images they represent this character directly.


In the image “Trove” a hand extends from out of the frame to a pillow under which a mass of dinner forks has been hidden.  This picture can be seen in a few ways at the same time, depending on the identity of the hand.  Either the hand belongs to someone who is discovering this treasure trove or it belongs to the proud owner of the trove.  Either way, the symbol of the hand is exposing something hidden about someone’s most intimate personality.   In thinking about this set-up, I figured the thing hidden under the pillow was akin to a diary or pornography.  That is, something to which a certain amount of shame is attached because it is so closely associated with the personality and identity.  The uncovering of the forks is the discovery of the unbalanced nature of relationships.  The fact that they are hidden in the first place is a sign of the negative associations with this aggressor tendency.  In the narrative of the cannibal, I imagine a stash of forks being discovered by a parent in the room of a child.  The child has a hidden abusive nature that is discovered by accident.  Jung would say that my conscious mind is discovering violent tendencies in my subconscious. 


Another image using utensils prominently is “Allegory of Love”.  While this may be too literal a title, I think this image is a good expression of the symbolic use of the cannibal and the knife.  The subject of this image is easy for us to see. One set of hands is offering a knife to another hand that grasps it by the blade.  In this image I was really concentrating on the give and take nature of relationships.  The subject and object of this narrative flip back and forth.  Which party is accepting the knife and which is giving?  Who is the aggressor and who is the victim?  The hand grasping the blade can be thought of in either way.  If it is the one giving the knife it is protecting the other’s hands at its own expense by holding the most dangerous part.  If it is the one accepting the knife then it foolishly dives into the area of most potential damage simply to accept the gift.  I wanted to express in this photo the potentially painful nature of giving and receiving.  The spot of focus is on the hand on the blade.  This is where the tension is highest and the pain would be greatest.



“Sugar”.  In this image we are presented with a single figure, head thrown back, mouth open, arm raised past the frame’s edge, and a pale, white stream flowing from approximately where the hand would be into the open and waiting mouth.  The open mouth and the profusion of sugar represent heedless receiving.  Although the substance of the stream is not quite identifiable it is certainly more than a mouthful.  Will this person choke on the sugar she is feeding herself?  This image is about overindulgence and a caution against opening up, baby-bird style, to every influence.  I titled this piece “Sugar” because it was important for me to include the connotations that sugar has.  Sugar is a food of mixed blessings being at once a comfort and a destroyer.  In this image it stands for superficial love and infatuation; a sickeningly sweet state of mind devoid of any substance or nourishment.  This figure will certainly choke on this much sugar.



Contrasting with this danger is the fact that this character is doing this thing to herself.  Not only is she willing to receive this highly addictive substance at toxic levels, but she is doing it with her own hand.  It is similar to the moth and the flame.  What we see in this picture is the compulsion to act on relieving the pressure of emotional hunger regardless of how self-destructive the act may be. 


Another image that includes food in a direct way is “Wine, Giving and Taking”.  From out of a thick shadow emerges a head, looking nearly disembodied. And this head spits a stream of wine into an outstretched hand.  The hand is open, yet passive, fully receiving the gift of the stream but wholly unable to accept it or use it in any way.  This image is, on its first level, about communication.  There are two actions in this image, the spitting and the grasping, to set a narrative around.  The hand is the receiving palm, a character asking a question posed as a gesture of want.  It emerges from a dark ground, exposing itself to the other.  The other is a woman spitting a large quantity of wine into the hand.  This character responds boldly in contrast to the question implied by the hand.  The scene can have many interpretations depending on one’s view of spitting.  Is it a sign of disrespect or a benediction? In either case, the hand is unwilling or unable to accept or hold what it has been given.  Communication, at its most frustrating, is like this in some respects.

Wine is a libation with a history several thousands of years old. For this work the connotations of wine that are the most appropriate are its connections to ritual and to inebriation.  Wine is special stuff.  It has been associated with blood for its red color and nutritive qualities.  This association to blood is implicit in its use in Christian ritual (which has its own cannibalistic references that I’ll not mention here).  By extension its presence in any formal setting raises that occasion to ritual status, including, toasts, formal dinners and intimate settings between lovers. 

Aside from its ritual symbolism, wine is the archetypal inebriant.  The drunkenness that results from its consumption has been regarded variously as a truth serum, an aphrodisiac and a sleep inducer. Being drunk was regarded by the ancient Celts as a magical, in between state, not quite in this world and not quite in another, much in the same way as dreams.  Those who were inebriated acted without rational thought, mostly asleep and out of their heads.  Is this why the woman is spitting out the wine almost consumed?  Is it ritual or some irrational drunken action not well considered or is it a portion of some elaborate ritual?  This is one of the questions I want the viewer to ask.

A symbol used in “Wine, Giving and Taking” that is used in other compositions is the hand or arm extending from outside the frame.  Used here it indicates an unknown character whose identity is open to interpretation.  In one sense the viewers themselves are the unknown character.  The disembodied hand becomes, in the implied narrative, the first person.  What does it mean that it’s my hand being spat upon, or that I am burning a photograph that seems to express feeling, or sticking my fingers into a woman’s mouth?  This is a question I want my viewers to ask of every image, but particularly these.   As the viewer continues to look at these images, however, one realizes that often the relative position of the hand makes it impossible to be interpreted as first person.  Thus identity becomes obscured once again.  Ultimately the hand becomes several people.  It’s you, me, the viewer, the maker, an unknown figure, and someone from within the viewer’s psyche all at the same time.


Identity shifting is one of the attributes of the image “An Exam”. 

The symbol of the extended arm is used here with all the qualities of the unknown character described above.  In addition to this is the sharp focus on the eyes of the woman.  With eyes comes empathy.  We look at the eyes of this woman and try to read her expression, try to feel what she is feeling.  It becomes an important part of the narrative because as viewers we can’t help but to insert information.  She seems calm and slightly detached from the invasive gesture.  I intended this image to inspire feelings of the uncanny, that is, the familiar made disturbingly unfamiliar.  The woman’s calm expression hovers somewhere between lucidity and the glassy quality of submissively not being present.  Is this why she’s allowing fingers in her mouth?  As we empathize with this character we put ourselves in her place and think of what circumstances we would allow this intrusion.   Or maybe we shouldn’t use the word “allow”, this character may have invited the gesture and is in some way enjoying herself.  In this spirit I wanted the fingers to reference sexual penetration.  The woman’s calm expression my then be a sign that she is, in fact, participating.


This photograph is based on a painting by Francisco Goya, “Lazarillo De Tormes (The Blind Man’s Guide)”.  The painting depicts a blind man placing his fingers in the mouth of a boy hired as his guide after the boy ate a sausage.  As he holds the boy down, the blind man chases the sausage down the boy’s throat. Before I knew the story behind the image, it struck me as odd.  I wanted the same feelings of invasiveness and ambiguity of purpose.  The question I wanted the viewer to ask “why” and to spin a narrative of their own making from this little question.


The image “Making My Own Luck” also spins us into questions. A hand, from out of the frame grasps an arm of a wishbone.  On the other arm of the wishbone is tied a length of twine which in turn is attached to a stone.  The whole contraption is pulled taut as if on the verge of breaking the bone.  The symbol here is based on the superstition of the wish granted to the recipient of the larger piece of bone.  This superstition implies a competition between two individuals.  What does it mean that only one person is participating in a competition against a rock, especially one that they presumably set up themselves?  What kind of wish can they possibly formulate, much less expect?  What if the rock wins, what kind of wishes do they have? 

Loneliness is one of the states implied by this image.  I like to imagine that the individual here is  using the stone because there is no one else to grasp the other end of the wishbone. On the one hand this person feels somewhat powerless and invoking the magic of this superstition is a vestige of hope.  On the other hand, this person is unable or unwilling to contest fate with another person and has taken things into their own hands by assuring themselves a win.  As viewers we imagine what kind of wish such a desperate individual can make.


In the image “Rapture” we have a photograph of a woman being burned in effigy over a single candle flame.  The single candle sits on a pedestal, giving the composition the feeling of a witness to a ritual.  Are we seeing some kind of voodoo- like spell intent on enticing or destroying the subject?  Perhaps this is the revenge of some jilted lover erasing the memory of their love.  I was initially attracted to the expression on the face of the woman in the photograph.  Her eyes are closed, her mouth is slightly open and her chin is raised, this is an image of someone lost in physical sensation, hence the title.

The flame here represents the desires of both the woman in the photograph and the disembodied hand at the same time.  The woman is consumed by her passions, her loss of control represented by the absence of a body.  As the hand dispassionately feeds her into a consuming fire, it becomes a symbol for sex in that it seems to be giving some great physical sensation.  This symbol is complicated by the fact that the reaction on the face in the photograph was predetermined and fixed.  As part of the narrative of this composition we can imagine that the sensations that elicited this expression are the same as the flame, at least metaphorically.  


“Janus” is an image depicting two heads bound together.  One of the heads is slipping into the distorted edge of the photograph making it appear to be in motion.  As its name implies I based this photo on the myth of Janus, the two headed god gazing into both this world and the “otherworld”.

 This is another image ostensibly about communication and relationships.  The binding of the heads implies an involuntary quality to this state, an effect heightened by the distortion, as one party appears to be trying to get away from the other.  The emotional emptiness expressed here manifests as two individuals intimately bound together but unable to communicate as they are back to back.  The blurred lines of distortion heighten this lack of communication. Not only can these two not communicate, they are in different worlds.  This is the seed of the Janus myth and the string that ties these two together.  Janus was one individual with two faces.  We can think of a couple in this way, a single unit with two points of view.  The string is also a symbol of these two people being thought of as one unit.  


Thinking about food and cannibalism, my thoughts naturally ran across flesh.  Flesh is the subject and object of desire, both sexual and physical.  The image “Butterknife” is an illustration of lust in the broad sense of the word. Here we see a butter knife pressed into a soft belly, again by a hand emerging from outside the frame. The ambiguity here is that we don’t know if the knife is being poised to cut into the person or if the knife is being directed down the pants.  It’s this question that makes me see this image as sexual.  With this image I am also trying to accentuate the texture and tactility of flesh.  It is, so to speak, something to sink one’s teeth into.

The position of the hand makes it possible that the subject is pressing their own flesh and so becomes a representation of the attempt to fill emotional emptiness with physical sensations, be they the pain of cutting or the pleasure of sex.  And while the presence of the knife does denote cutting, this particular knife is dull and really suited more for spreading.  Therefore the knife is really about sensuality. 


In the image “Milk” we see the bare feet of a person being splashed with a stream of white liquid.  I intended with this image to indicate a person missing their mouth while attempting to drink.  It was not the failure to drink that I was trying to reference, it was the consequence of that action.  Failure and waste are what is indicated by this image.  Milk, like wine, is full of ancient meanings.  The subject of our narrative here is symbolically loosing the first form of nutrition, mother’s milk.  Our first inklings of a hunger for food are for mother’s milk.  Love, comfort, and nourishment are all tied into the meaning of milk.  These hungers, taken into adulthood, are the basis for sexual attraction to nipples and, by extension, breasts.  Part of the symbology of milk includes a definite sexual current.  A friend of mine, while looking at this photo, said she thought the drops of milk looked like ejaculate.  She saw something inherently sexual where I hadn’t intended it. Though not in the same way my friend meant it, milk is a sexual secretion indicating procreation and fecundity.  For this reason it is associated with life and wasting it becomes a symbol of death.  And, like death, the milk will shortly begin to rot and smell.


The last image I would like to discuss is “The Secret”.  In this picture we see a man at a dinner table raising a spoon to his mouth.  A woman at his side holds one of her hands over his eyes, covering them, while her other hand is cupped over her mouth at his ear apparently whispering to him.  It is the gesture of confidence and this composition is an illustration of trust. 

Here again we have identity shifting of the predator and victim. 

Is the man continuing to eat because of the whispered message, or in spite of it?  The narrative revolves around the relationship of what is in the spoon and the nature of the whispers.  Our imaginations are being led, however, by the harsh, raking light and large shadows.  With these elements, there is something sinister here.


I would like to mention the obscuring of identity of the players involved in my narratives and the abundance of images of women.  The obscurity happened mostly because of the close knit-community in which I’m working.  I often used the people around me as models.  I wanted the physical presence of their bodies more than their identities.  For the viewer to react to these images as universal symbols I didn’t need a whole lot of “Oh, there’s Annie,” I wanted the viewer to place themselves in the images and that is nearly impossible if they recognize the model.


The fact that so many women show up in my images surprised me.  Sometimes I like to flatter my self and say that it’s because women will do what I ask; finding willing models was not especially difficult. But I think it runs deeper than that.  This entire project is about emotional emptiness on a universal level, but really it’s about my own emptiness.  All the images are about my personal relationship to women, the constant attraction and repulsion of relationships and my own feelings of inadequacy. How can I reconcile my individuality with connections with others? 

To think of Jung again, perhaps these images of women are a projection of my anima and the feminine qualities of my subconscious, leading me to explore my own personal symbols of want, hunger and desire.


Desire controls the mind.  It blots out all other thoughts and forces us to work on an instinctual level, sometimes exclusively.  Desire and hunger have been resting in the psyche of mankind since well before the inception of conscious thought; skip a few meals and it will grab you by the shorthairs and make you pay attention.  They have become, to borrow from Carl Jung, archetypes in our subconscious and from the subconscious work as powerful symbols.  I’ve learned from this project that just under the surface of my mind is a universal language that I can use to communicate with everyone.  Part of the difficulty in using this language is getting out of my own way.  These images formed themselves through me.  They always have existed, I just had to remember them.




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