Tim Smyth: Defective Carrots

"Typology" is a word that, within a photographic context brings a slew of images to mind. The UK's favorite root vegetable however, is probably not among them. But it may very well be after you see Tim Smyth's new book Defective Carrots, published this month by Bemojake. We caught up with Tim to find out more. 

Gregory Barker: What compelled you to start photographing carrots? 

Tim Smyth: This series of photographs was one of several projects concerning foodstuffs that I had been working on over a 4-year period. At the time I was living above a pub, whilst simultaneously working in the pub kitchen below. In this live-in-work situation, I was constantly immersed in the day-to-day noise, foodstuffs, economy and consumption of the business where I lived. I became interested in consumer perception and what informed people's desires. Carrots became one of the subjects that I honed in on.

GB: How would you describe a 'defective' carrot? 

TS: A ‘defective’ carrot seems to be a very general description, one that is used to categorise an infinite variety of carrots. The ‘defects’ can range from gross abnormalities to a barely noticeable gradient or curve in the carrot’s shape

GB: Could you tell me a little about how the Focus© machine works? 

TS: It is a scanner that detects the visual characteristics of foodstuffs. Its tolerance is programmed by the farmers in order for it to sort the foodstuffs at high speed, in terms of their appearance. Once Focus© has made it’s visual assessment the digital image is automatically deleted.   

GB: Looking trough the book, while I've come to understand that these carrots are perfectly edible, I cant help thinking that I would not want to put many of them in my mouth. Would you? Or perhaps the better question is did they end up as your dinner?

TS: I would happily eat these carrots, although it would be necessary peel or cut off the rotten parts. These carrots looked very strange to me when I collected them, I have never grown my own carrots and would generally shop at the supermarket where fruit and vegetables look very uniform. I did eat some of them, however I did not have enough space in my flat to store them, so I took them to the city farm where they were fed to the pigs. Ultimately the carrots fulfilled their destiny as animal feed.

GB: The books is spotted with illustrations explaining the various deformities that carrots can incur, such as a Fanging. Are these real industry terms? How did you come to find out about them? 

TS: Yes, these are real industry terms. A farmer provided me with the manual that they use to distinguish ‘defects’, which is where the terminology for the illustrations came from. The diagrams were adapted from the monitor displays that I photographed on the side panel of Focus©. 

GB: If carrots deformed carrots are generally taken out of circulation, how did you come across them?

TS: I went to the farm where the most of the carrots in the UK are produced. I was able to observe the carrots on the production line as they were being sorted.

GB: Howard Hughes reputedly measured every carrot he ate, during the course of your investigation, did you notice yourself paying undue attention to the carrots in your diet? 

TS: No.

GB: Looking through your pervious bodies of work, this series seem to be something of a departure for you?

TS: Formally this body of work is somewhat of a departure for me, by isolating one object in order to study its variety, this is the first typology I have made. By doing this I was imitating Focus©. I have appropriated existing photographic imagery in my other bodies of work. However in the case of ‘Defective Carrots’, the imagery that I wanted to obtain had been mechanically deleted. Throughout my work I am interested in how human’s attempt to control nature, how the natural world is used to yield and distinguish boundaries.

GB: In 2005, 23.9 million tons of carrots were harvested across the world, with very few going to ‘waste’ according to Asda, who say that any misshapen carrots, found under their stewardship are either turned into batons or 'grated products'. With this book are you attempting to advocate view of food less beholden to visual perfection? 

TS: It is necessary to determine what constitutes waste when you analyse statistics such as this, what amounts to ‘very few’? There is a global problem with the over production of food, however we know that many people’s diets are insufficient. In order to harvest a ‘perfectly’ formed carrot, the farmer is required to harvest an excess of food. Some of this excess (‘defective carrots’) is consumed by humans in the form of batons or grated products. However, roughly 15-20% of these are used as stock (animal) feed, which is an inefficient use of farmland and other resources. Ultimately market forces and the consumer’s visual perception determine this. This work is an exploration of how technology has refined this process and how artificial intelligence predetermines what is or is not edible.

GB: What is it do you think that we find inherently humorous about carrots? 

TS: People find the resemblance with human genitalia humorous.

Buy the book HERE


— Gregory Barker