I first started this project when I was on assignment for the British Red Cross—they asked me to come up with an idea for an exhibition, and as I had already produced lots of stories on famine, disease, and other related stories, I decided to approach the subject in a new way.

“One Meal a Day” tells intimate stories through a specific visual format: still life images of food items. Some of the images are taken from real-life contexts, like the photo of someone’s lunch, while others are simple portraits of food items. I chose to use this format in part because I wanted to seduce the viewer—to convince them to take a second look and therefore spend more time understanding what the series represents. As you move through the series, each piece tells you a bit more about the whole story.

The extreme north of Cameroon, home to over 3.8 million people and the most populous area of the country, was once a busy tourist destination (especially thanks to the nearby Waza National Park). Today, faded safari advertisements and the FCO red travel alert tell a story of dramatic decline. Many locals now living there are surviving on just one meal a day. Further, the ongoing conflict in northeast Nigeria has spilled across Cameroon’s borders, exacerbating existing issues of underdevelopment in the Lake Chad region. Additional displaced people are putting more pressure on already limited resources.

This old sardine tin belongs to Amina’s children: Aichadou, 6 and Ibrahim, 4. This tin forms the central part of their homemade “play kitchen,” as the children pretend to make dinner. Sadly, the reality of eating sardines is a distant memory from before they arrived in this IDP camp. Surviving on just one meal a day, the children discovered this tin in a rubbish dump. The closest they get to eating sardines is make believe. © Chris de Bode

This conflict, combined with the changing climate, has created an urgent food crisis. In the Lake Chad region, over 10 million people are currently in need of assistance, with 2.3 million people displaced and 7.1 million people food insecure. An estimated 515,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

In my previous series, I always focused on the individual and the context, producing traditional portrait or documentary photographs. In this case, I felt that it was time to come up with a new angle. Especially in the case of famine, it is (in my mind) disrespectful to show a human being suffering. Not only is it degrading, but it is also a very one-dimensional view of a situation.

This plate is the half eaten lunch of Ramata Modou, 58, and her family. She is the appointed leader of an unnamed IDP camp for women and children in Mémé village, in the north of Cameroon.
In an attack on her village on the border with Nigeria, her husband suffered a heart attack and her 17-year-old daughter and grandchild were taken. When she fled her village and first arrived in Mémé, she slept under trees for two months with her six children, aged 5 to 16 years old.
This is a meal of ground red maize, white rice and crushed mango leaves. It will be the only meal she and her six children will eat today. This food was gathered from going house to house in the village to beg. © Chris de Bode

One of the more memorable moments was photographing Ramata Modou’s plate of food. The moment I entered her home, I saw the faces of many other people, and I quickly realized that the plate of food she had just cooked was meant to feed all of them. It was so little, and yet this is the reality for so many people in the region.

This photograph was one of the first images I took. I can remember the smell of the food—it reminded me of spinach cooked by my mother when I was young. I hope that this series offers viewers a better idea of this crisis, and I hope that photographers are inspired to approach topics like this from different angles.

—Chris de Bode

The United Nations has made it a goal to end hunger and achieve food security by 2030. Learn more about this project and the other 16 goals to transform our world.