Credit: Alan Epstein

A
lan Epstein had been in Chicago just a year in 2016 when he started What
Was Breakfast (@whatwasbreakfast), the Instagram feed dedicated to what
its subjects had for breakfast. When he’s not taking photos, Epstein, 37,
is a server at the Cherry Circle Room, where he began the project. What Was
Breakfast begs comparison to Humans of New York, but Epstein doesn’t ask
the same soul-baring-some critics have said saccharine-questions as HONY
(“What is your greatest struggle right now?,” “Who is the most influential
person in your life?”). His ambition is simpler: He asks you about your
morning meal and takes your picture as you answer. “I’d like to be the Bill
Cunningham of breakfast,” he says.

Credit: Alan Epstein

His photos can generate mixed reactions. In one shot, he captures a young
woman and her child at a bus stop. For breakfast they’d had chicken rings
and yogurt: “People that I know will see my feed and be like ‘That’s just
the cutest little thing,'” Epstein says, “or they’ll be like, ‘That’s sad
that they had Chicken McNuggets for breakfast,’ and both those realities
are right.”

In between discussions of smoothies and skillets, a wide cross section of
the city’s population passes before his camera, people not often brought to
the forefront of conversations, even those as basic as breakfast. These
slices of Chicago reflect humor and sweetness, but also insight and from
time to time unvarnished grace. We caught up over coffee and discussed how
the project has evolved.

Credit: Alan Epstein


How has What Was Breakfast changed since you started?

I guess since we started the major thing that’s changed is that I see
myself as a photographer. Whereas when I first started, I was just a dude
with a camera who was curious about people and food. I think that’s always
been the driving force, but maybe I’m more comfortable wearing the label of
photographer.

For me, what What Was Breakfast is really all about, aside from me having a
creative outlet, is [that] we’re all the same; we all wake up and eat food
and go on about our day, that’s really the heart of the project. I think
it’s just- it just started to be fun.


Credit: Alan Epstein


Is there anything visually you try for with each photo, in the
beginning or now? Do you have any rules?

What I really do, I just wander fairly aimlessly. I like to know what
direction I’m going, but I’m not tied to any particular streets. I wait
until somebody catches my attention. I can’t dictate where that happens, I
just try to catch that. I don’t really move anybody; the most that I might
do is just walk around you, to make sure I’m on the right side of the
light. But the things that I look for are some person that is interesting
in some way, and then I just try to not mess up the shot.   v