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‘What Was Breakfast?’ Instagram Account Gives Street Photographer A Reason To Chat Up Strangers

The popular What Was Breakfast account posts portraits of Chicagoans alongside descriptions of what they ate that morning.

Photos from the Instagram account, What Was Breakfast.
WhatWasBreakfast/Instagram
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CHICAGO — A hash brown, a cup of coffee, a waffle — the artist behind Instagram’s “What Was Breakfast” wants to know what you’re eating.

But, perhaps more importantly, he wants to snap a photo of you.

The “WhatWasBreakfast” account, run by photographer Alan Epstein, posts portraits of Chicagoans alongside descriptions of what they ate that morning. The posts are sometimes humorous, sometimes insightful.

“A couple of times people have told me they essentially smoked weed for breakfast, which I thought was pretty funny,” Epstein said. “Some people are more proud of what they had than others. Like if someone had an awesome breakfast, I feel like they’re excited I ask them that day. They take great pleasure in telling me how many pancakes they were able to eat.”

When Epstein first started the account in August 2016, no one knew what WhatWasBreakfast was and he would have to explain it. Now, he has more than 5,100 followers and he’s had people tell him they know his work or even have a friend who “got WhatWasBreakfast-ed,” Epstein said.

“It’s nice that people like it and appreciate it and people remember … their favorite” posts, Epstein said.

Epstein started the project when he felt uncomfortable taking photos of people on the street without speaking to them. He would take photos of his friends and ask them questions, and he realized one of his questions — “What was breakfast?” — could be used to connect with the subjects of his street portraits.

“It’s also kind of a little window into their day,” the photographer said. “You get an idea of what maybe somebody’s morning routine is. … It’s interesting from a nutritional standpoint. The human interaction of it is fun. And I end up meeting a lot of really nice people.”

Most of the portraits are taken in The Loop, where there’s a mix of people to feature. Epstein simply sees someone who looks interesting, walks up to them, explains the project, takes a photo and asks them what they had for breakfast.

The most interesting responses come from the people who are excited to talk about their breakfast, he said.

Epstein has changed this technique little over the years, though he’s now more comfortable interviewing his subjects. He asks them follow-up questions about their breakfast to get more interesting answers and stories.

And Epstein used to walk up to anyone Downtown, sometimes seeking out “power lawyer-looking people” who were in fancy suits. But the business-minded people always rejected his request for a photo, so now he simply looks for the people with the most interesting clothing — a strategy that helped him land actor William H. Macy of “Shameless” fame as a subject.

(For the record, Macy ate granola that morning.)

But Epstein’s spoken to people from all walks of life, highlighting the diversity of the city: a self-described “trash Millennial” who wore a giraffe outfit said he had a Clif Bar and Red Bull, two women sitting on a stoop had coffee and doughnuts, a little boy and his mom chowed down on chicken rings and yogurt, a cereal-eating businessman untucked his shirt to show off tattoos.

And Taylor Bennett, musician and Chance the Rapper’s younger brother, had a hash brown and orange juice — though Epstein didn’t know who Bennett was until later.

“We’re all just people doing our thing,” Epstein said. “I just feel like it’s something that everybody can relate to. Regardless of who it is, everybody can relate to the action of having breakfast.”

Epstein said he’d like to one day go across the United States, interviewing people about their breakfasts while stopping in diners and eating his way across the country. He’d then make a book or magazine out of his photos and interviews.

That would be the “ideal, best-case scenario for WhatWasBreakfast,” he said.

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This story was originally published by DNAinfo Chicago in 2016. Block Club Chicago has updated it.