By Richard L. Figueroa
Photographer Alan Epstein said he considers himself to be a documentarian. He said roams the Loop with one purpose: He wants to know what Chicagoans had for breakfast.
Epstein goes up to strangers in the street, striking up a conversation before asking them what they had for breakfast and snapping a portrait of them.
“Breakfast is by far my favorite meal of the day, but I’m not usually super hungry in the morning,” said Epstein.
He moved from southern San Francisco to Chicago three years ago with one purpose, which was to pursue a career in improv. That didn’t go as planned.
“I was never so good at improv. I’m not a shy person, but I was very shy on stage,” said Epstein.
As improv was falling through, he worked at the Cherry Circle Room in the Loop.
One day, he decided to take pictures of his coworkers, just for fun, since he had a camera lying around that he had purchased to shoot an improv skit. “I have always been super interested in people. So it was just like fun to take a picture of them and capture how I see them in a way,” said Epstein.
“I was working a couple of brunch shifts at the Cherry Circle Room and every time I did we would be understaffed and I would be complaining. Every time someone gets a two of everything breakfast is like a f*****g interview. Because if someone orders one thing there is no follow up question … If someone orders the two of everything then your there for a minute,” said Epstein, comically.
When Epstein first began to get into photography, he would roam around the Loop and take pictures of buildings. “It just wasn’t that fun, there is nothing that I really can get back from a building, it’s just a thing that was there … I didn’t want to use photography to show this thing I wanted it to be an excuse to talk to people,” Epstein said.
Epstein said it’s more than just a picture that shows a person. It is about the conversations and the person in the picture.
Tired of his hour-long commute to improv classes, Epstein decided to stay in the Loop to take pictures. It all started with him wanting to create a creative outlet. Hence, the “whatwasbreakfast” Instagram page was born in August 2016.
Today, Epstein still roams around the Loop at least three times a week and asks Chicagoans what they had for breakfast. He has accumulated over 7,937 Instagram followers as of the time of writing and that number just keeps on growing.
Emily Spangler, political science major at Roosevelt University once was approached by Epstein last November. “My encounter was awesome. He complimented my look and then introduced himself,” said Spangler. Epstein then interviewed her over what she had for breakfast and snapped her picture.
Over time, Epstein developed a criteria for the people he chooses to interview. He would rather interview people who look somewhat fashionable and stand out in a crowd. He said he does this so he can comment on the clothes they’re wearing and strike up a conversation.
Epstein noted some of the funniest encounters he has on the streets with Chicagoans. “When people smoke weed for breakfast…It happens fairly often and it never gets old,” said Epstein.
Dominykas Jasinauskas, a 20-year-old photographer from River North who works with Epstein, commented on their partnership.
“Alan is constantly working on ‘What Was Breakfast.’ So what will usually happen is, since I know he’s already out there, photographing, I’ll shoot him a message to get coffee and go hit the streets,” said Jasinauskas. “As much as we’ve got photos in the back of our heads, our minds wander. We’re usually talking about other interesting photographers or upcoming projects.”
Since Epstein said he considers himself to be a documentarian of sorts, he is set to begin a YouTube series called “Plants & S**t” based on his friend’s who sell plants. Epstein said they plan to go out and pick up different species of plants, find them a nice pot from thrift shops and sell them on Instagram.
The process is all an adventure as they drive out to places just to acquire the plants. “All of my work is essentially about what people do. How people act and talk and what they do,” said Epstein. Epstein has been documenting what people have had for breakfast for three years now. Future projects are on the way, and he hopes they won’t be just portraits alongside a script anymore.