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What's In a Word?
The Lexicon of Sustainability

by Sam McMillan

Douglas Gayeton is out to change the way people talk about food. For starters. His Lexicon of Sustainability is a multi-pronged attack on the way agribusiness markets its products to America. Combining a website, a series of films shown on PBS and a pop-up photography show touring the country, The Lexicon of Sustainability seeks to define the terms that define the movement. It is the result of Gayeton’s three-year trek across America, documenting the work of 150 visionaries, activists, gardeners, cooks, farmers and foragers who have helped transform sustainability from a buzzword to reality.

Photographer, filmmaker, author of Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town, Gayeton works out of an old foundry on a “disinhabited” chicken farm in Petaluma, California, a former agricultural center once known as the Egg Capital of the World. So it’s fitting that one of the movies Gayeton made tells the story of an egg. And not just any egg. A “cage-free” egg. Two simple words; so much at stake. Because eating, that most personal act, is also a profoundly political one.

No project exploring the most critical words and terms that define sustainability would be complete
without tackling the meaning of “sustainability” itself, which is defined on the Lexicon of Sustainability’s
website by Running Squirrel, a Cherokee Indian forager.

Turns out “cage-free” just means a bigger cage. According to the film Gayeton made, cage-free hens are still being raised in huge pens, unable to turn around, standing in an inch of their own excrement. For Gayeton, the perversion of language was a call to arms. “Whether we know it or not, we are at war with advertisers and industrial food companies who have hijacked the terms representing the solutions to most of our problems,” Gayeton says. “After spending 25 years in the media business, I decided to use the persuasive storytelling techniques I’d learned, as a force for good.”

Funded by the Independent News Service and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Gayeton’s films are six-minute explorations of the concepts captured by the Lexicon photos. Gayeton, wrote, directed, shot and animated the films (he was a former creative director at an animation studio in Paris), created the music and narrated the voiceover. When it comes to the “one-man-band” approach, Gayeton says proudly, “Conosco i miei polli.” It’s an Italian phrase that means, “I know my chickens.” That motto is “the guiding principle of my life,” he says, and means, in essence, “if you know the source of production, you can trust the results.” In other words, after three years of working closely with the leading thinkers on sustainability in food and farming, Gayeton has learned how to translate their goals and challenges into something that the average person can relate to.

“How can we talk about sustainability if we don’t even know the most basic words that define the conversation?” Gayeton asks. The Lexicon of Sustainability is an attempt to explain the terms of the debate, create a shared language and then simultaneously spread a truly subversive message: The way we eat is actually within our control.

By allowing his subjects to explain their passions in their own words, then placing these ideas within carefully constructed narrative scenes, Gayeton’s editorial strategy cajoles readers to seek out every morsel of information contained within an image.

“We have to wrestle back the terms that have been hijacked,” Gyeton explains. “Nothing is more revolutionary that arming people with information.”

And that’s exactly what Gayeton does in the photographs he shoots and turns into what he calls “information bombs.” Equipped with a still camera, Gayeton will take hundreds, if not thousands of images in his attempt to tell a story. Then he assembles the images in a single composite. Gayeton writes over the image, transcribing the words of his subjects to tell their story. Typically, Gayeton will frame his subject front and center, then surround them, and the artifacts he pictures with explanatory text, driving what normally might appear in a caption directly onto the photograph itself. The result is a densely layered photo that compresses a documentary film into a single 2-D image. McMillan
Sam McMillan is a San Francisco Bay Area-based writer, teacher and producer of interactive multimedia projects for a number of Bay Area production houses, and can be reached at