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Our Correspondent Explains Why She Performs and Photographs Burrito Autopsies

I knew when I signed up to work on the Burrito Bracket that I and FiveThirtyEight would get some criticism. Picking 64 burritos out of a sea of awesome, we were certain to miss a few greats. People who really like burritos never just really like burritos, they are fanatics (I might be Exhibit A). I knew that my tastes and qualifications would be called into question. I assumed (correctly) there’d be questions about my ethnicity (“Why is the ‘decider’ a gringa?”) and my gender:

The one thing I didn’t anticipate is the outrage the photographs would inspire. NPR described them as “controversial.” I’ve been told the burritos look like dirty diapers.  Sometimes, the criticism is about their artistic merit (“What’s with the really bad pics? They don’t do the burritos any justice”), and other times it’s a theological line of questioning (“I understand why you do it, but there’s something deeply immoral about dissecting perfectly good burritos for pictures”). I receive emails, tweets and comments daily about the abomination that is my burrito photography.

Although I doubt it will appease many, I’m here to explain what I’m doing, and why.

As we were developing the Burrito Bracket, I considered a variety of ways to assess burritos, including weight and caloric content. I contemplated dissecting them and weighing each component with a portable scale. But these schemes were logistical nightmares or impossible to do with the necessary degree of accuracy.

Additionally, I wanted to incorporate photography into the data side of things. Let me start by saying: We photographers know how to find beauty in the dingiest locales, and a good chef can make Alpo look like filet mignon. By their very nature, burritos are wrapped in a tortilla. This gives the photographer but one obvious way to photograph them: sliced in half (like a saw going through a log) and neatly arranged to reveal what’s inside. This is undoubtedly a prettier image than the the ones I’m making (and such images are readily available on the Internet for the majority of restaurants in the bracket). It also biases toward Mission-style burritos, with their formidable girth, and isn’t very useful for wet burritos or the folded burritos of El Paso, Texas.

I take FiveThirtyEight’s dedication to data seriously, and I wanted to use this project to experiment with using photography to collect meaningful data. Traditional restaurant reviews usually include photos of interiors and sultry images of glistening food bathed in sunlight. They can help readers decide whether this is the sort of place they would want to visit or highlight the glory of a dish with a particularly special presentation.

My goal, however, was to elaborate the differences between the burritos and to provide additional information about them. Dozens of styles and endless ingredients can be found inside a tortilla. So I challenged myself to produce the most data-rich visual image of a burrito, which is very different from the usual food review mandate of making the dish look the most appetizing.

That led me to the dissections. I carry a scalpel with me and cut each burrito down the middle lengthwise. Burritos are meant to have a tightly bound tortilla wrapper, and cutting them produces, I admit, a rather inelegant viewpoint. But I hope that the images are a source of information, showing — in a way the beauty shots cannot — the ingredients, how they are mixed and distributed, and how the burrito was assembled. I also hope they provide a point of visual reference for the uniqueness of each burrito.

I realize this explanation will be of no consolation for some readers and burrito truthers. For what it’s worth, I’ll be taking burrito glamour shots in Round 2, which is set to begin in August. Until then, feel free to look at this instead.

Anna Maria Barry-Jester is a senior reporter at Kaiser Health News and California Healthline, and formerly a reporter for FiveThirtyEight.