Beyond the Plate: Culture, People and Place
I think we all just inhaled really deep there for a second. (laughing) Today's really bittersweet for me. I'm not gonna lose it. It's bitter because it's our last day, and it's sweet because I've loved it. I've loved being with all of you. With all of you, too, online. I mean this has been an experience that I never could've anticipated how it's affected me as a person, as a photographer. So I feel changed too. So I come in today with kind of a little bit of a heavy heart, but I'm pretty excited too that it's the last day, but I just wanted you guys to know that, that this has been awesome for me. Truly awesome. So thanks for showing up and being enthusiastic, and I feel like you've really supported me too. You guys don't know this, but every time the cameras turn off, these guys are like (cheering) clapping and, I mean they're just really making me feel like I'm doing okay. So thanks for that.
It's been awesome for us too, Penny.
Thank you, Penny.
All right, so it's our last day...
, we're doing food culture, so we're in Seattle. It makes sense that we would try to incorporate something that is related to where we're at. When Craig first called me, I said, he said to me, I was kinda like "Well you know, I'd like to do "this, this, this, and this" and he was like "yeah, yeah, yeah" and then he was like "So what you're saying is, Penny, "you don't want it to suck." And I was like "Exactly." That's exactly it, Craig. We're talking the same language, because I know what I do, and I know what I love about food photography, and I don't know that that's the language for other people that do food photography, and that's okay too. So I just know what I do, and I was like if I'm gonna do this, I know what gets me inspired about it, so that's what I would want to show and talk about and impart. So we went through a couple back and forths and tried to figure out how we could do this. Ideally I would take you somewhere and do this, but we couldn't, so we are recreating an oyster roast, bake, roast, bake, roast, oyster bake, thank you. An oyster bake here in the alley by this amazing Seattle based food guy, food forger, John Rally, and we're gonna shoot that this morning, and I'm gonna be able to take one of you out there with me. So I'm gonna shoot it, and you guys are gonna watch me. Everybody's gonna just stay in here, and I'm gonna go out there with a camera and do my thing. You guys are gonna stay in here and watch and laugh I'm sure. (laughing) Nice laughs. And then I'm hoping that I can take one or two of you out there with me, and I'm gonna basically recreate what happened to me on an assignment. I think I told you guys yesterday, one of my mentors was in Austin, and I was struggling on this one assignment, and she went with me, we walked down Congress Avenue, and it was like this amazing experience for me, and I hadn't done that with anybody for years, and so she was like this little coach behind me like "Okay, think about that, look at that, get up, "get down, get low, get around them!" and I was just like "Oh my god!" And it was just like this amazing exercise, and so I want to do that with you guys today. Kind of just be behind you and guiding you. We're gonna make pictures together. So that's the plan. So before I launch into anything else, I want to show you some pictures about food culture, how I look at food culture, how I approach food culture. The pictures that I think work, and things that you should consider about today. So we're gonna talk about composition, color, light, all those things that we've been talking about. So when you look at these pictures, just think about how I might've been seen, think about the words that come up for you, think about those words, maybe write them down, and then when we're out there, think about those words. Let them resonate with you, and just meditate on them. Let your photography kind of be a meditation. (laughing) Okay, here we go. So I always always always have to give a sense of place on every one of my assignments. If I am not telling you visually where I'm at, I have not done a good job. So I've gotta show you the landscape. An establishing shot, this is a story I did in Idaho on a lamb rancher. Every day I'm on an assignment, I'm looking for an establishing shot whenever the light is good. So this shot never stops happening for me. I'm always trying to look for it and make it better, because it's hard, it's a hard photograph to make. Yes?
Can you discuss how you went about finding this shot? Where you went, who you talked to what time you woke up, that sort of thing?
This is late afternoon, but I had looked for beautiful light from the minute I got there, and I knew it was gonna happen early morning late afternoon, later in the day, so the writer and I, I literally was just like let's go, and he was driving, so I could jump out and run in the field. So we just drove. We just scouted. I'll scout a lot, I'll drive around and look for vantage points, and then I'll try to think "Where is the sun gonna be at night or early "in the morning and is the light gonna be better "at that point?" So I'll think about all that, but mostly I'm driving around. So this happened the next day, this was my last day when the rancher finally let me get access to, get with these guys like early in the morning as they're moving these lamb to another pass. There are something like 3000 head of lamb being moved here, and so I literally ran up... That's 3000 lamb, people. (laughing) I ran up and saw the guys on horseback, and I really just tried to follow the light. I was looking for an interesting moment and thinking about the light. Do you guys have a question real quick? No, not really, yeah. So I made this picture, and I'm thinking about the way people are-- It's important to incorporate people if you can. You can't always, and that's okay, but I'm always thinking about the light and the composition, I can incorporate a person. If there's movement, think about how you can play into that. Horses are given. Just go with the horses. (laughing) Lamb are given, just follow the animals. Anybody on a horse? Go. That's your red flag, just go.
How much do you connect with these people? Do you feel like you were trying to talk to them the whole time, or are you just trying to be an observer?
I'm watching, there's not a conversation happening there at all. In fact these lamb are running by.
Are they aware that you were there?
Yeah, absolutely. I didn't talk to them at all. They were doing their job, and I was like great. In fact, that's something I tell people, just ignore me, please ignore me. This is early morning in Greece, that island I was on, and I was just trying to find something that showed I was on an island and just walking around, looking for nice light, and these are long days. Those are 14 hour days. For me, looking for pictures. This is in Greece, again, I'm on that island, and we found, it was a story about being out. Their diet is mostly fish, and I was like, well, I've gotta get on a boat. So we found a local fisherman who would let me go out with them. That was just awesome, man.
Talk about movement.
Details. Always look for details. They can be wonderful relief pictures. They can break up the bigger pictures, the scene pictures, and they add information, kind of relieve your eyes a little bit, the viewer's eyes. So they're important photographs. Always think about details. So you've got sense of place and details. That should be two words. Portraits. This is also in Greece. We were actually going to this butcher to buy the meat that we were gonna cook that day, and I was gonna photograph for Food Beauties, and we walked in a small little stand, and he was in there cutting meat, and I was like "oh" and this was just light coming in from the door, and I just put him there, and I just thought it was interesting. Environmental portraits. Portraits of people actually in their environment and doing what they do, just looking for moments. Incorporating your background, your foreground. Again, the guy had a horse, I was like "Done." It's 2012, and this is how he is carrying hay back to his farm. That's, it's 2011, sorry. Why did I say that? To me, that's kind of like, that was so unusual. Again, the writer and I were driving around scouting pictures, and we ran into this guy. This is a story I did in Chile on Onces, which is, on Sunday afternoon, they have one meal in the day, the families come together and it's called Once, and it's like a tea. It's tea with sandwiches and stuff. It was with one of the most prominent wine makers in Chile, and so he invited us to his family's Once, and we were sitting down at this formal tea, and I photographed all the stuff, and when it was done, everybody got up and then I really felt like that was kinda like the interesting picture of the moment, and it's kind of a detail and a landscape. It kind of gives you a sense of place immediately. How to grow as a photographer. So today, we're practicing. Keep a visual journal. So make a photograph every day. Put it in a book, and just see your progress, and those pictures don't have to be like "I'm gonna go shoot an oyster whatever today, "or I'm gonna go to a foreign table dinner." No, I mean. Do that visual yoga practice that I told you about. Walk around the block for 15 minutes, and just try to be inspired by one idea. This is a story I did in Peru, and there are these reed boats that they've been fishing with for generations. Hundreds of years, and they still fish like this. So I just waited for the light to get right, because I knew my background was gonna be informative, and then you wait for something to happen, and you wait for people to forget you're there, and you just quietly make your pictures, and then maybe you think a little about, always try to incorporate your background. You see this woman behind this right here? So look for little nuances in pictures to make them a little more interesting and elevated. That's gonna come over time as you start to really practice and study, but you wanna think about Cartier-Bresson, and the decisive moment, and layering pictures and putting more information, and really considering everything that's in your frame.
Can I just add something?
When you mentioned Bresson, I do that myself, I study his photos, and I've heard him, well I haven't heard him, but I know that he said the key is waiting for the right moment, and I study his photos, and I think to myself, "Okay, what was he doing? "How long did he sit there? "Why is this the perfect moment?" It's just like a little exercise that I do from time to time, and it helps--
It's all about the waiting, yeah. Absolutely. Portrait. So this is also in Peru, and this guy sells chicha, which is an alcoholic beverage, and we were going to buy some from him, and I just saw this really beautiful light, and I sat him down and I just made his portrait. It was that simple. So I'm just looking for really nice light, and that's the foundation for a really great photograph. If you can find great light and just wait for something to happen, or make a portrait in front of it. This is in Bahia in Brazil. It's a story I did on tropical fruits, and this was this massive procession called la fashion de bombine, where they go, and it's this huge day of blessings. So they have this massive-- It's a lot like Carnival. So it was insane, I had a bodyguard. It can be a little dangerous because there's a lot of people crowding you, and we had already been, there's a lot of pick-pocketing. I had gear, and I didn't want to hire a bodyguard, but the writer who'd been there several times was like let's do this. Bodyguard, I should use that term really lightly, because... That was questionable whether he was a bodyguard, let's be honest. In hindsight, really the guy had a video camera. So let's just say there was a guy with a video camera who was kind of watching my back. He wasn't like "back off" no. But he was a sweet man. So we're through this procession, and I was just trying to find the energy in a moment that really defined what this was about, you know? And again, the light wasn't great, but I'd just went with composition and moment, and let them find movement, they were dancing, and I was literally in front of them like, dancing with them, I was moving. John, if we were dancing today, I'd be dancing in photograph. That's how that went down. Detail. So I'm just repeating these ideas back and forth to you, so when you go out there, they should be in your head, and I'll remind you. This again, is in Bahia, and we went by Farofa, and so this was a little farofa mill in a small village on one of the islands. I just gotta go back for a second to when I was in Brazil, and the bodyguard. So I'm photographing this procession, right? And it's tight, and people are crowding me, and we get to this one point where, it's kind of, people are really getting into it and cheering and emotional, and I'm in front of this woman making her picture, and she's crying, and I start to feel someone going into my pocket like, and I was like "What's going on?" I'm just shooting and I felt something, and I was like "Huh?" And I just went down, and I grabbed the hand, and I pulled it, and I looked, and it was the lady that was like this, she was basically like pick-pocketing me. (laughing) And the videographer was like filming it, and I was like "dude". So I use the term bodyguard lightly on that one. So this is in Spain, I'm thinking sense of place, I'm thinking moment, and just, you know. Just thinking about a decisive moment, breaking up composition, and looking at shadows and light and details, just giving it a sense of place. This is details for sure, but I also think it's an establishing shot. It tells you immediately what it's about. So think about that. These are these little pigs, they're so cute, and I'm not gonna tell you what happens to them when they grow up, just know that they're sweet. This is in India, a story I did. It's a story on these foods that happen, how Indian food in this country, the traditional foods that we eat that are Indian, how they came here. So we were sent to India to go to those restaurants that kind of imported those ideas, so it was like Tendoi Chicken, and all these things that we eat as Americans that are there too, but they're so much more, but why did those foods come and not others. If that makes sense. So I walk into this kitchen, keep in mind, I'm shooting the food here, but I walk into this kitchen, and these guys look like they just came out of battle. They're just dirtied up aprons, and there's like all these chefs with hats, and I was like, "This is a photograph, this is a portrait" and so I made a portrait.
How about a question from the internet.
This is from Mike, and the question was the other day, you talked about how your early work affected your food photography. Can you talk a little bit as you're looking through these, how your food photography has affected your travel and portraiture photography?
Oh I think it's the same. I think it is one and the same. I'm sorry, I didn't communicate that earlier. I feel like they are the same thing. I think food photography is travel photography. I think portrait photography is travel photography. I think all of it is the same thing. That's what it is for me. I can't just go to a shoot, and I shouldn't. I'm a photographer. I can't just go to a shoot and shoot food. As a photographer, I need to explore everything. So people call me a food photographer, and I always get a little uneasy because I feel like I shoot beyond just the plate. I love that I'm a food photographer, and I love the idea of where it puts me, and the context of the places that it's taken me, but it is far beyond the plate. What I love about it that, food is this amazing connector. It's what brings us all together, and we can all relate to it. That is awesome. Call me a food photographer, because that's what it's about. Here, I'm thinking about color and motion, and just movement, and just like that bread tuk tuk. So color. In India, they have these truck stops, and it's kind of like their version of, it's not a restaurant, but it's like what we would consider a convenience store, but it's a restaurant for them. So in our country, we drive down a highway, we get hungry, we stop at a convenience store, we get a water or whatever, right? Then we get back into our car and go. In India, they got it right. You're down the highway, you get hungry, you stop, you go to a dabba, and it's like tables, and on each side of the table there's a cot, and then there's amazing food, like amazing food. So it was a small piece on these dabbas. I'm not sure, and I don't want to mis-quote, but I think they're the first version of a restaurant that really started to happen in India. So I'm at this dabba, and all these men are sitting around, and I was like "Aw" and of course I sit down with people, I sit down, of course I ask, and I will sit with them, and I'm not eating, but I'm photographing. I'm right here, right in front of them just waiting, I'm waiting, and I'm building a photograph. So these guys are eating, hopefully eventually, they're forgetting about me, but then I'm starting to think about my background. Thinking about this guy coming through, I'm waiting for this hand to come in. I'm just thinking about everything that's around it. I love the color of those napkins, they're finally starting to forget me and move. Think about that. You're building a photograph. When you're waiting, you're waiting for the right moment. So this is a detail, I think this is a landscape, this is a sense of place, this is all those ideas. It's color, it's composition, it's light, it's all of 'em. So you're getting up, you're getting down, you're moving around, you're looking for your pictures everywhere.
Going back to your picture before, one of the things that I struggle with, I have a lot of conversations with amateur photographers that are struggling with, when you really want to incorporate people and movement, and you wanna get up and get in there with them, how do you get out of a car in India and walk into one of these dabbas and sit down with these hardcore dudes, and just start making pictures of them?
It's hard and it doesn't happen right away, you have to be very comfortable with yourself. You try to be the best person you can be, and over time, you get better at approaching people. I know for people that are just starting out, it's hard to get up in front of people and just make their picture. So you've got to break through. You get out of yourself, you get out of your shell, and you just go up to people. Like I said, if you're zooming, you're not doing that. If you're walking up to someone, you're doing that, you're starting to come out yourself, they're gonna come out. You're communicating with your body language, so it's important for you to just go for it. I think a lot of, if I can communicate this, I think a lot of photographers don't do that because they don't wanna bother someone, or they don't want to embarrass them, they don't want their picture, no I don't want to bother them, but you know, the worst thing they can say is no. So go for it.
Sure. Details. Again, just details. Simple details. This is an example of where smoke works. I think it adds texture. It adds emotion, you know? Feeling. I waited for this picture for a long time. I saw these guys walking down an alleyway in red coats, and I was like "That's a photograph" and I trailed them. I followed them until they got to where they were going, and I got on the floor, and I waited. They were giggling and laughing, and it took awhile, and they eventually forgot about me, and I have dozens of pictures of them drinking, and I was just waiting for the right moment. This guy picked up that big pitcher, he's finally, I mean it just... It worked out. I love the posters on the wall, it put me in India, it was a portrait, it was a moment, compositionally it's interesting. It just has great color. You're building these photographs, and you're thinking about all those words, and if you can put as many of those words in a photograph, you're starting to really grow and make pictures, and you're getting there. You guys getting this? (students responding positively)
Have you ever done that and gotten lost?
Oh yeah, totally. I've done that and have been like, and done it and been so into it, and I look up, and I'm like oh man, I don't know where I'm at. How do I get out of here? But I'm always around, I mean people like it's an exchange, and they're always like... There's a connection. I think that's why photographs, really successful ones happen in that situation, it's because there's a connection. When I finally put my camera down, those guys were smiling at me, and I mean we didn't speak the same language, I had a translator, and it was a sweet moment.
You find that some people like the attention?
Absolutely, they are so flattered.
Who was so excited, the woman with the lamb. It isn't very often that people take that time to talk to you or document you, or you know, keep you for posterity.
A lot of people are genuinely touched.
So with those three men in the red coats, your translator walked up to them and said "This is a photographer"--
No, in that case, I just thought it's better to not ask for permission and apologize. I just went for it. If they would've looked at me and been like "What the hell?" Then I would've been like "Okay, can you ask them "if I can make their picture?" I can read people's body language. I know when people don't want me there. They were sweet. They turned around and looked at me, and I smiled as big as I could, and I was like hey. They smiled and then I got on the floor, and they were like "What's this crazy woman doing?" and of course they smiled again, and I was just like okay and I kept making my pictures, and then they were like kind of looking at the camera maybe almost posing, and I asked the translator to tell them just to please do what they were normally gonna do and ignore me. That was kind of all I said. So there's amazing street food in India, and I wanted to go in the evening and try to capture some of it at different times of day. Story telling can be told really well when you do it in different times of day. So you're changing light sources. It can add a lot of mood. It's a wonderful way to just go and make pictures. You don't have to worry about the light, you just use the light that's available from like light bulbs and just explore. This is an assignment I did in Cyprus, and so of course I had to give a sense of place. I found all of these rooftops that were red, and I got on top of one of 'em, and just made a picture. I needed to put it in the context of where I was at. So I'm thinking color. I just though color. Details and light here. Again, details. These are walnuts that they peel before they're ripe, and so their hands turn black, and they candy them, and they're amazing. So that was an interesting detail. This is from the Texas issue that I failed horribly at, but this is actually one of the pictures that worked. No, this was actually a story about this chuck wagon cook. He's not a chuck wagon cook anymore, but that's how he started. Darn I wish he was still, that would've been a great picture. But he has this ranch that he's turned into a restaurant, and it's awesome. I mean it is awesome.
He looks pretty awesome.
He was not comfortable. I mean we went through several versions of this, and I went there early and shot the restaurant. I mean it was a portrait. It was a portrait assignment, but I wanted to just check it out for myself. It's a ranch, duh. I mean you're a photographer, go early. If they'll let you, stay the night. It's a ranch, that's cool. So we spent a lot of time with him. I spent a lot of time with him in several settings before we finally got to the-- This might've been the last set where I finally was able to get an emotion from him where he forgot about me. Then he had his big old cigar, and he was about to, I was about to take his picture, and he had a cigar, and he's like "honey will you take my cigar?" And I was like "No! Leave the cigar!" Internet.
So many questions. Can we just cover some basic questions?
A lot of people have been asking about releases for all these people. Do you get these people to sign releases?
Okay, all of them?
Not every one of these. These are different assignments from different publications, so.
But it's something you do?
No, I do it as if the magazine requests it. Not every magazine does. If I have to have it, yeah, I will have the fixer or the translator have them ready and we'll sign it.
Okay, and also do you ever give prints to people?
It's really hard because in another country, I can't, I mean it's difficult. I'll email maybe low-res JPEGs. It's difficult. What I try to do if I can, if they make it into publication, I'll send them an issue, I'll have the magazine send them an issue or whatever publication it is, send them an issue. That's kind of one of the casualties, it's hard to do that. Not everybody asks for that, but.
In the markets, getting that bird's eye view of the food, what do you usually--
When you're walking through markets and stuff, and you want a bird's eye view, how do you get that?
Oh, I'm on a ladder. I'm on a chair. I'm standing on top of someone's car, or whatever, you know. I'm using something to get up high.
You actually carry a ladder into the market in India and get up on them?
I'll either rent one for five minutes or, no, I won't carry one... Sometimes, but not normally, I'll borrow one from someone if I have an opportunity to do so. Most people are nice. I was in Mexico City on assignment and actually had to rent the ladder for $10 for like 5 minutes. Whatever. I expensed it. This is a manua, and it was from a street stall, and I just had to make it look really good. So this is coming from a street vendor, and I just slapped it down on the red table and made it look like I was gonna eat it. Enchiladas, a story I did on enchiladas. Of course, this came packed with a bunch of other food around it, and we just pared it all away, and I said let's just focus in on this, and then we cut into it, and that was the picture, and they were amazing. That food, I did eat. This is a chef in Huston, Monica Pope, a wonderful chef. A little uncomfortable with having her picture made, we spent like two or three hours together. Finally this was the last place, and she kind of let go, and I think I sat there for like 45 minutes with her. I dunno how long I sat there, but I sat there for a long time, and we just talked. I have several versions of something around this, but she finally let me have who she was, and ironically after this photo shoot, we became great friends, which is a wonderful wonderful thing, which is one of the things that happens a lot when I go on assignments. I feel really lucky. I spent Thanksgiving this past November with this beautiful family in New Jersey, and it's running this November. I'm not gonna cry about that one, but it was just, I got to bring my partner and it was, it was a beautiful holiday. I didn't know 'em at all. I spent like 14 hours with them, and by the end when I left, I was just like wow. I love what I do, that is a privilege. I hope they like the pictures. Anyway this is just some oysters, and this was a self-assignment. I'd heard about these really great oysters in the gulf near Galviston, and I wanted to go there and I shot it for myself, and I actually blogged about it. So they put them on the tray, and the tray gets all crusty and burnt, and so they just use those trays every time. They're roasted oysters with parmesan and butter. Just slurp 'em up. This is a self-assignment I did on asian Cajun crawfish, it's this huge kind of food that is very popular in Texas. Huston specifically, and then it's like in LA, and these asian communities, a lot of Vietnamese after they left Vietnam were working in the fishing industry in Louisiana and saw the way that they were doing crawfish boils, and they were like "Man, that's cool, "we can do that." and of course they stepped it up like a million times, and they added their spices and their herbs, and it is amazing. It's amazing. I mean that, it's incredible. So I was like "Oh" so I went and did like an essay on it, and there's all these little, in Chinatown and in Huston there's courtyards where they sell this asian Cajun crawfish and these guys on Sundays, they're wrapping trash bags around themselves because they're gonna eat, they've lined the table with trash bags, and they just pour out the crawfish and go crazy. So it's a detail, and it's a Food Beauty. This is a story I did in Oklahoma on this, the fried onion burger during the depression. Meat was really expensive, and so this hamburger joint would take hamburger patties and make them smaller, but they'd beef 'em up by taking onions and cooking them crispy and greasy and amazing, and then they'd pack-- They'd cook the patty, cook the onions, and then slap them both together and it's called a fried onion burger, and this is from the depression years, and so they still sell the same burger, and it's very popular, and so I went to this cafe in Oklahoma and photographed it. So this was a bunch of high school boys who were coming in, and so I'm on the other side of the counter just waiting for this picture, and I loved this guys eyes and the light on his face. That's what I was waiting for. I flew in, I got the first flight I could get, I got there 8 AM, I stayed until my flight left, which was probably like 7 PM. I dunno, I think the magazine ran two pictures, so I overshot, but it was that good. I mean I was like this is cool, I mean your assignment, go to an old generational cafe in middle America. I'm not gonna go for an hour, that's crazy. That's beautiful. That's where stories are, you know? That's what I want to photograph. This is a story I did on soul food in Chicago. And so I was just looking for moments, you know? I was following the woman, they were like, you cannot come back to the kitchen, and I was like okay, and so I'm just kind of following her, of course she's looking at me like "Don't you", and I'm like "I'm not" so there's my picture. I just thought it was an interesting moment. Details. Details and tones. This is waiting for a moment, and again, I'm on the other side of the counter, I'm waiting, and these guys are eating, which I was at this point ravenous, I was like "That looks so good" (laughing) And then I was waiting for this, just some stuff to happen. This is Izola's in Chicago, amazing fried chicken. There's Izola right there. And so just kind of thinking again about building a picture, looking for movement, and then the lady comes with a tray kind of racing back... This is Izola's chicken. Fried chicken is hot. I think it's one of the most iconic foods in our country. Any chance to photograph an iconic food, I think there's really a lot of stories around there. Think about that. This is something I did in Sweden, and this is just a landscape. I did a story, but I needed to show that I was in Sweden, so it was kind of like this amazing, I went on a walk that morning. I just woke up and started walking. Portrait. I'm at a cafe, this guy walks up, and I'm like "oh" and his face, I've never seen a face like that, it just immediately put me in Scandinavia. Again, we're driving. This is in the fjords in Norway. We're driving, I'm scouting, and there's like this kind of jetty that goes out, and there was a bonfire. That wasn't happening, but it was just there. I just quietly made my picture, you know? Waited for the right moment to make that picture. Thought about light and moment and color. Reflections. This is also in Norway. Just spending some time with this farmer as he's working his animals. He has a goat farm, he made cheese. Food Beauty. Thinking about color mostly on this one. This is this is the fjords also. I went into this one house, and I just kinda framed the fjords through those windows. So I'm shooting through things to give it kind of emotion or feeling. That's something I think about. Shoot through things. This is also a fjord, and I'm just. I stood there for a long time while these kids were swimming, and I just waited for the right moment to happen. I made a lot of pictures in this situation. Thinking about body language and... This is a high end restaurant, and I'm just looking for layers here, so these guys were precisely, when you're setting a table, they're... It's like an art form. I just waited for this photo to build, and you can barely just see the edge of his, but I liked that nuance. Not everybody sees that, but it just makes the photograph more interesting. It's quiet, it's nuanced. This was a cover I did for Saveur, on Los Angeles. So I scouted for this story. I did an assignment on East LA, and so I was driving around looking for where I was going to make my sense of place photographs, and I found this mural two or three days before I made this picture. I was like "That's a photograph." And I kept going back and just waiting for people to eat tacos in front of it finally, because there's a taco truck right in front of it that parks there, and I just waited.
May we have a question from the internet?
So Wizzy actually asked yesterday whether it be with food or with this other type of photography, when you're trying to create an image, is there something you have in your head before, and then you create it, or are you often surprised as the process moves along, and when you see that final piece of art, there's a surprise factor to you.
It's the latter for sure. I try not to preconceive, because then I think I'm not anticipating, I'm not just letting it happen, so I think you have to go in really open and just let it happen and see what happens and stick with it, because the minute you start to go "Oh this is the photo I want" and then when it happens, you're done. No, you've gotta just go in, have an idea of maybe what you're looking for, but expect all that to be thrown out the window, and just be open to what is there, and wait for it, and watch it happen, and just go with it.
One of our regulars, Canon Geek in the chatroom wanted to know how do you deal with food, if you have health concerns about cleanliness, or have you...
No I don't, not in most situations where I'm photographing, no. I have been sick. I was violently sick in Morocco this summer, but I was finishing an assignment, and I stopped in Morocco on the way back. Then I got pretty sick.
Part of the game, right?
Part of the deal, yeah. It just makes my stomach stronger. It's almost steel plated, but the next one should seal it. (laughing)
What percentage of the time in the markets do you actually eat the food that you just photographed?
A lot of people are really sensitive about that, so I always try it. I want them to know that I trust them, and I think that it's probably good. I mean it depends, if I'm walking by, and I see something interesting, I'll make a picture here or there. I might not eat it because it's not in the right context, but if it's an intentional I'm taking the food, and I'm putting it over here, and I'm spending some time with it and photographing, yeah, I'll try it for sure. I mean that's the nice thing to do. So that was just a street scene. Again, I'm changing my time of day, just looking for, thinking about emotion and stuff. I made this picture for the sole reason of that detail on the back which needed context. The knife is cut through the door so it's holding it shut. This is in east LA. Again, the taco trucks in east LA are amazing, so I'm kind of obsessed over them. Sense of place, just waiting for the right moment to happen. People in cowboy hats, just go. Don't think about it. These are stylists, hair and makeup artists who were doing this fashion show, and they hadn't eaten for hours, and finally their meal comes, and I was like "Oh! That's a photo!" and so I get right in front of 'em and I just start shooting. They were great. Just waiting for the right moment, you know? This is also a story I did in LA on the Pantry, the original Pantry, a great cafe that's been there for years, generations. I shot a ton in the actual cafe, but then I went to the back where all the cooks go and have breaks, and that's where my picture was. So this guy just quietly eating his soup. This is actually what the magazine ran. His handlers told me I had five minutes, so I went in and already kinda set up where I was gonna shoot him, and so I was prepared for him to sit down and go. Sit down five minutes and go, and he came in, and he was like "Penny!" and I was like "Oh my god!" and he gave me a hug and I spent like two and a half three hours with him, and had this great exchange. He was like "We've gotta get the cover, "because that means you get paid more!" (laughing) And I just loved that, I laughed. He was great. You know, by the end of it he was back in the kitchen, he was doing his thing, and I was photographing it. He was just great. He was just great. It was really sweet, and by the end I was like "You know, I'm also trying to "find a food moment, it'd be cool if I could maybe "hang out with you." And so he was trying to set it up where I could go with him to the Beverly Hills hotel and Susan Goan was gonna meet us and this other chef. We were setting it up, and then it just completely fell through because the Beverly-- well anyway, it just fell through, but that's how cool he was. So this is, I photographed his pizza, and he actually was there when I was photographing his pizza, and he was like "You've gotta eat that caviar "that's $100 worth of caviar!"
You did eat the caviar, right?
You know what, I could not focus for a minute on thinking about eating the food. My head is behind the camera right now, but the assistants were like totally mowing, and his people were like eating, and so I was like "Cool, someone's eating it." This is in Jerusalem, I did a story on the most suicide bombed market in the world. This isn't the market, but this is a, I needed to give the story a sense of place, so this is outside the old city. This kind of big flea market happens. I was in the cab on the way back to the airport, and I'm just kind of shooting.
Can I ask a question about the suicide bombing market?
Do you cringe when you get that, or do you say cool?
I was cool.
I guess. I didn't think about it. I mean it's about a market, so sure, I dunno. Maybe in hindsight. It was a little difficult. Not everybody wanted their picture made, so I had to be really respectful and sensitive about that. So I just tried to quietly make my pictures, and I spent every day there I could, and just made my pictures. Portraits. Did this guy want his picture made? I really don't know. He had a great face and I'd asked him, and he said "Yes." (laughing) And that's what I got, but you know what, I like his face, I loved the lines in his face, it feels like a road map. It just feels like there is so much there, you know? He could've said "No" and that would've been it. I got two frames and he was like "I'm done." and I was like "Okay, thank you." Can I buy some of your falafel? Anyway. In the market, I just really wanted to show there's a lot of energy and movement. I wanted to show that women were vendors. Just really trying to put you in that market. Get you in that space. I'm just looking for light. I love that the bread just kind of illuminated as it passed through that. I responded to that, so I'm thinking about my instincts. Hummus, man, that is not a pretty food. It's bland. It's awesome and delicious, but when you photograph it, it's pretty monochromatic. So thank god these people put garbanzos in it with some olive oil and some herbs.
Penny, can I ask you a question?
You're getting these decisive moments in other people's lives. Did you hear me?
Noob in the chat room was wondering if you find it's easy to get those decisive moments in your own life. With your own family.
Ooh. You know what? I have an amazing life. I have an amazing partner, and an amazing set of friends. Absolutely. I don't get to have all of those moments, but when I am home, I try to take advantage of them, and I usually don't photograph them.
No, I wanna be there. In the same way that... You know, when my mom passed away, I made one picture, two pictures, but I didn't photograph anything else, because I really wanted to be there, and I saw some really wonderful pictures, but they're in my mind's eye, you know? And that's, those are the ones that stay with you forever, so. I mean it's always hard to get on a plane and leave the people I love and the people that feed me. I mean I don't think I'd be able to make these pictures if I didn't have those decisive moments in my own life. I know that. So I feel like I operate from that place because I'm given that. I have a wonderful life.
How much of the year are you away?
Oh my god, it varies. I didn't go anywhere like all of February. Most of March, but then I've been gone here and there. I'm not gone that much. It may sound like I'm everywhere, but I'm not. Maybe a week or two out of every month maybe. It varies. I'm home for the next two weeks after this, and then I'm gone for two weeks, and then I'm home for maybe two weeks. It sounds like I'm gone a lot. (laughing) The great thing about what I do is that if it's doable, I can travel, like my partner can come with me. That doesn't always happen, but you know. That was a great question. I think that's an important question. This is in Lebanon in Beirut, and I did this story on these Iraqi men who are fleeing Iraq during the war for their lives, basically, and they come to the neighboring countries like Lebanon, and they live in the bowels of the city. They are third and fourth class citizens, and specifically this particular group of men, they come together and they cook as a way to remember where they come from, and the assignment said, the magazine that I was on assignment for sent me there during Ramadan, which meant that I had one meal to photograph, and that was the evening meal where there was no light. This is in one of... The previous picture was in a refugee camp, which I thought a refugee camp would look something completely differently, but it's really kind of an area sectioned housing specific for, in that case, the Palestinian community. This is in that neighborhood. I had one of the most poignant moments of my career on this assignment. I've talked about this before, some people have maybe heard this, but... There are moments I get to sit at a lot of wonderful tables. I get to meet a lot of amazing people. This is an assignment for me, being here with you guys. This is like an assignment. So on this particular assignment, these men were cooking together to remember where they came from. The recipes their mothers taught them. It was really moving. We didn't speak the same language, I had a translator. The writer was with me, she just published this beautiful book. I can't remember the name, but it's really beautiful. Milk and Honey I think? The New York Times just wrote about it. It's really wonderful. She was super sensitive, so we were in this together, but it was this moment where I spent all day with them. I had two or three days, it was really dangerous. I couldn't be with them, because they would run the risk of being deported back to their country and potentially had their lives seriously at risk. So it wasn't worth it for us to in any way put them in a position where they'd be compromised. I've gotta go to this picture. We spent three days with them. I had one real meal with them, and I was only able to photograph them eating at night, because it was Ramadan. So I couldn't use flash, I couldn't walk with them. I'm a westerner, I'm a woman, I'm a journalist. In the neighborhood they lived, they would've been immediately picked up, I would've been detained, it was not something we could risk at all. So it was dangerous. When I would get to their house, I couldn't use flash. I had to shoot with available light because we were shooting at night, because any burst of flash from windows, they have people that are sign watchers that sit on roofs, and any weird or odd activity, you get picked up like that, and American journalists get detained. I spent all day with them, they're cooking, it's this amazing moment, I'm like "Yeah this is gonna "be great, they're gonna sit down at this meal." They start getting the table ready, they were eating on the floor, they cut in half garbage bags, and they were starting to bring out the food, and I heard the call to prayer, and I was like "Okay, it's about to happen, they're gonna eat" and this was my picture, this was my opener, this was my picture. They're about to sit down, and all of a sudden boom, the electricity goes out. I was like "Crap" I can't use flash. I could probably squeeze out a few frames, but there's gonna be motion, there was no light. Then all of a sudden the guy from the corner comes in, and he starts bringing out these candles, and they start to light them, and it just kind of illuminated their faces. The magazine titled the story "Remembering Home" and for me, it was like sitting at that table, I never would've been able to sit at that table with them. Not as a woman. Never. Not as a journalist, not as a westerner, but because of my camera, I did get to sit at that table. That's a powerful story. That's food photography. That's what I want you guys to do today. I want you to think about the potential in any situation, even if everything goes wrong. The power goes out, the light goes down, it's raining in Seattle, we're shooting under tents. We have the potential to make a great photograph. You have the potential to give these guys something and take something home. This moment changed my life. I just felt so privileged to sit with them. Ironically the guy right here was, he was getting asylum from the US, and he was leaving the day after me to go to live in Dallas, and he was really excited to go to Walmart. (laughing) That's probably one of my moments in my life I'll remember forever. That to me is why I became a photographer. There's so much power in telling these stories. I want you guys to get that. I want you guys to take risks. Embrace the challenges, and just try. You guys ready to do this? (students responding positively) All right, so here's what I need you to do. I need you to be inspired. (laughing) I need you to love what you're doing. I need you to have insatiable curiosity. This is the hard one, I need you to lead with your heart. Be open. Follow your instincts, and listen. Let's make pictures. (applauding)