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Before finding her vocation in the visual storytelling of remote communities and cultures through the food they eat and gather, Penny De Los Santos has worked extensively as a documentary photographer.
Her award-winning stories have been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Time, Martha Stewart Living and Bon Appetit. She spoke with us from her apartment in New York City, just a few days before departing to shoot a cookbook in the Basque country.
How did you first get involved with food photography?
It was around 2006: I had an editor who had just moved to a new publication so he called me to see if I was interested into doing a story in Peru and as soon as I get done there I could also shoot a second one in Chile. It was a story about food culture, a celebration of the local community for Saveur magazine. So far I mostly did visual stories around people and culture. So he asked me to just do what I usually do, without worrying about the food too much. I went to this assignment and met with the writer - a food historian – on location. As we were walking at the market in Santiago, to hear her talk about how the potato migrated and how it influenced this particular culture, I realized that food tells amazing stories. I had never seen anyone photographing such a thing and found it incredibly compelling, exploring food culture. On my way back home I was thinking that this is what I want to do. I want to shoot food.
How is your life influenced by food?
For me, from what I have experienced through my job, it’s not just about the ingredients. The active gathering around the table and how they connect, is what influences my work the most. The intimacy of sharing a meal and how profound and different that can be. You know food connects all of us. It’s something far beyond our differences and politics. Food is the one thing that can change us all.
You have done several interesting stories documenting the food habits of faraway cultures. How do those stories occur?
Usually it’s something I’ve been commissioned to do. For the first 10 years of my career I was trained by National Geographic. Being a visual storyteller, I know how to narrate a culture that I had never interacted with before within a short period of time. So this is what I do.
What is the most fascinating experience that has happened to you so far?
I’d had so many and they’re always pretty profound, but there are a few that I speak about mostly because they changed me. One of those stories was in Beirut: my assignment was to photograph a group of Iraqi refugees. Those men had left their families, their communities, everything. And they had nothing, in a city that they barely knew. So the story was about how 8 of these men had found each other and how they gather once a week and remember home by cooking. For me as a woman and as a westerner, I would have never been able to seat at their table and eat with them. But through my camera and because of photography, that was my passport into their lives. I think food is one of the most intimate ways of communication, without a doubt. But by sharing in this case particularly, those men remembered their home. Realizing that because of cooking they found community and a new home, and I really felt that because it was powerful and profound. It was one of the most incredible tables I’ve ever sat, I could have never imagined anything like that.
What is the difference between the way the older cultures and the westerners perceive food?
Certain cultures have a deep rooted tradition in gathering: if you go to a developing country and you go to the market, the difference is the place where you are sourcing your ingredients and the way recipes are handed down. I think that to some degree we have that in the U.S. through cultures who have migrated here. Still, in our case the commercialization and globalization of food is deep. As much the further you get away from the western world you don’t see that. And therefore people cook more simply and closer to the ground, metaphorically speaking. Meaning that they don’t add a bunch of different ingredients. It’s very simple and thoughtful. While in this country we look at recipes and websites, we’re really interested in “growing” our food connection while those cultures already have that.