Monday, March 18

Penny De Los Santos: The Assignment of a Lifetime

Food and travel photographer Penny De Los Santos blogs for us about her sources of inspiration, her travels, and her favorite bites and sips along the way. You can follow Penny on Twitter at @pennydelosantos. 

When my editor asked about my availability for a shoot in India with Madhur Jaffrey, I didn’t need much time to think. As a visual storyteller, I have devoted my career to documenting food culture with a focus on the history and lineage of foodways around the world. Getting the chance to travel with Jaffrey—arguably the most influential writer on Indian cuisine—was like hitting the mother lode.

Penny De Los Santos and Madhur Jaffrey. All photos by Penny De Los Santos; click to enlarge.

Within hours of landing in Hyderabad’s old city, Madhur and I were on a rooftop with a group of men making samosas. In one corner they were heating big pots of oil and in the other, they were on the floor, knee to knee, delicately folding triangles of dough filled with potato, chilies, ginger, garlic, and coriander, producing the goods for their samosa cart, which they would take to the street later that day. I made their portraits and photographed them in this wonderful moment of community as they all cooked together.

Here’s where the dream ends. A few hours into the shoot up on that rooftop, I fell horribly sick. A nasty water-borne food illness took me down. It was the first time, after traveling the world from end to end, I had ever succumbed to that kind of gastrointestinal drama. It took many days to recover enough to get back behind my camera and into the streets, but when I did, I still wasn’t fully there. I struggled the entire assignment to get better.

Typical spices in the Andhra Pradesh region

People always ask me if I taste everything I photograph and in this case, I certainly did not, but what I did take in was a colorful, rich people who are so humble and generous with their lives. Not a single person didn’t love having their photograph made—everyone who saw me with my camera smiled. And that, in the end, was what filled me up to the top.

The view from my hotel, the Taj Falaknuma, in Hyderabad.
Beautiful light streams into a kitchen through tiny windows in a small village along the coast.

Our boat guide, who also cooked for us.
Mutton hoof soup, a popular Muslim breakfast in Hyderabad.
Men make idlis (steamed fermented lentil-and-rice cakes) for breakfast in the old city of Hyderabad.
Morning coffee at the local bakery.
A mid-day meal called a "mess," or thali, is served all over India.
These restaurant cooks could not stop watching me as I set up a little make-shift studio in their kitchen. Eventually I made them all stand together and act as a big bounce card—their white coats were exactly what I needed.