An Inspired Sunday

Penny de los Santos in San Francisco

Two Sundays ago, I found myself on the BART, making my way up to San Francisco at the incredibly early hour of 8am. If you know me and my relationship with sleep, this was a pretty big deal, especially on a weekend when we lost an hour during the night.But this wasn’t just about spending a Sunday in the city. This was spending Sunday with Penny De Los Santos, she of National Geographic and Saveur fame, along with a host of awards under her belt for her documentary, food and travel photo essays.So despite the complaints from my physiological self, I fought through the haze to have breakfast with the lovely Denise of Chez Us and Megan, of A Sweet Spoonful before making our way to the cosy chic restaurant Contigo, where the workshop was held.

Contigo lamps

Given her background in documentary photography, Penny brings a dynamic, “off the cuff” approach to food photography which was fascinating to hear about. She’s constantly “reacting to the scene”, be it in restaurants, bazaars or bars, anywhere that people gather over food. Viewed this way, food photography becomes more than just about what’s on the plate, it’s about context, the story behind the plate, and it’s the photographer’s job to tell that story by piecing different elements together: the people, the ingredients, the people who grew the ingredients, the people who prepare the ingredients, the culture from which the dish came from.As she walked us through her portfolio, Penny introduced  the concept of Making as opposed to Taking, pictures, implying an active, thoughtful role on the photographer’s part to manage the different elements of a photograph – light, aperture, shutter speed, focal length – to capture that Decisive Moment, Henri-Cartier Bresson‘s notion of that split-second in street life that will elevate a picture from good to momentous. There is a lot of waiting involved when making photographs of other people, a lot of patience, and a fair amount of fearlessness required to approach complete strangers to capture those decisive moments that best tell their story.

Contigo Kitchen

Balancing out the commentary and discussions about shooting “in the field” were hands-on food photography “assignments” where we played around with a succession of beautiful dishes that Chef Brett Emerson prepared and plated. There was a Citrus Salad bursting with Spring colors, Deep-Fried Smelt with a Romesco sauce, Sardines a la plancha with Watermelon Radish and Salad, Churros with a mugful of divinely thick Chocolate Sauce, Almond Cake with Orange and Lavender Cream….we snapped it all, playing around with a host of props and the food itself, exhausting all possible angles and perspectives.And then we broke the cardinal rule of food styling by promptly tucking into this delicious spread.Enticed by the little snippets of the menu I saw, M and I returned for dinner in the evening, for a meal that left us with a renewed perspective on cooked duck after having their Liberty Duck Canalons with Oloroso Sauce. Simply mind-blowing. If you ever find yourself in San Francisco with only a meal to spare, please promise me you’ll take it at Contigo. I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it.Now, back to Penny…

Penny de los Santos

After spending the morning playing around with Contigo’s beautifully plated food, we were sent out “into the field” in the Mission district to apply the ideas and concepts of street photography that Penny spoke about. This was where the fun really began.

Pushing us out of our comfort zones, we were exhorted to capture portraits of complete strangers, sit ourselves down to lunch with whole families, in essence, placing ourselves right in the heart of the action to capture those Moments Penny spoke enthusiastically about a few hours earlier.

The Mission, San Francisco

It was documentary photography that lured me into the world of aperture and shutter speeds in the first place, so I was all too familiar with this set-up. The adrenaline of pounding the pavements, viewing my environment with a mental viewfinder and wrestling with the discomfort of approaching total strangers created an incessant stream of mental chatter where I oscillated between “Go for it” and “No No No!” at each potential opportunity.Self-censorship. The artist’s worst enemy.

After joining a family’s Sunday brunch in a Taqueria, peeking through windows and being turned down for a portrait by a disgruntled old man, I came away from that afternoon with a deeper appreciation for the invisible boundaries I placed around myself to protect against disappointing “NO”s and the uneasiness of intruding on someone’s life, if only for a few minutes. I learnt to trust my nascent photographic instincts and in the good nature of complete strangers, while developing my resistance towards the familiar demon of Self-Censorship. There is still a lot of work to be done to make truly evocative pictures and portraits, but that afternoon was a much-needed push in the right direction. Now I just need to continue walking this path.

For more pictures from that day, check out our Flickr Pool and the recaps by:


  1. JJR

    Hey, I clicked from Foodgawker. I moved away from SF last summer, and I really miss it, especially the food. Love the photo of the three housemates on the steps–that’s SF to me.

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