The Next Big Food Photographer on the Block
All Images Copyright of Sophia Terra Ziva
I think most of us are bombarded on a daily basis with food photography. From everyone photographing their meal on Instagram to the incredible pro photographers creating mouth-watering works of art.
When Sophia Terra-Ziva’s first contacted me regarding mentoring, her images slammed me out of my morning slumber. Was that a packet of pill’s I just saw tossed on the table behind the empty coffee? Was that a simple plate of sardines amongst a botanist’s drawings? Did I see coloured cigarettes and jewelled fingers and a very sensual end to a cup of coffee?
I adored her series of images called the Lonely Man’s Lunch, so melancholic, thought provoking and beautifully crafted. A glass of whiskey, more pills, scattered nuts and cigarette stubs. Who’s the guy, she has you wondering?
This is no ordinary food photographer, this woman is an artist, she is creating mini theatre in every image. There is so much emotion, thought, layering and storytelling! And she is daring to do what most of us don’t have the courage to do. To tell her artistic truth, go out of the box and express herself freely.
Sophia has kindly shared some thoughts behind her images and when you have read this interview I would advise you to hop, skip or jump on over to her site and check out her beautiful work.
1. In your images there appears to be real sentiment and association with food and the rituality of meals for you. Is this a big part of your story? Could you elaborate more about your connection to food and the influence it has had on your photography?
So many meals, so many simple ingredients can strike an instant reaction in me as if I see a whole motion picture rolling in front of my eyes. It is the motion picture of my early years where food and its preparation were an event in my home and everything was made with its purpose and deep meaning. We were poor and we were thought to respect what we’ve got and make the best of it. Many times we would hear the older women in my family referring to food, let’s say – bread, as to some person of high status. As a matter of fact, my paternal grandma would often say, “Nobody is higher than the bread on the table”.
The family kitchen was a place bringing us together, where we will share, relax and unwind after a long day.
Talking about rituality, in our household, we were just like a Classic Greek Drama from the times of Sophocles with the three main actors being my Mamma, her sister Aunty Olga and their brother Uncle Vanyo. My sister and I were The Chorus in this classic performance, and my Dad was the Provider. There was some unspoken hierarchy that nobody objected. We were taught, shown and explained the reasons for every food preparation. Nothing was wasted – even the removed muddy roots of the English spinach were collected for later when after thorough wash we will steam them for a salad with a sprinkle of olive oil and lemon juice. One whole chicken was portioned and cooked into three different meals. There was some syncretism of different generations and different culinary experience and it was kept by the rhythm of our family’s connection with food.
So, nowadays I can’t even cut an onion without thinking about how my Mamma showed me how to peel an onion, how my Aunty Olga showed me how to chop it, and how my Dad showed me how to hold the sharp knife…
When I took on the camera with an intention to do more than just snap my family, the choice of food as my object of study and narrating came somehow very naturally and spontaneously. It was that day when I received the homework from my tutor George Seper where he was asking me to take a photo representing how I view myself as a photographer, and how I see my growing and developing as an artist. My answer to this task was an image of a turned over bowl from which a well raised and aerated bread dough was pouring down the generously floured old timber table. The gluten was developed well and one can see great and attractive stretching of the dough with wonderful elasticity. My explanation to my choice of photo was “I see myself and my work with photography as something plain and basic as the ingredients for bread. I wish my photography is as honest as honest is an artisan bread, and unpredictable and capricious a bread baking can be. I hope my photography is as nourishing to my viewers as good bread can be for the ones who eat it. A good bread needs time, patience and skills to make and bake, and that is how I compare my road to achieving my greatest in photography”.
They are many years since I submitted this homework and nothing has changed and my view of food photography as a nourishing the emotions art still stays strong.
2. How did you find your way to photography and discover a passion for it?
It started with a bittersweet memory of a moment long past from my very early childhood when everything was carefree and full of love…
I could still feel the sneaky morning sunrays jumping through the leaves, caressing my face and perching on my shoulder. I could smell mamma’s cooking coming from the kitchen. Light and smell still tickle the nostrils of my memories.
I was at that stage of my life when I couldn’t shake off the pain of losing early my parents, deeply missing their nourishing closeness and love. At the same time, I was building a nest – starting a family, expecting my first child. It was time for me to create this warm and loving milieu for my children and family.
Photographing stories of food became the umbilical cord connecting the life and the stories of my family, parents, and childhood with the new generation and family I was creating.
My photos are redolent of memories. My photography is charged with emotions, I live it and it is edited through the filters of my tears and my laughter.
Everything is very personal.
3. Your photographs are emotionally rich and each conveys a story. Could you tell us about your process of translating a story into a photograph and how you make that happen?
I could never relate to food photos only as a consumer. To me, food is not a one-night-stand or forgettable quickie. I have a relationship with it and always give it a life when building my image. In that relation, I don’t shoot a food, I tell a story.
When I conceive an idea for a shot I think about it in either as the meal that was eaten by a person with an interesting life story, or I think of the food/ingredient itself as if it was a person. I did a food shot of a lonely red cabbage and I couldn’t bring myself to just make a still life image. The approach I took was if I had an appointment for boudoir glamour portrait session with a well looking middle-aged woman with hang-ups about her appearance and conscious about her own self-worth. I made her look vulnerable and sexy and this simple image won and international photography award in Los Angelis about 3 or 4 years ago.
I was educated in classic literature and theatre and that inevitably affects my creative approach and work. I get emotionally attached to these persons; I am approaching it with the same principle as Konstantin Sergeyevich Stanislavsky was teaching his students actors about method acting. In that regard, I am a method stylist and a method photographer. I put myself in the skin of the person in the centre of my story and the whole visual narrative is told using their “dialect”. They are usually “caught” alone, in time where they can be themselves – relaxed, unpretentious and honest. I view my photography as stories which outcome as a message can surprise everyone, including me. The only control I’ve got is to take the viewers to the world of my personage and to let them submerge in somebody’s life, his or hers emotions and react to this existence. If I’ve done my work well, the story takes on its own path and develops with every different person that looks at the picture. The audiences become co-writers of my story, as they translate in their own way the messages I’ve implanted and they add their own emotions. The story continues… ☺
4. Many of your images are very thought provoking, for example, the image with the scattered pills and the lonely man’s lunch. Are you challenging the norms of food photography or recounting a particular story?
I have to admit, I like to stir a bit the placid lake of the set rules of the food photography genre and like to engage the viewers. What I mean is, I don’t only try to take a food photo that will make you want to reach and eat the food from the photo. I actually want to bring a smile, to speak to the audience, to strike a chord. The only way I can involve them in my visual world is to challenge their expectations and to offer them my side of honesty. When we talk about breakfast rituals, I don’t want to lie to them. My breakfast is seemingly beautifully and dreamy lit, with gentle pastel colour palette, until one realises that there are medications behind the shallow depth of field and the reality hits my viewer that my mornings are not so dreamy, pastel and gentle. They are full of shots of strong espresso and handful of medications because I am dancing in the whirlpool of daily chores and that is all I have time for “breakfast” in my daily routine.
The same about the lonely men’s meals – I have pushed the buttons in our general perception of consuming. Not all is pink cupcakes, not all is about tea parties, and not always we celebrate eating. My stories about the lonely men were conceived vaguely based on people I’ve known, but as I was visualising the setting, the story evolved. At the end, I was just following the logical development of the characters I was depicting.
In the process of introducing the story to the viewer, I throw a lot of layers of meanings because I believe I am “talking” to people from different walks of life. My photography is steering in a sea of a cultural milieu with very wide and different communication semiotics and diverse customs. My images are like minefields of structures, which subliminally speak about archetypes, about signs and symbols from the oldest unremembered time of the beginning of us as civilizations. They carry the photographic code of intertextuality.
5. Your work features amazing colour palettes and you have a great eye for composition of imagery, layering, and subject. Are you inspired by films, personal stories, history, art, culture to create your images?
I can’t hide, I am! I do get very inspired by books, art, history of art and films. There was a time in my life when I’ll go on movie marathon with one of my uni friend watching films of classic Italian directors. I couldn’t choose who I loved more – Bertolucci, Taviani Brothers or Pasolini…
I prefer to get my visual narration “breastfed” from classic maestros of the cinema and literature. I like it raw, smelling of earth and sweat, raw feelings, raw emotions and raw reactions… I am unafraid of sunrays shooting through the leaves and jumping around the object of my camera’s admiration.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t hate the clean white look of high key photography and I have created many “light images”. I just don’t think it is a dominant part of my world of strong emotions, the tempest of feelings and life stories I’ve got to tell… It is too weightless, with no dimensions and layers. I would be the happiest artist if some day somebody perceives my work the way I devour the world of Pirandello’s stories or the motion pictures of Taviani Brothers.
I guess the choice for colours and contrast is the thing that gives away my make. I always stay honest in that respect – the choice of camera angle, composition and styling the frame is the reflection of my inner feelings. I want to have a relationship with my audience and honesty to me is the pillar of building this relationship strong.
The allusions in my photos are not pointing at previous examples from the history of photography or imitation of the iconic photographers; they are referring to classic examples of literature, history, art, cinema, and my own life.
6. How do you think photography changes story telling or presents a different way to tell a story? What does photography for you convey that words don’t?
My creative path began as a philologue and theatre critic. I worked as a journalist and made a deep mark as a sharp, direct and unforgiving “pen”. The writing was part of my life for many years.
In many ways, words can be restrictive and tyrannical for their users if they are used or taken the wrong way.
Photography, on the other side, allowed me to take my storytelling to a different level and to break boundaries. It is a universal vehicle of communication on conscious and on subconscious levels. An image can move and bring out emotions from people of many ages and walks of life. If a well-written book needs to be translated into many languages so it can be appreciated and celebrated in other countries and cultures, a well-shot photograph, on the other hand, can speak volumes and jump over the language “fence”; it can move the viewers and spring a fountain of feelings and emotions without the need of translators.
Photography to me is one of the artistic tools with which I can send waves of evocative visual tales beyond the borders of a language, beyond the restrictions of the words and their limitation of interpretation. It is a bridge between cultures and customs, between past and present, between generations.
And Food Photography, in particular, became for me the umbilical cord between the nurturing wisdom of those of my past that has lived and I loved, and those that are being born and have in their veins the acumen of the next generation. My photography is charged with emotions and it is edited through the filters of my tears and my laughter.
All that said I would continue writing stories that accompany my photography and will continue to share my feelings or sporadic thoughts that are jumping in my mind through image and word. I became a photographic writer.
7. How do you find cooking, styling and photographing each of your images? Do you find the combination of each of these processes brings more to your photography and creativity?
It is a lot of fun! Cooking is not a chore in my household (only washing up the dishes). When I am home alone, it can be a quiet time for reflection. When my family or friends surround me, it can be a performance.
The positive part about doing everything myself is that the final result is a very personal product. The unfavourable part is that at the moment I don’t have the pleasure of exchanging ideas with other artistic minds and participate in the collective process of creating. So, I am missing this feeling of collectiveness in making something happen, just like we use to cook together with my family.
I would enjoy mixing my brain juices with great stylists like Hans Blomquist, Glen Proebstel or the food stylists like William Smith, Kirsty Bryson, Lyndel Miller (and so much more) which work seems very mature, inspiring, and thought-provoking.
A huge thank-you to the beautiful Sophia for sharing so much of her process with us and please check out her beautiful work HERE.
“No Place is boring, if you have had a good night’s sleep and a pocket full of un-exposed film”. Robert Adams
PS: If you would like to check out my mentoring packages you can HERE or please feel free to get in touch with me at email@example.com
Check out my Portrait Lightroom Presets here.