David Griffen, the current Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year, recalls how he took the winning shot…
David Griffen talks about shooting street food on location in Malaysia
I partly grew up in Asia so I knew I could get some colourful images out there for the Food Photographer of the Year competition. Last December, I stopped off in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur on the way back to the UK from Australia, and gave myself 10 days to try to get some strong images to enter. I also had a client meeting in the city.
After doing some research, I found about an area called Jalan Alor, which is a street food mecca. I knew it would be touristy but I also knew there would be plenty of subject matter.
I went to Jalan Alor three nights running and there was a great vibe. I spotted this chicken-smoking guy at the end of the road, just when I was about to pack my gear away. He had his tunes on, and was really going for it as he cooked the chicken wings. Each time I went back, it got better, as he changed what he was wearing – he probably stank after a night working there. Maybe he even sets fire to his dirty clothes! One night he was wearing an awesome shirt and trainers, so I could see he was a real character. So much of food photography is just about food, but there are the people who produce and cook it too, and that for me is a big part of the story.
I think it’s important to revisit a good place for photography and keep working it. I was very aware that I was walking around back streets at night, though, with very expensive kit. It was dark and there were plenty of people around with big knives at hand – the area was close to the red-light district too, where you get offered everything under the sun. It possibly wasn’t the safest environment to be working in, but as I kept going back I got more comfortable and started to do better work.
The locals do start to recognise you. Often with photographing people you have to be seen before you can vanish – you become familiar and they lose interest. This is important at markets, as you are bound create a stir with a big SLR, monopod and gear for video. It was clear I was serious, and not just taking happy snaps.
Going back to a market means you don’t have to shoot with a really long lens, either, you can get in closer. It doesn’t feel like you’re somehow taking shots on the sly. I love Nikon lenses, particularly the 14-24mm and 20mm. In fact, that lens is one of the reasons I changed to Nikon from Canon, but on this trip I used a Zeiss 28mm, 50mm and 100mm. I love the old-school cinematic effect you get from using Zeiss glass.
As well as Kuala Lumpur, I visited many other parts of Malaysia, including Malacca, which is a very diverse and interesting old port, and Ipoh, where my client’s family is from. When working in these places I find it easier to be by myself. It’s hard if you’re trying to combine serious photography with a family holiday. I think when shooting full-on for a project, you have to be by yourself, and find your own path.
To see more of David’s stunning work, visit www.davidgriffen.co.uk To enter the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition, visit www.pinkladyfoodphotographeroftheyear.com
Often with photographing people you have to be seen before you can vanish – you become familiar and they lose interest
01 01 The winning shot – a street vendor in Jalan Alor cooking chicken wings 02 Market produce always makes a great subject – look out for shape, colour and pattern 03 This lady’s selling ‘stinky beans’ – they live up to their name! 04 Changing your viewpoint can provide a fresh perspective on familiar scenes