Penny De Los Santos uses photography to understand culture and identity; from her own – born in Europe to a US military family with later ties to the Texas-Mexico border – to people all over the world. She has traveled to over 30 countries on assignment for magazines including National Geographic, Time and Bon Appetit, […]

Charred Poblanos © Penny De Los Santos

Penny De Los Santos uses photography to understand culture and identity; from her own – born in Europe to a US military family with later ties to the Texas-Mexico border – to people all over the world. She has traveled to over 30 countries on assignment for magazines including National Geographic, Time and Bon Appetit, with an ongoing focus on how food can be a source of conversation, storytelling, and a bridge to unite people across different cultures.

De Los Santos was one of the first photographers we contacted to join The Luupe and we’re thrilled to collaborate with her. To kick off the inaugural #InTheLuupe conversation, The Luupe founder Keren Sachs spoke with Penny to learn more about her photographic roots and what’s moved her inspiring career.

© Penny De Los Santos

Bahia, Brazil. January 9-17, 2007. Mercado de Sao Joaquim. © Penny De Los Santos

Keren Sachs: How did you first get into photography? 

Penny De Los Santos: I started photographing early on in my adolescence. It was my way of understanding, exploring and learning about my own family’s cultural background and identity. The camera very quickly became my passport to entering different lives and communities. It was this all-access pass to whatever I was curious about: people, places, communities. The camera gave me permission to explore and I embraced it. 

KS: What was the first photo you made that made you feel confident about your ability to shoot commercially? 

PDLS: The foundation of my work has revolved around visual storytelling. I trained the first 10 years of my career with National Geographic Magazine. It was like a boot camp in photography: they drilled into me the many ways to make images stronger, emphasizing light, color, composition and moment. In one particular instance, I was in the middle of nowhere in the southernmost region of Brazil, following a group of ornithologists who were tracking a rare bird’s migration across North America. Photographing people looking up into the canopies of trees is only so interesting. Figuring out ways to make that story visually compelling was the challenge.  On those first assignments, those images where I was thrown in the middle of nowhere and scrambling to make beautiful work was when I started to allow myself to think I could have a career in photography.  

Spiced Lemon Shabbat Chicken © Penny De Los Santos

Family meals in Dakar, Senegal © Penny De Los Santos

KS: You mention in your bio that your background as a military child and living on the Texas-Mexico inspired much of your work. 

PDLS: I was born in Germany, my father was a career military officer. I spent my summers with my family and relatives on the borderlands of South Texas. Both sides of my family have been there for generations – my maternal family has been there for over five. Those hot summers in South Texas, hearing stories about my Mexican heritage and learning about my family, I felt like an outsider but my bloodline said otherwise. That experience, along with me having moved to different places as a kid gave birth to my curiosity about people, places and traditions.

KS: Photography has taken you all over the world. Can you tell us about a recent highlight from a shoot? 

PDLS: I’m currently working on a book about refugee chefs in New York City. The book is part portraits, food beauties, and documentary images. Many of these people fled their home countries because their lives and families were in danger. Photographing these subjects, watching them transform in front of the camera, visiting many of them in their homes with their families as they prepare a meal has been a real highlight. It reminds me of what a privilege it is to be a photographer and that the most important person in any photoshoot is the person on the other side of the lens. 

Beirut © Penny De Los Santos

Sardinas Santurzi © Penny De Los Santos

Garifuna People, Honduras © Penny De Los Santos

KS: Food is clearly your biggest subject. What draws you to it? 

PDLS: Food, food culture and foodways all are fascinating subjects to me. They tell so much about culture, history, and place. As a photographer I’m drawn to subjects that center around a story idea, foodways are rich with all the makings of a great story. It might just feel like a plate of pasta to the average person but how that specific family recipe was passed down or how the chef who serves it discovered the style of pasta or how those fancy canned tomatoes crossed continents are all compelling stories. Those San Marzano tomatoes from Italy that we all love so much, where those fancy tomatoes come from, the tradition and history of those tomatoes, is a great story.

KS: In your TEDx Austin talk, you discuss photographing a story on Iraqi refugees in Beirut and the ritual around food during the fasting month of Ramadan. Clearly, this and other experiences have influenced how you think about food and culture. Have they changed how you think about photography?

PDLS: As a photographer, making creative decisions about the stories and subjects I choose has always played a big role in my work. Photographing a meal with Iraqi refugees during Ramadan in the underbelly of Beirut, illustrating the struggle and plight of people striving to make their lives better through the content of preparing a meal is so compelling. My goal is to tell those stories every chance I get.

KS: Outside of photography, what’s giving you the most creative inspiration right now? 

PDLS: I just finished developing and producing a sizzle reel for a web series I’m directing about women cooking with fire around the world. We are re-illustrating what it means to be a woman, helping viewers understand how women around the world shape and mold our food culture from a simple yet powerful flame. The series sheds light on how empowering women empowers entire communities.