Kulsum Kunwa, along with chef Faisal Al Nashmi, recently held a workshop titled 'Feeding the Eyes' with Nuqat – a platform for creatives in the Middle-East, to deliver a food styling and photography workshop, in Sharq at the Al Makan, a place where art and art-lovers gather.
Checking out her Instagram feeds, I could immediately see why Kulsum was worthy to hold the workshop; her fastidiousness in each photographic shot shines through in her food images. Incidentally, it is also her Instagram feeds that draw most attention to her work. Two years back, Gia Café, the popular restaurant in Salmiya, commissioned Kulsum to do a photo shoot for them and that is when her professional work started to take shape.
Last week, Kulsum agreed to sit down with The Times Kuwait to speak about all things food. I have to confess to being more than excited at the prospect of meeting her, all the more so since I share a common love for food with her. This made for a good start to our conversation, when we finally met in person at Costa Coffee in Marina Crescent.
“I love food. I am very much into food. I understand food more than anything and do not think that there is anything that I think of more than food or do more than food,” she exclaims in a brisk, staccato punctuated with a gentle gaveling of the table-edge with her fingers, as if to stress each point.
Good food photography is all about presenting food in the most attractive manner; if it can also create a mouth-watering virtual taste in viewers that is an added bonus. In the case of Kulsum, her food images add to food’s attractiveness while also inducing that tang on the tongue. She treats her food ‘models’ very personally.
“What I try to do is have a story, a sense of environment, a sense of aesthetics within the photograph, which is quite different from the normal ‘commercial’ photos one sees,” she says. Since two years she has been into professional food-photography and has lent her creative eye to cafes, restaurants and food companies in Kuwait and the UAE. She has also done the images in The Diet Center Ramadan Cookbook and Hanouf’s Kitchen, the second cookbook by Kuwaiti Chef Hanouf Albalhan, in addition to working with BBC on their Good Food program.
An exploration of food plus photography is usually written-off as being too difficult a subject; how does she handle both?
“Having knowledge of food helps when you are photographing food; if you understand food, you would know which things to highlight within a photograph, as opposed to someone who is totally blank about food. For instance, if I am shooting a donut, I would know that donuts and coffee work together; I also know that many people prefer icing on their donuts. This helps you to build on a photograph rather than just taking a photograph. Being a foodie helps in food-photography. Perhaps, that is why, I get a lot of projects for recipe development.
“In fact, I think 90 percent of my work comes in from my Instagram; people follow my page and then contact me for a photo-shoot from there. I also have a blog, but I am not a regular blogger, I only post when I have an interesting recipe.
I read somewhere the little-known dirty secrets of food photographers and stylists that they use several non-edible products to deliver attractiveness to their images. Where does she stand on this one?
“There are actually two totally different kinds of photography – commercial and editorial style of photography. Commercial photographers who do food styling for bigger brands, or who are more commercial, tend to use a lot of artificial things, even motor oil, besides fake meats, cheese and other artificial products in their photo shoots. They never eat the food that is on the sets; it is generally thrown out after the session. Even during restaurant-food photography, the prepared food is thrown away post-shoot, because it has been sitting there for so long for photographing. That kind of food goes to waste.
“But I take a different approach; in the kind of styling that I do, especially if I am doing it for magazines, I eat the food that I am cooking, at least 99 percent of the time. So, I have to be sure that whatever I do is natural and edible. At most, to give a gloss, I would probably brush some natural oil on the meat.
“Everything I prepare for my photo sessions at home is edible but of course, there are times when after my second or third attempt at cooking and getting it right for a photo session, my husband and my daughter are sick of the food I make. I remember once, I was working on a naan recipe for a whole week; I used to make naan every day just to get it perfect. And my husband said ‘please can you give up?’ Luckily, I have friends to whom I send over the food.”
Kulsum, who has turned her house, or at least a part of the house, into a studio, added, “For me, photography is a constant learning process because I am a self-taught person. I do not have any professional degree in photography. I am always discovering new things, talking to new photographers.”
“There are three things with the kind of photography that I do – prop styling, food styling and then there is photography itself. These are actually three different fields, but because Kuwait is a small market, there are not many people who do these separately. For my photography, I do the three together.
“In Kuwait, the photography style is very commercial looking; usually food placed against a plain white background, there is not much of a story telling within the photograph. Luckily, my studio, where I do a lot of my work, is full of additional props, lighting and other gadgets. People often ask me about the boards that I use as backgrounds as they lend a unique ambiance to many of my photographs. The truth is I make them myself; that is what I do on weekends.
“Whenever I get time, I buy some wood from a hardware shop and make and paint new boards. I like to come up with new ideas every time; to create new settings that give a new feel to the images. Having a wide choice in props is also helpful to me; sometimes, it allows me to demonstrate to clients the specific mood a background creates. Let’s say, I am doing a restaurant where the atmosphere is dark and very old-school, then I show the client different background props that complement their interiors.
“I don’t think there are many photographers in Kuwait with as vast array of props. At some point, I am hoping to rent it out. I do hope that this style of photography using backgrounds to complement photos catches on here in Kuwait. Elaborating on her two-day ‘Feeding the Eyes’ workshop, Kulsum was effusive in her enthusiasm. “It was fun. I got to network with the lot of people. It was an opportunity to exchange ideas. Several of the participants were photographers who wanted to learn more, there were a few established photographers as well. But most of the attendees were young and curious; they wanted to know how it is done and how they could expand on their ideas. It was a good mix. I learned a lot. With the feedback that I got, I already feel like I should have another workshop.”
“We discussed about photography basics, practiced a lot – everybody got their camera, we had the setups, I showed them the angles and how to work around it. The first day, we chose simpler things to photograph, like desserts and raw food and then moved on much tougher things like soups and salads and how to photograph those.”“We also had Faisal Al Nashmi, he is the popular chef of ‘Street’, a restaurant at Almakan. He cooked lunch for everyone, so we had a big winter feast. The energy was amazing. And the funny part was, while we were eating, everybody was getting shots of the food with their phones and cameras. I think that shows that we did end up getting everybody excited about photography.”
“This is good, because excitement is how you begin. I remember how excited I was with my first camera, a Canon G10. When I started out, I took the most horrible photographs. If I look at them now, I feel like deleting those, but I do not, as I can see my growth as a photographer through them. If you go to some of the older posts on my blog, you will see pathetic looking photos. The work that I did last year, I already hate it. Sometimes I hate the work I did even a few months back. But it helps a lot if you are critical about your work and ambitious.”
This made sense to me; it is healthy to look back at one’s older work because that is how one grows, as there is an expectation of more to come. This is progress.
By Ghazal Praveen