Behind the camera: Fiona Reilly on street food photography

FR Noodles 2012

Fiona Reilly BioArmed with both a camera and an adventurous appetite, Fiona Reilly is fearless and passionate about street food. She writes LifeonNanchangLu.com which exhaustively details all the street food she has tried across China by ingredient, smell and taste, accompanied by photos that nearly have you licking your computer screen. Did I mention she is also an Emergency Doctor back in Australia? So you can be assured she knows what she’s doing. Fiona’s enthusiasm to understand and sometimes recreate her favorite Chinese street foods at home is infectious as it is admirable.

SA: I love your passion in eating your way through the best of what Shanghai’s streets have to offer, and dissect what they are all about. Can you share with us how LifeonNanchangLu started as well as your curiosity about Shanghai street food?

FR: Not long after I arrived in Shanghai in 2009, Life on Nanchang Lu began as a way to motivate myself to get out on the streets and take photos, no matter how good or bad the photos were (and they were all pretty awful to begin with). When I left Australia all I knew was that I desperately wanted to rekindle the love of photography I had as a teenager, when I shot and developed all my own film in the school darkroom while skipping math class.

The street life here is extraordinarily vibrant, with outdoor spaces really just an extension of indoor spaces where people sleep, eat, play, and cook. The more time I spent on the streets, the more my photography gravitated towards one of my life’s other passions – food. Street food here is so diverse and colorful, and I began an online series documenting Shanghai’s street foods. As I began to travel more widely in China I tried to capture the foods, and just as importantly, the people behind the food, everywhere I went.

FC street food

SA: Take us through a regular shoot on the streets, how you scope out your subject (or specific food) and set up your shots.

FR: If I’m planning on photographing street food in a small shop or stall I go mid-morning when the breakfast rush is over and the light is good. The vendor is usually less busy then so we can chat. I love to get a shot of the process of cooking, and the vendor, then some luscious food close-ups. Occasionally, if the light is particularly bad or the street food comes in an ugly plastic bag and might need a bit of prettying-up, I’ll take it home and photograph it there.

Frequently though, I’m searching for a particular food made by mobile vendors with portable carts. You never know where or when you’ll come across them so my camera goes everywhere I go, ready to snatch an opportunity when it presents itself!

FR persimmoncakes

SA: What has been the most memorable food or experience you have had since you started shooting street food in Shanghai?

FT: Introducing someone who might otherwise not be brave enough to try street food is a great joy. I remember eating my first fried turnip cake, crisp and sizzling, the filling soft and savory, topped with chili and hoisin sauce, perched on a tiny wooden stool down a narrow lane in the old city with a friend. She’d never eaten street food before, and loved it. Before long we had fifteen interested locals all watching us enjoy Shanghai street food. Food was our common language.

Winning a third prize in an international food photography competition was pretty memorable too – I was thrilled to be included amongst such food photography greats in London a few months ago.

FC street food stalls

SA: I imagine that food photography is harder than it looks, no matter how enticing the food looks or bustling the scene is, you’re juggling framing, shooting and interviewing. Do you ever feel challenged by the process?

 FR: Shooting food on the street can be a huge challenge – crowds of people, steam and splatters of oil on the lens, poor lighting, limited space, then losing the perfect shot when someone shoves in front of you to buy their breakfast. And then how do you make something that comes served in a styrofoam tray or paper bucket look mouth-wateringly delicious? A tight shot usually does the trick.

As my Chinese has improved interviewing street food vendors has become easier and a really enjoyable part of the process. Food is our great common language, and when people can see that you love their food it breaks down so many barriers.

FC Gansu

SA: I have loved reading about your adventures preparing for your upcoming epic drive-across-China. For readers who are less familiar, can you elaborate?

FR: There are parts of China, remote, wild and lovely parts, accessible only by road. We’ve decided to spend the next six months traveling around China’s back roads in a campervan with our two children to see a side of China we haven’t seen before. Beginning with the Naadam horse and archery festival in Inner Mongolia in July we’ll slowly work our way around the country.

It will be an enormous and slightly scary adventure, and in a way I feel a little like we’re pioneering a kind of family travel that’s pretty new to China. But along the way there will be loads of spectacular local foods and incredible photographic opportunities, and hopefully, the chance to relax and write a book!

SAT: You recently concluded your epic six-month journey driving across China in a camper van, pretty unheard of for foreigners. I see you went from north to south to west and central China. It must be hard to sum up your experience but can you try for our readers? Would you recommend it?”
FR: Once in every person’s life they are presented with a choice to do something risky, something a little reckless, that takes them completely and utterly out of their comfort zone. Many look into the void and back down, and return to life as it was. But don’t they always wonder what might have happened if they seized that chance? I didn’t want to spend my life wondering if I could do it, or if we as a family could make a voyage like this. We seized it. We took that risk, and it was life altering for all of us.
We started and ended in Shanghai, travelling a 30,000km circle that took in all the ‘edges’ of China – the border regions, where many of China’s ethnic minorities live and where life gets very, very interesting. Our camper van was an item of curiosity everywhere we went, as we were, but local families took us into their hearts and homes and kept us (mostly) safe from harm. China astounded us with its beauty and its strangeness.

Miao woman hanging indigo fabric

SAT: I also see you’re doing a series on Guizhou food and culture, in particular Miao villages. Can you expand on the project you’re working on?
 
FR: My husband Matt runs a public art business, and six months ago they were commissioned to design and make textile artworks for a large project in Shanghai. Matt’s team’s designs honour traditional ethnic Miao craftsmanship, but they had no idea where to source artisans and how to convince them to be involved in making their craft on a larger scale for public display.
Having had a longstanding love of indigenous textiles and the opportunity to find them, and their makers, in remote spots across China I now act as a consultant for the project, and have also been commissioned to capture the process of making the artworks in photographs. It’s a wonderful chance for me to continue ties with China and to work on something very creative.

Visit Behind the Camera Interview Series to learn more about the work of other photographers.

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