Nivi's Story

“I can’t merely make an image anymore; I have to find the story behind it”

When I applied for the FUJIFILM Students of Storytelling competition, I entered with a small description of the visual story I wanted to tell – one that encapsulated culture through food. I knew that telling the story of a culture is difficult, but when telling that story through cooking and eating, it becomes easier and more meaningful.

I decided to highlight two chefs who were cooking the cuisine of their culture, because the food would have history and memory connected to it. In order to find these chefs, I needed to do some research. Lots of Googling, emailing, and researching occurred until I had my first response from a local blogger.

The restaurant was Made in Italy, in Westlake Village, and the chef’s name is Antonio Sessa and he is fantastic; an import from Italy. The second chef, Sammy Monsour, was found after going through website after website of LA restaurants until I found his bio on the Preux & Proper website. I loved his passion and uniqueness and reached out to him.

“It’s not about merely making nice pictures of them, but hearing their stories and creating images that represent each person’s individuality”

For each story, I first interviewed the chefs so I had a better idea of why they were cooking Italian and Southern food. What did that cuisine mean to them? Through these interviews, I learned how to better connect with the people I would be photographing. It’s not about merely making nice pictures of them, but hearing their stories and creating images that represent each person’s individuality.

Chef Antonio plating up. During the shoot, Antonio spoke highly of his Grandmother’s garden, which he noted was precise and the work of perfection | Image © Nivi Shaham

Antonio hand-cutting pasta. He says: “My dad told me, don’t ever forget where you came from, the values you grew up with and your culture... always be you." | Image © Nivi Shaham

Antonio hand-prepping pasta. He says: “Every Sunday, we would make tagliatelle and ravioli. I appreciate it now, because it’s such [a] great memory” | Image © Nivi Shaham

For my session with Sammy, I drove to his Los Angeles home in the middle of the week and was greeted by a warm smile and sarcasm about his “award-winning” pets. We spent all day in his kitchen, him blasting music and cooking effortlessly, me following his every move with my camera. I will say, the lighting situation wasn’t great, but we worked with what we had, and I think meaningful images are better than perfect lighting. Working with Sammy was unique and so fun. He worked in an organized chaos, which felt so real. I learned another valuable lesson during this session, which was to always bring multiple backup batteries when you’re working on location!

Sammy holding his crawfish pie like a baby. I spent all day with him in his kitchen, joking, learning, eating, and exploring | Image © Nivi Shaham

Sammy holding his crawfish pie like a baby. I spent all day with him in his kitchen, joking, learning, eating, and exploring | Image © Nivi Shaham

Narrowing down my photos for this project was really hard. There were a lot of really great images, but it wasn’t about submitting all my greatest images. Instead, I had to think about which images told the greatest story. I did the initial narrowing down myself, but once I got to a certain amount of images, I confided in my FUJIFILM mentors and peers for their help. Through lots of configuration and back and forth with everyone, I decided on my final images that told the best story.

I have two favorite images from this project. One is a photo of Sammy holding his crawfish pie slice on a plate like it’s a baby and smiling at it. It shows his pride in the food he cooked, while also being a hilarious image. I don’t know another chef who would engage in a photo like this with me. My second favorite photo is another from my chapter with Sammy, and it’s the one of the cast iron mac and cheese before it’s put in the oven. It’s a simple photo, and there’s not much to it, but something about it makes me feel warm and at peace.

Cast iron mac and cheese. “Sunday soul food supper,” is how Sammy describes this meal which is part of his favorite dinner table spread | Image © Nivi Shaham

With photography, I find that inspiration is everywhere. My greatest inspiration comes from my fellow food photographers. Ones far beyond me in their skill and talent inspire me the most, as I hope to one day be like them. I scroll through Instagram and Pinterest gazing at their photos nearly every day for inspiration.

I also love looking through many photography books, especially those that have nothing to do with food photography. Often, it’s a book capturing the essence of the 1960s that gives me a great idea for a still-life shoot.

“Great images tell a story. If i had to give advice to anyone pursuing a photography project, it would be to look for the story”

Cast iron mac and cheese. “Sunday soul food supper,” is how Sammy describes this meal which is part of his favorite dinner table spread | Image © Nivi Shaham

Sammy creating the southern American food that he loves so much | Image © Nivi Shaham

Sammy creating the southern American food that he loves so much | Image © Nivi Shaham

I hope that my project inspires others to explore cultures they’re not familiar with. To try new foods from those who truly know it, and to listen to the stories of individuals different from themselves.

This project has changed me as a person, because it ignited a storytelling fire in me. I can’t merely make an image anymore; I have to find the story behind it. Great images tell a story. If I had to give advice to anyone pursuing a photography project, it would be to look for the story. Ask that person you’re photographing who they really are, learn the history of the mountain range you are framing, get the story behind everything.

My FUJIFILM X-T3 is my new ride-or-die camera. It’s incredibly sharp, incredibly light, and I’ve never felt more inspired by a piece of equipment before. It’s me, my X-T3 and my XF80mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR Macro lens against the world now. This project couldn’t have happened without this camera.

I hope to continue this project soon. There are many more chefs with stories to tell about their culture, and I hope to enable them to tell those stories with my camera.

Explore more of Nivi’s work and discover many more stories in our Students of Storytelling gallery.

Nivi Shaham

Nivi Shaham’s love for photography came from her mother, a hobbyist photographer, who she loved watching photograph nature and beautiful landscapes. Progressing from a point-and-shoot camera to a DSLR, Nivi went from making portraits of her friends to discovering a love for food photography after a summer of cooking and baking while in her second year of university. She has since become a finalist in the Students of Storytelling contest, sharing her story about the culture of food and those who create it.