INNOVATOR: Penny De Los Santos, food and travel photographer

VIDEO: Jackie Carrero and Alessandra Hickson

Born into a military family, Penny De Los Santos has dedicated her life to capturing cultural diversity and history through photographing markets, dining clubs and food. She has presented at TEDxAustin to discuss her groundbreaking travels through Lebanon during Ramadan. As the senior contributing photographer for Saveur Magazine and a regular contributing photographer at National Geographic Magazine, De Los Santos has won multiple awards for her work. When she’s not traveling the world, De Los Santos blogs about her journeys and shares striking photos that showcase her passion for food.

See Penny’s portfolio here.

AGE: 44

HERITAGE: I grew up in the military — I’m a military brat —  and so we traveled some, but not as much as other military families. And, I always felt like a hyphenated person. As Mexican-American. Not fully Mexican, but not really American. My last name was strange and most people mispronounced it . So I felt like I grew up with all these different ideas of who I wanted to be, who I was supposed to be.

HOMETOWN: I was born in Germany, but primarily, I’m from Texas.

SIBLINGS: I have an older brother and he lives in Houston and he’s an electrical engineer. He used to work for NASA and now he does something…scientific.

CURRENT CITY: New York, NY

EDUCATION: I went to college at Texas A&M University and I got my Masters degree in Visual Communications from Ohio University.

FIRST PAYING JOB: My first paying job was at an ice cream shop and I scooped ice cream. Who knew I’d become a food photographer?

BEST DAY ON THE JOB: I feel like everybody asks me where is the best place to go in the world. Where’s the best place to eat or the most interesting thing you’ve eaten or the most interesting thing story you’ve photographed. And I honestly never know how to answer that because as crazy and as goofy and as ridiculous as it sounds, I truly believe every assignment is special. Whether it’s the lady in Genoa who makes her own pesto by hand and as the light’s streaming in at her kitchen table, realizing in that moment, “Wow, this is cool.” Or the eight Iraqi men that I shared a meal with in the bowels of Beirut during Ramadan as the power went out and knowing that I would never be able to sit at that table. Not as a woman, not as a journalist, not as an American. But there I was. And then, to you know, working on these wonderful projects with amazing clients and incredible art directors who are just generous and encouraging and inspiring. And I honestly feel like every assignment has its silver lining, you know?

HARDEST DAY ON THE JOB: The hardest day for me, and maybe the most poignant moment, was when I was photographing this woman who was running an uncertified restaurant under the carport of her house in deep, deep East L.A. Basically it’s an illegal restaurant. And I don’t know her status as a resident in this country. So there were a lot of questions I didn’t want to make her uncomfortable asking. I just spent the day, probably from four in the morning until eight at night, photographing her as she made this barbacoa, which is this tradition of cooking in Latin American foods. And you dig this pit and you burn this wood down to coals and it takes hours. And you know, she put this lamb that was just harvested above these cactus petals. And she’s doing all this labor to create this amazing meal.

And you can smell it throughout the neighborhood. As the day ends I give her a hug. And as we were hugging, she held on to me tighter than normal. As we pulled away, I saw her crying. And I realized no one had ever, ever, ever taken the time to watch her, see her, document her. No one had ever photographed her. Can you imagine your whole life, no one ever took the time? There’s something very powerful about having your picture taken, someone doing a video of you. It’s this wonderful testament. It’s saying, “Hey what you’re doing is special.” It’s a snapshot. And no one had ever done that for her.

IF YOU COULDN’T DO WHAT YOU DO FOR A LIVING, WHAT WOULD YOU DO: I’d probably be an architect because I love design, I love shapes. I love kind of the way you put spaces together and how those spaces can create mood and environment and experience. I think that’s really powerful. You can put all those ideas together and people can come into a space and experience it. There’s something really special about that. I guess, in a way, maybe, in a way that’s kind of what photography is.

MOST TREASURED POSSESSION: I would have to say it’s this watch my dad gave me. It’s the official “Man on the Moon” watch. It’s the Omega Space watch. He did four tours in Vietnam and he was sitting in a foxhole, in combat. And a guy next to him, another official or soldier, they were talking. My dad had found this pretty cool knife and the guy next to him was like, “I’ll buy this knife off of you.” And my dad was like, “No way, I’m taking this home, I’m going to give this to my kids when I have kids.” And the guy was like, “Come on! I’ll give you whatever you want.” And my dad was like, “Ok, I’ll take your watch.” He had it throughout his four tours in Vietnam and then he gave it to me.

THOUGHTS ON INSTAGRAM CULTURE:  I’m a huge fan of mobile photography for many reasons. For one, it just helps me practice everyday what it is that I’m supposed to do. And practicing every day is like anything, the more you practice, the better you are. So microblogging and social media, mobile photography, all of it. I’ve fully embraced it and I don’t think I’d be sitting in front of you if I hadn’t, to be really honest.

GREATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: I think it’s that I’m kind. Every day. Or at least I try to be. And I try to say yes more than I say no. I don’t know if those are treasured or valued.

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