India's premier luxury lifestyle women's magazine
Framed
December 15, 2020

A Feast For The Eyes

Text by Jehan Nizar

A cookbook brings together grandmothers from eight East African countries and puts their recipes front and centre in the landscape of American food media. Photographer Khadija M Farah’s powerful portraits pay visual homage to the women’s rich cross-cultural traditions and food heritage, and she talks to us about her experience of working on ‘In Bibi’s Kitchen’

Photographer Khadija M Farah is the woman responsible for creating a rich visual narrative to complement the 75 recipes and stories, shared by bibis or grandmothers (in Swahili), in Somali home cook Hawa Hassan and American food writer Julia Turshen’s cookbook-meets-travelogue, In Bibi’s Kitchen: The Recipes and Stories of Grandmothers from the Eight African Countries that Touch the Indian Ocean.

Viewing the bibis (including some who immigrated to the US), in each of Khadija’s frames, reminds us how important it is to not only highlight stories that are rooted in the lived female experience but to also consider who gets to narrate them. Farah opens up about gender representation and its role in authentic storytelling, and discusses what changes when women photograph women.

Excerpts from the conversation…

Tell us a little about your journey with photography.
I was always the person taking photos during our family vacations and events. I studied anthropology and history at university, and when I graduated and returned to Kenya, I got a job as a social worker at a refugee camp – that’s where I started taking photos more frequently.

Before, I was taking photos just to take photos. At the refugee camp, I got to know a lot of the refugees we were working with and would write down their stories and eventually ask for their portraits. I went into photography full-time in 2018.

Where were you born and raised?
I was born in Nairobi, Kenya. I lived here until I was 10, after which my family moved to Dallas, Texas. That’s where I did my middle school, high school and university. Three years after graduating, I decided to come back.

Did you pick up any photography skills while you were living in the States?
I took a six-week photography class in high school, and that is as much training as I received.

Photographed by: Khadija M Farah
Image courtesy: Random House

From being largely self-taught to having been commissioned a cookbook that is receiving so much attention, tell us how it all happened.
Sometime in 2017, Hawa sent me a message on Instagram saying that she wanted to do this cookbook and would really love to do it with an African photographer – somebody who knows the place and the language – and she was really adamant that it be a woman.

Do you believe that the way you executed her and Julia’s vision of the book may have been different had it been a man or somebody who had no initiation into the landscape and cultural nuances?
I’d like to think that I maybe brought a different vision from another photographer, from even just another part of the continent. I’m very aware when it comes to photographing people here because I know how often they have been exploited. I usually ask them how they would like to be photographed so that it’s more of a collaboration.

I was also invited to New York for a test shoot just to see how I would work with one of the ladies who was Tanzanian. It was more to observe how I would relate to the woman rather than my actual photos.

Did you have your own thematic creative strand binding the pictures together or was it just clear-cut direction from Hawa and Julia?
I think they sort of trusted me with that. I’m more of a documentary photographer, so my photos aren’t super staged. A lot of the women were cooking in really small kitchens or outside where there would be so much green, and I would just try to step back and allow people to get a sense of the space.

That’s an interesting point. You said a lot of the time you took pictures of them cooking in their natural spaces and that, I imagine, is very different from a standardised, Western idea of a kitchen. Did this make you feel a larger sense of responsibility to portray the culture authentically?
I think I was mostly conscious about not intruding and making the women feel as comfortable as possible. There were a couple of photos that were maybe shot in a space that was really small, and it would have, like, a trash can nearby or a broom or an animal [laughs] – there’s always, like, cats – and so I would just keep those out of the frame – when I could. I think I was more concerned about portraying the space in a way that they would be proud.

What are the biggest challenges of food photography and how much premeditated composition is involved?
It was mostly freestyle because I was aware that I was taking up their time, so I didn’t want to style things too much. I know that a lot of processes take a while because they’re things like hand-grinding spices or making coconut milk from scratch, so I felt that I had enough time to get however many shots I wanted.

Did you ever experience any impatience from their end while shooting or were they cooperative, across the board?
Yeah, they were all cooperative. If anything, they would laugh because they considered some of these activities unworthy of documenting. At the beginning, I did tell them I would be getting a bit close to their hands and things like that.

Photographed by Rebecca Crook

Okay, talk to me about hands. Do you look at hands as subjects that tell stories or have they been overdone by photographers?
No, I love taking pictures of hands [laughs]. Sometimes, they would be wearing really old gold jewellery, or I’d just find the wrinkles in their hands beautiful. Also, when they really got in the food and were, like, squeezing out coconut milk. I just feel that these are the hands that have made our food for, you know, millennia, and food traditions are passed down through these hands.

What changes when women photograph women? Do they gain entry into a world that men may not be as attuned to?
Kitchens here are seen as a woman’s space, so a lot of times they would be dressed super comfortably or just feel free. That’s important because you really want to show them in their element and in control. I think that they would have been more comfortable with me, or any other woman photographer, than a man.

Did you photograph them cooking whatever they wanted or were they cooking specific things on request?
So we asked them to cook their favourite meals; whatever food held any significance for them. A lot of the time it was something they had eaten throughout their childhoods or something that brought back good memories. It was their kitchens; we didn’t want to tell them what to do.

Why is the female gaze so important in realistically portraying images of women?
For so long, women haven’t been in control of their narratives. And when it comes to women cooking, it’s not as valued as seeing men cooking. It’s important that we tell these stories.

This is a women-centric book, but were men featured in any of the frames?
I believe there’s one male, Hakim, who is the nephew of Ma Kauthar (from Lamu). I thought it was important to have him in the photograph because he has a cafe where Ma Kauthar cooks for local people and tourists. He is part of her story because he’s given her a platform and the confidence to share her food.

Was it more important for you to portray the bibis as women in their own right or did you find yourself holding on to the book’s larger narrative thread of showcasing them as grandmothers?
To me, each one is their own person. Some were super stoic and serious, and others were really fun – especially if they had their children or grandchildren around. That was also good, to show the collaboration in the kitchen with either their sisters or daughters or granddaughters.

Were there any resounding differences that stood out when shooting the bibis in East Africa and those in the States? Did you find your own approach, while working with them, to vary?
I shot all the bibis in the States, except for the ones who were in Minnesota – I wasn’t able to, because there was a blizzard. I think I was a little bit more careful and conscious in how I approached the bibis in the African countries just because I was alone. In New York, I was with Hawa most of the time, and so I was pretty confident about not intruding since she had already done the introductions.

Over here [Africa], on the other hand, I was the one doing that, and I was more conscious about them being comfortable and how I was going to portray them and whether they were okay with me being in their space. I guess this is because I know of so many stories where people have been exploited. I didn’t want to be just another person taking pictures and leaving, without any explanations, not telling them what was going to be done with those pictures.

Photographed by: Khadija M Farah
Image courtesy: Random House

Who was your favourite bibi to photograph? Somebody who remains etched in your mind long after you folded up…
Oh my goodness, that’s so hard [laughs loudly]. If I had to pick one, I think maybe Ma Mariama from Comoros just because I think of how we had to get to her place. It was a drive through the winding hills, and she was getting ready for a wedding right after. So she cooked the food and went back into her house and came out glammed up and dripping in gold, and I was like, “Oh, my goodness, hell-o!” She and her mother sang us a song, and it was just beautiful.

What do you think our responsibility is in representing more such women who are champions of everyday cooking?
I would like them to be depicted as queens in their own homes. Not just as home cooks, but custodians of our culture. If we lose these traditions, these techniques – you know, if all of a sudden we start cooking with spices brought from a store shelf or only coconut milk in a can, I think it would be devastating. We need to give them the avenues and platforms, and amplify their voices and techniques.

Are there any female icons you have in the photography space whose work you emulate consciously or unconsciously?
So I like Sarah Waiswa, who is a Ugandan-born, Kenya-based photographer, and Emily Garthwaite. I love how they document women. They are two different styles of photography. In both, there is a lot to do with women, storytelling and elevating cultures.

What would you like to see emerging more from the female photography space?
I would like to see more, honestly. Just flat out more. I’d like to see more personal narratives; I would like to see more things that are not super styled. I would like to see more kitchens and not just the food. I would like to see more of the people who are doing this.


Jehan Nizar is an independent features writer and food blogger based in Chennai, India. Her work most often explores food as a point of convergence for history and anthropology and has appeared in various national and international publications.

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