Eating Together: Food Culture & Photography with Skyler Burt

From the Midstory studio, our team chats with professional food photographer and We Eat Together creative, Skyler Burt, about food culture, photography and the impact of COVID-19 on the creative industry.

The painter constructs, the photographer discloses.
Susan Sontag, American writer and filmwriter

Browse by topic or read the transcript of our interview below.

Topics covered:
[1:02] Food photography services and photography in the Middle East
[3:39] The role of food and photography for creatives
[5:29] The impacts of modern photography and technology on the profession
[8:00] What makes a good photograph?
[9:59] Attraction to the idea behind a photograph
[12:40] The uncertain situation for international photographers
[16:31] A positive simpler trend in the subjects of photography
[18:54] Working for Bosch and trying strange Midwestern cuisine
[21:27] Preservation of tradition and food cultures across the world
[24:27] The YouTube and creator aesthetic
[26:07] Food and comfort during the pandemic

Skyler Burt I’m not sure if we’ll ever get back to any kind of normalcy like we had before, but I think it’ll definitely change photography and it might be more family-centered, more focused on family, more focused on the ones you love. 

Samuel Chang: I have the pleasure of welcoming our next guest on this week’s episode of the Midpoint. With over 15 years of traveling all across the world, he is an award-winning food and travel photographer who has had his works featured in Southern Living, Sunset, Timeout, Forbes Traveler and more. His YouTube channel “We Eat Together” has garnered millions of views for its educational photography videos and he’s sitting down with me today from his California home studio to talk more about food culture, photography and the impact of Covid-19 on the creative industry. Please join me today in welcoming Skyler Burt. Well, thank you so much, Skyler, for joining us today. 

SB: Hey, how’s it going? Good, good. 

SC: So Skyler, some of our viewers might not be familiar with your line of work and what you’re up to in the work that you’re doing right now. Can you tell us a little about yourself and what you’re up to? 

SB: Yeah, I’m a professional food photographer, I do food photography for advertisement and commercial aspects. I do food and beverage, so sometimes I do advertisements for food, I do cookbooks and then I’ll do advertisements for beverages and stuff like that. And I also run a youtube channel “We Eat Together,” and it’s an educational YouTube channel that dives into kind of how to do food photography from beginner level all the way to intermediate and advanced through tutorial based YouTube videos. And then I also have a blog that’s kind of very similar and it also offers up courses in food photography and post-production and stuff like that.

SC: So, what got you started in the YouTube world? How did you get started with that? 

SB: I was a lecturer in photography for about eight years, in the Middle East actually, in a country called the Sultanate of Oman. And I wanted to be able to teach my students how to do photography and make it so it was approachable to them because it’s very hot out in Oman and so oftentimes they weren’t able to do the traditional forms like landscape and architecture and stuff like that, which they really loved but they kept more for the winter times. So I had to come up with courses that could be available to them and be easy for them to do inside. And I was really interested in food photography. I was originally a travel photographer, which is how I ended up in the Middle East in the first place, but then I fell in love with food photography and I was working in the professional space in the local market there for food photography. 

So I thought, why not create a course to teach the students how to do food photography? It’s something that they could do inside. They don’t have to worry about the heat. They also don’t have to worry about models and all that kind of stuff. And they could focus on their lighting which they could use then however they wanted later on. A lot of people were interested in it and some weren’t, but it was easy for them to do. They all had access to food and they were able to make some really great images. And I thought, “why not kind of take this to the world?” Because at that time period, there wasn’t a lot of information on food photography specifically. There was a lot of photography information, but not specifically for kind of the stuff that I do. So I thought why not start a YouTube channel and put some of my tutorials that I was teaching anyways on the YouTube channel? 

SC: I want to kind of jump right into topics about food. You know there’s been a lot of posts recently on social media because everybody is in quarantine. A lot of amateur photographers out there talking and posting photographs of their food and what they just baked in the oven and the new creations that they’ve had. What are your thoughts on the role of food and food photography during this time? 

SB: Well, I think food has always been probably the most one of the most important things in our society, you know, culturally. We all just love to sit around and gather around a meal, which is kind of what inspired the name of my brand the “We Eat Together.” It’s kind of like we all join together and we eat. If you love photography you should … If you’re really inspired by food and you also love photography, those two things should join. Because, I think, often times when people think about photography, they jump in and try to take something that they’re really not a hundred percent interested in and I think that’s what it was for me. I mean I love to travel, but I really and my heart was interested in the history and the culture and the stories and making food. And if I only could find some way to bridge those two loves my love for photography and my love for food then I would have a winner. And so it took me years to get to actually find my voice and say this is what I really want to do with my photography. So if people are finding that online and doing something that they love — bringing those two passions together — then it’s fantastic. And of course, you always want to share the best things in your life, and if you’re sitting in quarantine then most likely the best thing in your life right now is making a great meal at home. 

SC: Nowadays, with technology, everybody has an iPhone, everybody has some kind of device that can take photographs. And with such accessibility to photography equipment, how does that or how have you seen that change the landscape of professional photography? 

SB: Yeah, well I started professionally photographing stuff when we were still using film cameras. And I made the transition to digital and now it seems like everyone has access to the tools that I had access to long ago and they have access to it in their phones. Their phones are way more powerful than the cameras that I was first using. Has it affected professional photography? Yes, for sure, because a lot of the big shoots only come every so often for a photographer, maybe five times a year at maximum. Unless you’re a really sought after photographer, those big shoots aren’t really coming down your way that often because big shoots require a very specific style usually and the chances that you fit that style are not gonna be that great. So when it does come around then that’s great, but the bread-and-butter stuff has really held photographers during those slower times and I think that’s where the influx of a lot of what you’re talking about has kind of hurt the person who sought to be a professional photographer. I know it’s kind of a confusing answer, but basically there was the easy stuff that kept professional photographers through the stormy patches of their career. And then there’s the big stuff that, you know, they love to do. Some of the easy stuff has gone away, but it also has meant that professional photographers had to shift their mode of operation and they’ve had to become more competitive. And they’ve had to learn new tools and learn new sets and they can’t really stay grounded in the old ways of doing things. I think that’s really positive actually for professional photographers, a little bit negative for some. But for those who can change and adapt, it’s been a really positive and fun experience. And we get to try out new stuff, too, as new stuff comes into the market. 

SC: As an amateur photographer myself, when I look at a photograph I’m looking for very specific things. But I’m very curious, when you look at a plate of food digitally, what do you see? What are the things that you’re looking for and what are the kind of defining aspects of a good photograph? 

SB: I’m looking for light and composition, mainly. Of course, the beautiful deliciousness of the food is gonna draw me in and that’s, I guess, what it’s meant to do. The light and the composition and the styling that should be invisible to the person looking at the photo. It should be so good that you can’t see it basically. You’re so engrossed with the photograph, at how delicious that meal looks, that you’re not focusing on the lighting or the composition or the styling. That all should be oblivious like watching a good movie. If you’re focusing on the camera angles and stuff, you’re missing out on what the actors are saying and the story and stuff like that. So that should all be so good that you’re just sucked into the photo. But as a photographer, of course, I’m gonna notice things like light and I’m gonna try to study the photograph and decipher it and try to break it down into its pieces and figure out how they shot it especially if it’s a photograph that really intrigues me. So that’s what I look at, I look at: Where is the light coming from? What might they be using to light this photograph? Are they using hard light or soft light or a softbox or a grid or something like that? And also things like how are they composing it? Where are the lines drawing my eyes and is that effective to the storytelling? And then other things that I’m fascinated in like props like plates and dishes and cups and sword napkins and backgrounds. All those things kind of fascinate me so I might be looking at that. The food, really for me as a photographer, is almost secondary, but hopefully it’s the primary focus for everyone else. 

SC: In the film world, but also in the photography world, I think we’re constantly thinking, or straddling, two worlds. Which is one of what we’re seeing digitally and what we’re actually physically experiencing. Sometimes, I remember watching the documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” and we talked about the aestheticization of sushi in that film and how it makes it almost fantastical in terms of how we’re going about and consuming a piece of sushi. How do you balance those two worlds of reality versus your digital consumption? 

SB: Yeah, I think it’s really important to focus on if you’re looking at an image you’re looking at a story that the author is trying to sell you on. And the food should be primary and the subject is king, especially in this kind of photography, but you’re really being sold on an idea. An effective photograph or an effective film I guess, will sell you on an idea. The idea will be portrayed subtly and so that’s when you see a beautiful plate of food on a rustic table with some kind of traditional propping like cutting boards like old French style cutting boards and stuff that’s the idealized version of where the food photographer imagines their life. And when you fall in love with that style, that aesthetic, you kind of also fall in love. You’re also showing a part of yourself, a part of your personality, that you might be attracted to that aesthetic. And so the subject kind of falls away at that point, the subject’s not really important to you, it’s more of the lifestyle that you’re interested in and that’s what’s attracting to you. And everyone’s different. Some people are attracted to a more modern, minimalist style, and some people are attracted to a more rustic [style] and some people are attracted to kind of a “Better Homes and Gardens” type of style. But I think it really is the story that the photographer is trying to subtly slide in there under the guise of some great food, but it depends on also what you are doing with the photograph? Is it a commercial photograph? What’s the purpose of the photograph? Because if the purpose of the photograph is to sell you on an object, like a great bottle of wine or something like that or a magazine or something like that. It’s trying to sell you on picking up the magazine then its purpose might be different. 

SC:I know that you mentioned that you were previously a travel photographer, so you traveled all across the world. How has the pandemic affected travel and creatives in that industry today?

SB: A lot of what I did was I was living in countries for extended periods of time for multiple years. I think a lot of my travel was not very short, it was either a month, or two months or multiple years, and for somebody like that, there’s a huge expat community that lives in multiple countries from various different countries of origin. And they’re either stuck in those countries or they were sent home prior to everything shutting down,.So that’s definitely affected that community. I was just speaking to one of my friends who’s also a photographer and he lives in the Sultanate of Oman and he’s been out of work, so he’s basically just in lockdown at home, but his day job has been, he’s been furloughed until the next academic season or indefinitely. They don’t actually know at this point. So it’s a very uneasy time for a lot of people because they don’t know what the future holds in those countries where their jobs could just be ended and they could be repatriated at their expense. It’s a very scary time. Most of them are just stuck waiting to find out what their future holds. And a lot of them can’t get other jobs in that country, so they either keep the job or they repatriate, which is a big life decision. 

SC: Yeah, I saw a few national journals and news agencies come out with pieces about how this is affecting photojournalism. I know that’s a little bit of a different field, but specifically in a time where people are wearing face coverings and they’re social distancing, where capturing those feelings and those images might be more challenging, I don’t know if you have any comments towards that field today?

SB: I originally studied to be a photojournalist and that’s what I really wanted to be. But the more and more I looked at it, I realized that it was too dangerous to do that in the capacity that I wanted to do it in and still have some kind of a normal family life. When I was abroad I got offered to apply for a job with AP down in Egypt, and this was about six months before the Arab Spring happened. And I always thank my lucky stars that I actually didn’t accept the job, because that would have been a very dangerous situation and it’s something that you don’t really want to do. And I think in this kind of situation that we’re in now, yeah, photojournalism it’s gonna be tough because you have to photograph people and that’s the main purpose. It’s a human interest. And that would be very difficult; you can’t get close and I think there’s a great saying that if your story isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough. That doesn’t really apply in this kind of world that we’re living in now. And you can’t really see the emotion on people’s faces when they’re covered with masks, I guess to break it down into the simplest of terms. But also photojournalism has always been a tough field. I really feel for those guys because they’re probably going through it the worst. 

SC: You mentioned about the relationship between photography and culture, and there certainly is a very tight-knit relationship. How do you foresee photography to change or will it change after this pandemic? 

SB: In the 1990s, photography was very dark and it could be moody and it could be edgy, but after 9/11, things really changed and people were asking for more bubbly photos, more happiness, more bright and colorfulness. And you might start to see a similar change like that after this pandemic; I don’t know if it’ll ever end. I’m not you know sure if we’ll ever get back to any kind of normalcy like we had before, but I think it’ll definitely change photography and it might be more family-centered, more focused on family, more focused on the ones you love, things like that, which I think it was kind of going towards anyways. We were kind of getting away from materialism and getting away from the modern world and kind of looking back with an eye of happiness towards the past or towards simpler life. And you can see that in the color tones of photography, it’s very earth tone and it’s still happy, but it’s more natural in color and natural in tone and more simple in story and not complex, not flashy. There still is a mix of that, there’s just been room for a more natural form of photography to take place. A lot of people going back to film and and using filters on their photograph that’s supposed to emulate old-fashioned film. You wouldn’t have seen that 15 years prior, so I think some kind of shift will happen, but it might not be noticeable immediately. It might happen over the course of the next five years, very slowly, 5-10 years very slowly, as a result. And you only can see it looking back and go, “Oh. Well, there was a catalyst for that shift and that’s what the catalyst was. 

SC: I’m wondering, Skyler, if you’ve ever set foot in the Midwest and what your general impressions were, perhaps, about Ohio or other places of the Midwest? 

SB: Yeah, I did a long long time ago actually. I haven’t been back in a while, but my first experience with the Midwest is after high school I spent a couple of years hitchhiking around America to take photos and the second year I wound up in Indiana. So I went as far — I’m originally from Oregon — so I went as far as Indiana, but then I went to Cincinnati and spent like a couple of days there just looking around the city. So that was my only real experience with Ohio, but I lived in Indiana working at a manufacturing plant called Bosch and they made air conditioners for Ford cars; my experience with the Midwest was really standing at the end of this giant plastic mold press with a conveyor belt and having AC fans rolling out and I was working double shifts. I was trying to build enough money to buy a car and get a plane ticket back to the west coast. I could probably credit the Midwest for maybe starting off some of my more interesting tastes in food. For example, I never eaten fried frog legs are really popular in among Indiana people, and that was my first experience of having something that was kind of, for me, I was young and so it was kind of out of this world like I had never had that before. And it created this interest of, well let’s try, what else is out there? And so I have this challenge when I travel to eat the strangest things that country or that city had to offer. And so I have a whole list now of weird food that I’ve eaten. And still, the fried frog legs are among the top of the list for things that nobody else has ever tried. The vast majority of people out there probably have never tried it. I guess it kind of stirred passions in food because as you travel, every state has a different food and they have a different key dish that they’re so proud of. And I find that interesting. 

SC: You mentioned food culture there. I don’t want to generalize here, but perhaps you could speak a little bit about how that differs to food on the coasts, maybe specific to California? 

SB: I don’t want to say it’s for everyone on the West Coast, but I think West Coast food has kind of been set up to serve a purpose and that’s to serve the purpose of giving nutrients to your body. So I think there’s a different outlook where maybe life style really conforms what you eat, and I think West Coast people, some West Coast people, are really concerned about their lifestyle, what they intake and living a healthy lifestyle versus people who maybe don’t care so much about that. They care more about spending time with family and friends, and having that barbecue or that backyard get together, that picnic or whatever. And that’s where food gets creative and people are proud to share the food. Where maybe on the West Coast, that sharing aspect of the food is not so important in people’s everyday lives. I would be really sad if I went back to the Midwest and nobody remembered how to make fried frog legs or amazing barbecue or like amazing burgers. If the chains took over to the point where people forgot or passed down those traditions of those great recipes, and like what we see in other areas of America. Like some people in America don’t know how to sew anymore, or the farm, it’s not cool to be a farmer anymore. And so you see a lot of these forms of employment, forms of our community just withering away because the young people have moved to the city to find their riches. And I find really a lot of value in holding those traditions up and that’s what makes a place special for me. When I go travel around the world that’s what I’m going to travel to see, is those ancient traditions that are still being practiced. It happens, when I was living in the Middle East, I did a story on the honey farmers and there’s only a very few honey farmers left and it’s gonna be a dying thing. And probably the next couple of generations won’t be able to see what I saw because of that exact same thing — they’re all moving to the city, honey is not appreciated anymore and those traditions are dying off. It’s sad. I don’t know how to stop it or if one should try to stop it, I doubt one could, but I always want there to be great barbecue in the South or in the Midwest and I want to be able to travel there to go have it. I don’t really care if it’s in LA, keep it in the South. LA’s for In-N-Out. 

SC: Switching gears, I notice in the background you have a palette wall, studio space, and you see where we are right now in terms of a bookshelf. You’re a YouTuber, so you really pay attention to the aesthetic of how people are looking at your space and your home. Speak a little about how today we have to be camera-ready, in some ways because of the pandemic. And how everybody has a microscope on our homes. 

SB: I find this really fascinating. I’ve always found it fascinating, because it was just a small section of the population that really focused on the things that they bought in their life. And if it was suitable for the camera or if it was gonna be on camera or not. And there were so many times where I’m at the store or I’m shopping online and it’s not a hundred percent forcing my decision to buy something, but there’s always this certain amount of percentage in my mind where I’m thinking, “Will this be good on camera?” Things from this wall to the type of desk I have to the pots and pans and things in my kitchen, there’s a certain part of that where I’m thinking, does this match my brand? But now that we have the pandemic and now that everyone is on camera all the time, I think that’s gonna bleed into the general masses maybe a little bit and they’re gonna be thinking about their lifestyle and how that portrays their outward image on camera or on YouTube or on Instagram a lot more than just the influencers that have been thinking about it for a while now. 

SC: I’m wondering how has this experience, you personally, how’s it affected you and your situation out in California? 

SB: I’m really lucky, I’m in a position where I’m very sheltered. I’m in a very rural area of Southern California. I live up in the mountains above Los Angeles and in a very small community. And in my community, there’s one general store, there’s one gas station, and there were like three restaurants in the town. And all of the restaurants closed down and the face masks and the shields at the store gone up, they went up immediately. And it’s a very older community, so I think people took it very seriously right off the bat. And we don’t have an influx of a lot of day travelers. It’s a very closed-off kind of community. My immediate family hasn’t been really affected, thankfully, that we know of yet. And it’s still kind of business as usual; my kids are home-schooled, so the homeschooling wasn’t really a shock like it is to most people. 

SC: But I have to ask you Skyler, to finish off the interview, you are a big fan of food and home cooking. What are you cooking these days? What’s your go-to during this time? 

SB: It’s comfort food with guilt because I’m trying to lose weight, but for some reason, I still want to make my comfort food. Things like mac and cheese, fried chicken — for some reason fried chicken, we’ve been making a lot of fried chicken — making desserts and things like popcorn for watching a movie. So making popcorn with garlic and stuff like that. I guess just comfort food, but it’s all with guilt, like I said comfort food with guilt because every time I put a piece of comfort food in my mouth, I’m thinking, “Well, I’m gonna have to run that off later.” 

SC: Those certainly would be something I would be consuming at this point of time, as well. Well, thanks so much for joining us today on the show, Skyler. It was a pleasure to speak to you. 

SB: No problem, no problem. If you’d like to find out more about where I’m at, check out the website or or Instagram @weeattogether. You can find me on there. Pretty much everywhere: We Eat Together. 

SC: Thanks so much for joining me today. Skyler provided some thoughtful comments on food photography and culture and gave us a glimpse of the pandemic’s effects on current creatives. I think most of all, our conversation about the changing landscape of photography and the fast growing technological era has implications that are further reaching even into our everyday lives. If you enjoyed the conversation, consider giving us a like, share or comment below. We also have a weekly free newsletter that I encourage you all to subscribe to that will get you our content straight into your inbox. Thanks again. Until next week, stay safe, stay healthy and stay human. I’ll see you soon. 


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