London-based reportage photographer Stuart Freedman was recently commissioned by the German food magazine Effilee to photograph a rare and unique ritual feast known as Wazwan. Wazwan is a traditional meal with seven to thirty courses. This special feast is prepared for various occasions and gatherings, such as weddings, by the Kashmiri people. The meal is a mixture of different cultures and traditions, much like Kashmiri themselves. Stuart, who is a frequent writer and photographer for Effilee, was excited to accept the assignment and capture such a unique tradition. After booking one of the last seats on a flight from Delhi, he arrived in Kashmir just in time to catch the beginning of the Wazwan preparations. Below, Stuart discusses more about the assignment and his experience with Wazwan.
How would you describe your photographic style?
That’s a bit tricky. I’ve always thought of myself as a reportage photographer more interested in the story than the picture, but I think my more recent commercial work has evolved with a much more contemporary, clean look. I still shoot primarily with fixed, short lenses, and I’m close to people. I don’t mess with the pictures afterwards; no fancy post-processing. The editor gets what I saw.
How did you end up both photographing and writing for Effilee?
I started to write as an addition to my photography stories in the late 1990’s for magazines, so it’s not so new. For Effilee, I pitched them a story a while back about an historical coffee house I’ve known in New Delhi for a dozen years and explained that I wanted to use it as a metaphor for the changes in the city. They knew that I could take pictures but I guess they took a chance on my writing…
Can you explain more about the Wazan meal itself?
The Wazwan is the traditional feast of the Kashmiris—people who, as they never stopped telling me, are not Indians, not Pakistani’s but Kashmiris. The cuisine was brought by Central Asian chefs (or Wazas) with Tamulaine when he invaded in the fourteenth century, and like Kashmir, is a mixture of cultures and traditions. The Wazwan must have at least seven basic courses with certain dishes but a Royal Wazwan can have as many as thirty.
What kinds of photos were you hoping to capture?
I wanted to show the sheer hard work of these cooks (Wazas) as they were on the go for three days solid. I like the idea of photographing food like this. I see it as no different from photographing any reportage. Effilee almost never gives me direction, not because they can’t or I’m too precious, but I suppose they trust me to bring back something that works. So far so good.
What was the experience like?
I spent a couple of days with the Wazas but also did some dawn shots in Kashmir for establishing images if they were needed. I do what I normally do—hang around and chat to people, get their trust and drink lots of tea. There’s no secret— you just be nice to people and they’re nice back. I’m always aware that working in a kitchen like this—even the most basic outdoor type—that you’re constantly in the way and a bit of a nuisance, so you tread carefully at first. I was lucky that I had a very good introduction by the most famous Waza family in the Valley and a good translator.
The reportage was pretty straightforward but I remember getting absolutely covered in pounded meat whilst photographing the chefs going at the lamb with mallets. I was given a rather… feminine… apron much to the delight of these big, burly guys slaving away at the enormous pots on the open range.
The food was sumptuous and, despite having worked in the region for so long, I was surprised by just how unique the flavors and dishes were. It was the result of Kashmir being the crossroads of so many cultures and influences. The experience was lovely. Really interesting people and excellent food.
Were there challenges with this assignment?
The biggest headache was getting a flight from Delhi. Wedding season meant that I was lucky to get a seat in order to arrive in time for the feast. Oh, and a houseboat full of rather noisy Indian tourists on holiday…
How did Effilee use the images?
I think they were pretty pleased. They used ten images over a fourteen-page spread and my 5000 words.
Did you learn anything through this assignment?
Apart from never wearing a floral apron on assignment, I learned an enormous amount about Kashmir. It didn’t matter that the story was about food primarily, it allowed me to explore a culture and be nosy about other people’s lives—surely the heart of journalism.