Chiara Ye is a renowned Beijing food photographer and food stylist.
She was born in China and has lived in Italy since childhood, where she had studied art and photography. Chiara is a professional food photographer that works with food and its visual representation.
Interview by Dominique Musorrafiti
This is a selected interview from
Planet China Vol. 02 issue
celebrating International Women’s Day 2018
China-underground: How did you get into photography and when did you decide to choose it as a profession?
Chiara Ye: My passion began during high school, at Art Institute, where I followed an experimental class on performing arts disciplines. From there I started to study photography, film editing, photoshop etc … everything that was visual art fascinated me. I learned the method, I immediately became passionate and interested in taking portraits, the possibility of manipulating images and beauty as I pleased. The first commissions from friends and acquaintances started almost as a game.
At the time I had just finished high school, and I thought it could be a job that would never bore me, that would bring me to meet different people every day and give me the opportunity to travel, but it still seemed incredible that someone could really pay for my photos. It all began as a passion, which was followed by studies at the Institute of Photography where I was able to learn the history of photography and techniques. It is only after I moved to Beijing in 2013 that I really started to experience photography as a profession. When I arrived here I realized how my background of studies in Italy had been important for my artistic training, which made me different from all the other photographers around me. Thus began the first professional jobs.
“China is moving towards healthy food! I see more and more customers looking for healthy food and also visually in the menus there is great demand to underline this aspect”
Did you speak Chinese with your family when you were living in Italy? How useful was your linguistic knowledge to transfer to Beijing?
I used to speak Chinese only with my mother. With no one else. It made things a lot easier, but moving to China was also a trauma in the beginning. In the first few months, I had no one to talk to in Italian and my Chinese was not as good as it is now. I was advantaged because I understood the language, but everything was different above all it was difficult to build real interpersonal relationships. Now I am very connected to the big Italian community that is here.
“This year I’m going to start my first food photography workshop”
How did you approach food photography?
I always liked to take food’s photos even before Instagram became a fashion. I have always photographed everything I ate, at that time no one was doing it yet and I was “hated” by the unfortunates who found themselves eating with me and who were forbidden to touch a fork without having taken all my pictures. When I moved, I started with fashion photography, which was what I liked most. It was my circle of friendships to approach the food photography. A friend who worked for a restaurant at Factory 798, asked me to take their new menu. I immediately liked the idea even though I had never taken pictures of food at a professional level, but it gave me great artistic satisfaction. From there they started calling me many other restaurants in Beijing.
Chinese and Italian cuisines are among the most popular in the world. What are the main differences and difficulties for a food photographer in enhancing these dishes?
From my point of view, there is not so much difference in making these sets. It depends on the type of presentation of the food. For example, for healthy food, I have to show that the ingredients are very fresh and then around the plate and the food I add vegetables to specify and show the “viewer” the ingredients that are in there. Each plate can potentially be represented and photographed in many different ways, changing the background, for example on white background, in location or creating a real set, it all depends mainly on the final message that you want to give to the customer. This is the most important thing.
“One thing I like about Beijing and Shanghai is that you can have the chance to try restaurants of any kind of world cuisine. Besides the food environment is very varied and competitive. The chefs propose dishes of high quality, very close to their origin countries but at the same time highly creative”
Are there any more or less photogenic foods than others?
Absolutely yes! For example, I don’t like taking pictures of steaks! Sometimes the dishes with ingredients with very similar colors make the distinction of the ingredients difficult. An example can be the kung pao chicken. Sometimes the difficulty depends on how the food is served.
“Many western chefs are now taking an interest in learning the techniques of Chinese cuisine. Once Chinese chefs went around the world to learn the techniques of other cuisines. Now many of the best international chefs want to learn Chinese culture cuisine “
Do you taste what you photograph?
Yes, yes! Obviously after the shooting. When shooting I’m very focused on what I’m doing. Not always. However, it can happen that I have to add a little bit of oil to give a fresher look to the image or other ingredients. Other times after the shooting the food has become inedible and need to be discarded. I’ve been to restaurants many times where the food on the menu was beautiful, but then it came totally different. I don’t want anyone who sees my photos to feel disappointed. With the restaurants I work with, I can say I feel very lucky because they leave me a lot of freedom. We don’t want to disappoint customers.
In China, as in other Asian countries, as well as being good, food must be visually beautiful.
Yes especially beautiful. Everything is focused in be visual. I met some Italian restaurateurs who make some very good dishes, but the visual image isn’t the best, this doesn’t help them because here in Beijing there is a great demand that the dishes are varied, different, healthy and also visually appealing. This stimulates the market and it’s a good thing because every restaurant has its peculiarity in the choice of dishes and in the care of the interiors. There is a lot of creative requests.
You grew up in Italy. Has Italian culture and cuisine influenced your tastes?
Absolutely. The knowledge I learned in Italy, everything I ate, everything I learned, even from the families of my friends, helped me a lot and I still feel it every day in my work, because this knowledge gives me so much help in creating images. My background: growth and studies in Italy have helped me and led me to do a good job here in Beijing, in a really lucky moment. I feel in the right place at the right time. If I had stayed in Italy I do not know what my profession would have been.
What are Italian dishes that you like most? Which Chinese ones?
I like pasta, pizza, of course. But what I like the most is the quality of Italian raw food. In Italy most of the time, the dishes were always delicious and it was because of the quality of raw food. Here is missing. I like Beijing Duck and everything made by my mom. The best Chinese food is eaten at home because is linked to sharing. For example, during the Chinese New Year, we find ourselves making dumplings together. There is a lot of joy. A dish eaten together, as they say in China, is more fragrant. It’s tastier.
I also wanted to add that everyone can take pictures of food the most important thing is to have a lot of passion and imagination. My photos are 20% of photography knowledge and everything else is passion and knowledge of food. If someone wants to work as a food photographer, he or she can start right away. I think those who are motivated can do it. Everyone has a smartphone that has a camera with a good lens. The most important is to have a lot of passion, patience, and constancy.
Photos courtesy of Chiara Ye
Also published on Medium.