Photography duo, Dylan + Jeni, are just about the coolest married couple ever. A mutual love and passion for food brought the two of them together (and brought us to them) one fateful day. Since then, they’ve created a delicious life nothing short of adventure for themselves. Today, Dylan and Jeni travel the world experiencing the unforgettable, meeting eclectic people, absorbing cultures, and consuming delectable foods, all while endlessly seeking a charming way to capture these fleeting moments.
Dylan + Jeni are based in Los Angeles, CA, and are parents to a lovely cat named Momo. It was such a pleasure getting to know this couple and learning how their differences empower them and their passions unite them.
One opts for a tablet, while the other holds the “old art” of notebooks and pens near and dear. One finds strength in socializing, while the other finds it in scheduling. Sometimes, they might even argue about where to place a French chervil. At the end of the day, however – both lust for travel, both share a similar eye but see the world as a duo…and neither one can live without the other.
How did your passion for food begin? What influenced its development?
DYLAN: I became passionate about food after I graduated college. Like many others, I was sucked into cooking shows on TV and started cooking at home, simply because I was a poor college graduate making nothing. I had grown up in a traditional Chinese family – eating Chinese food approximately 95% of the time. I was like many Asian Americans more interested in eating American food and looking for that cultural assimilation. It wasn’t until I started cooking at home that I realized that I was very fortunate to be raised on Chinese cuisine and how I had taken it for granted. I understood that it was necessary and important to know your roots and to treat it with reverence.
From that point, I tried to eat as much ethnic food as possible. I love traveling to eat and to absorb another’s culture – and what better way than to take it in with their food. I chronicled my culinary adventures in the form of a now-defunct food blog that I wrote for nearly 8 years and it was during that time that I decided to visually improve the taste of those food pixels. To our surprise, we started being contacted by chefs and restaurateurs to photograph for them. Then came publications and now book publishers.
I was formerly an advertising art director and Jeni an educator. We both met though food and now are in the profession of documenting it! We couldn’t be more happy about the way things are going.
JENI: I started to fall in love with food and the culture behind food, when I moved to Osaka after college. I was a really picky eater growing up in Los Angeles, but living abroad in Japan really challenged the way I was eating. I traveled independently for years in Asia and fell in love with street food and just the beauty of a simple meal.
By the time I moved back to Los Angeles, I looked at the food I grew up around in a completely different light – and that’s when I met Dylan.
Can you describe your personal and professional style/aesthetic? How do they complement the other’s?
DYLAN: Completely adaptive – which is a more eloquent way of saying… “we’re all over the place.” We love to try different things and not have a definite style. We look back on our work from the past few years and blush in embarrassment, for we would do things much differently. But in my opinion, that’s what builds the character and style of a photographer – taking small steps, falling down at times but always showing resilience and moving on forward.
While Jeni and I do concept on how we will take on a photography assignment, a lot of what we end up with has to do with our interaction with the chef or subject the day of the shoot. The chef may be in a different mood or may not feel what we’re going for. The weather may not be friendly another day. Sometimes we’ll want the image to be clean and graphic, sometimes we’ll play with shadows, etc. We like to step back and consider alternate ideas.
The way we approach photography is through our experiences from traveling, our appreciation for design, and our genuine love for all things related to food. Conceptually, we are always thinking of something that hasn’t been photographed. And if it has – how do we present it differently and with a provocative approach? We definitely have an affinity for bizarre and unique jobs, whether it be documenting the making of mozzarella in a romantic manner, examining illicit foods banned at airport customs, or exploring the food of Portland’s strip clubs.
JENI: Photography sometimes is unexplainable in words. A photograph can be a feeling or an emotion – and not so much an image of a subject. I like to think that my personal sense of style is simple and clean. I love natural light – especially in Japan and the beautiful Nordic light. On jobs, we have a lot of fun with strobes because it creates a visual statement. I guess it really depends on my mood and what we are shooting. Our collaborative style relies a lot on how we see the world as a duo and how we decide to translate it as a team.
What are some important things you’ve learned or perspectives you gained from traveling?
DYLAN: Through food and my interest in learning about other cultures, I learned a lot about respect and valuing something that is different than what you value. One should never judge or look down on anyone because they do things a certain way. I’ve learned that food is actually the one thing that brings people together – whether it be family, friends, a workplace, a wedding and even funerals. We love seeing how food is celebrated and viewed wherever we travel. We’ll eat food from white paper plates to white tablecloths – we want to experience things the way locals do.
The best experiences we’ve had were staying with local families – as we did in Mongolia. We slept in the same tent as a freshly butchered sheep that would later become our dinner. We made fresh noodles off a wooden cutting board atop a bed. And we helped cook the meal using fresh river stones we had gathered with the family children. It was amazing.
Ultimately, life is too short to stay in one place. There’s just so much out there to learn and absorb, and being photographers has really helped us circumnavigate the globe.
JENI: Traveling has always kept us on our feet. It keeps us moving and learning. My parents always took us on road trips when my brother and I were younger, and I loved looking out the window. It’s fascinating watching how others live their lives. In the end, traveling reminds us not to be too comfortable in one spot and to look for change. We’re afraid of falling into a comfort zone, and you can see that throughout our work.
How does your relationship influence your work? What are the biggest challenges? Benefits?
DYLAN: We’re asked this question all the time and people expect to hear the most negative of responses. People simply cannot fathom the idea of seeing AND working with your spouse daily! At first, we were hesitant about our future as a husband & wife team, but I have to say it has been rewarding, challenging, humbling, and at times, frustrating – but this has made us stronger. We have worked hard in making sure there is a balance between home and work life – thus the many travels and weekend getaways. The main benefit of working together is that I know I have someone I can fully trust to collaborate with and one that will always be on the same team as me. Since both of us have a similar eye for things, it’s great to take turns shooting and styling or addressing a client’s needs.
JENI: Through our years of dating, being married, and now working together – we’ve truly become a team. We are not competitive with each other, and we support each other at all times. Two opinions and creative eyes are usually better than one. Dylan is the social one, so he’s great at making friends with people as we travel. He quickly builds a bond and trust with the people that we meet and we’re rewarded with great portraits of people around the world. Dylan enjoys photographing food and people. I enjoy capturing spaces and interiors, and I also notice small details in a shot. On top of all that, I keep everything on schedule…because Dylan has zero sense of timing.
There are many expectations and emotions that get involved, and it takes years to balance marriage and business. Dylan and I will have great days where we finish an amazing shoot or we win a pitch. There will be days with hugs and kisses. And then there are days where we argue like siblings over the smallest things, like moving a piece of French chervil to the left vs. the right. At the end of the day, we come home to our fat cat, Momo, and forget all the stress. I can’t imagine it being any different.
Your most unusual source of inspiration?
DYLAN: While traveling, we’re always looking for ethnic food menus or signage. I love looking at them wherever we are in the world. Sometimes they are fantastic, but usually they exhibit bad typography, bland lighting, and sloppy Photoshopping – it’s quite inspirational! Almost like a mental reset, if you’ve been inundated with photographing current food. Most importantly, we’re reminded to have fun and not take things too seriously sometimes. It’s just food!
JENI: My parent’s have a garage full of old Bon Appétit magazines from the 80s, along with Sunset Magazine cookbooks – tons of vintage goodies. I always feel moved after going through their vintage stash.
Also, when we’re in Japan, we spend a lot time in the bookstores perusing photo magazines and books. The Japanese, as well as the Scandinavians, have amazing light and they’re able to sculpt it beautifully into imagery.
Please tell us the story behind some of your favorite work.
As we mentioned before, when we travel we try and create a photo series. We work the best when we’re in a foreign land – fresh eyes on fresh turf!
DYLAN + JENI: Whenever we land in a new country, the first thing we do is eat. It was raining hard when we woke up our first morning in Singapore, but we grabbed our cameras and headed straight to Maxwell Centre – the closest hawker centre to our hotel. As travelers, we capture all of our initial senses of a new place. We look up, down, left, right. We take in smells and sounds. We’ll notice the colors, ceilings, shoes, fashion trends, the pace people walk – all within minutes. This is the time we evaluate what we want to shoot and how we want to share our experience through still imagery.
On that day, the food stalls were buzzing with so much energy. Hungry people, humidity, steamy pans, and so many colorful plastic objects! How could such delicious food be served in melamine plateware for a few dollars? We knew this was going to be something more than just shooting our lunch. What we saw was more than a food court – it was a vibrant look at Singaporean culture. It was one place where people of all ages, class, shapes and ethnic backgrounds congregated. And it was amazing to see people with one common goal: eat.
What are five things you can’t live without?
DYLAN: Noodles. Spotify. Wacom tablet. Passport. Jeni (not when she’s mean).
JENI: Family (Dylan and our cat, Momo), lip balm, my iPhone, notebook & pens, my Zojirushi thermos.
Favorite travel destination(s) to date?
DYLAN: Istanbul, Okinawa, Chiang Mai (Thailand), every city we visit in Mexico.
JENI: Morocco. Japan. Paris. Mexico City. Bogotá.
3 Instagram accounts you love to follow.
What’s next for Dylan + Jeni?
DYLAN + JENI: We’ll be traveling to China, Japan, and Vietnam – all places we love and where we have roots, this fall! We’re excited to be working on some book projects right now involving food and cocktails. We’re constantly thinking of on-the-fly projects or a photo series.
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