For the final assignment of my documentary paper in university, we were tasked to produce images of any subject of our choice in line with one of the different modes of documentary. I chose the observational mode, which entails a non-interfering approach.
I have always had a fascination with spaces and the people who inhabit them. The idea to document a restaurant was a spontaneous one, sparked when I was dining at the same place. Initially, I had set off with camera in hand, intending to look for a common theme on the streets. While dining however, I noticed the small yet efficient team of staff moving in and out of the kitchen, constantly switching between cooking, prepping, washing and serving customers. I was interested in how they were able to function effectively as a small team of 4. I approached the owner, introduced myself and stated my intention, making sure to inform him clearly of what the end product will be used for. He was quick to respond positively, but not without informing his staff first, and so I proceeded to spend the next 3 hours creating this piece. At the end of lunch service, around 3.30pm, it was their turn to eat, and I sat down with them to have a chat.
Joe and his wife Shine took over the business 10 years ago, on the first of April of 2007. They were immigrants from Taiwan at that time, and both vegetarians. Good health and natural ingredients were important to them and they were greatly influenced by a book called “The China Study” by T. Colin Campbell. It led them to lead a healthy life and through their method of cooking without any additives, preservatives and artificial flavouring, their business “Vegan Buffet” was established.
While shooting, I made sure to stay out of the way of their constant movement, in line with the observational documentary convention. It took a while for them to warm up to me, and to feel more natural with a camera around. At first, they were very aware and curious of my presence, and kept looking into the camera. I understood that it was a normal reaction and kept my composure, trying to give off a calm, friendly air.
Being a small, family-run business in a small, tight space, it was a challenge to look for different perspectives to shoot. I was determined to avoid conventional, textbook photography, and tried to approach subjects from a unique angle. Some establishment shots were necessary in order to set the scene, as found in the beginning of the piece. Action and interaction were my focus – I wanted to capture movement, as well as exchanges between the staff. They were constantly moving in and out of the kitchen, and in my sequence I tried to follow that, with shots from various parts of the restaurant. In my pursuit of looking for unique angles, I also incorporated composition techniques like frame within a frame and low angles. I tried to capture the subjects from behind objects like a glass window or a half-concealed face, representing my position as an observer and not belonging in the space.
An interesting element I noticed was that a lot of the photos taken of the subjects in the kitchen showed them hunched over and looking down – hard and focused at work. Outside in the dining space, they wore a different shade of colour – that of vibrance and warmth, always ready to assist any customer. I felt I managed to capture that contrast, with images from both ends of the spectrum. It was a privilege for me to document them, and to develop a relationship with them.