The Taste of Travel: An Interview with Photographer David Hagerman

By Corianne Brosnahan, January 23, 2014

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David Hagerman

You might be in Thailand, at the sprawling Myung Mai market, or in Turkey, gawking at the bountiful produce in Kastamonou. Maybe you’re in Malaysia checking out Penang’s popular Jelutong Market, or sniffing around the stalls in Luang Namtha, Laos. Wherever you are, it always seems to happen the same way: you see a bizarrely beautiful vegetable, an unidentifiable cut of meat, a grain you’ve never seen before, and you ask the vendor what it is and how she prepares it. She tells you that it’s X, Y, or Z, and that she likes to spice and sauté it. Somebody standing nearby overhears this. They tell you that personally they like to bake it with a sprinkling of salt. The woman to your left informs you that her own preference is to fry it in egg batter, and the vendor at the next stall chimes in that you can also eat it plain as a snack. Then someone behind you asks if you’d like to come over—they’ll teach you a preparation that will really knock your socks off.

“Food is often a gateway for me,” says photographer David Hagerman, who makes it a point to hang around the world’s marketplaces for precisely this reason. “To me the dish is always the last thing in a chain of events and I’m interested in how people interact with their food; growing things, catching things, cooking things—processes.” Exploring and documenting these diverse processes has been a large part of Hagerman’s life for the past few decades.

Growing up in the college town of Holt, Michigan, Hagerman recalls eating a steady Midwestern, meat-and-potatoes kind of diet. “My mother was a good cook,” he says, “but if she used a head of garlic in a year, she’d gone wild!”

Hagerman’s first real taste of the exotic came in college when he visited his parents in the Philippines, where his biologist father had recently been assigned to the International Rice Institute in Los Baños. It was, Hagerman recalls, the first time he’d eaten a fish with a head. The travel bug had bitten, and Asia in particular beckoned him to return soon.

His opportunity came just a few years later when he met the woman who would become his wife, writer Robyn Eckhardt. At the time, Eckhardt was about to move to China to study in Sichuan Province. Once there, she cabled back to Hagerman that there was a position teaching English if he cared to join her, which he promptly did, arriving in 1985. Having cultivated an interest in photography since he was a young boy watching slideshows with his father, Hagerman was toting a brand new SLR camera and 14 rolls of color slide film—the most he’d ever seen at one time.

It was the beginning of the couple’s Asian odyssey, though they’d have to make a Stateside pit stop before setting full sail. Once their respective Sichuan stints were up, Hagerman and Eckhardt got married and settled down in Boston for graduate school. With his eyes still turned to the East, Hagerman looked for a job that would send him overseas, and ended up becoming a trader of industrial materials. Over the next two decades, Eckhardt and Hagerman would live in such places as Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok, Ho Chi Minh City, and finally, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Hagerman’s camera, needless to say, made these journeys too. “I’m a fairly shy guy,” he says, “but the camera gives me an excuse to go in and talk to people.” Continuing to push himself, Hagerman reached a point of technical proficiency, but still felt something was missing. “If your pictures aren’t good enough,” he says, “you’re not close enough, and so I felt then that it was a personal investment—I needed to get closer so that I could make better pictures and that’s when I made that transition.”

The transition being that Hagerman became serious about photography, whether snapping away on a weekend trip or volunteering for camera duty on company outings. “I just figured anytime I pick up my camera, I’m going to treat it as an editorial assignment,” he remembers thinking.

At the same time, Eckhardt, in the midst of earning a PhD in political science, was becoming increasingly serious about writing—specifically on the topic of food, for which she and Hagerman had always shared a deep passion. The two would combine forces in 2005, when they started their acclaimed blog, Eating Asia, as a way for both to hone their individual crafts.

One hesitates to call Eating Asia a “food blog,” not because there’s anything wrong with food blogs, but because you could also call it a travel blog, a history blog, a culture blog, or any label from among the many themes it covers. In post after post, Hagerman and Eckhardt prove that food is indeed “a gateway” to understanding and interacting with cultures different from your own. As Hagerman puts it: “The world can be a little bit political and food isn’t. Anybody can talk about it.”

Despite the glut of images and words on the web, things of quality tend to get noticed, which is exactly what happened with Eating Asia. It wasn’t long before Eckhardt and Hagerman were pitching stories to publications and receiving commissions, and what had begun as a hobby became a career. At the time, Hagerman was still working his corporate job, and as the volume of his photography assignments grew, he found himself stretched precariously thin. He would leave the corporate world altogether in 2009 to become a full-time freelance photographer.

Since then, Hagerman and Eckhardt have covered everything from anchovy season in Turkey to Filipino culinary staples, and have been featured in such publications as the New York Times, Saveur, and the Wall Street Journal, where Eckhardt also maintains a regular column on street food.

Characteristic of their work is an unfailing openness and enthusiasm for cuisines across the board, which Hagerman attributes in part to growing up without a strong regional tradition. “It’s just kind of a matter of being very curious,” Hagerman says, “and in a sense we have an advantage not really having a specific culinary grounding. I don’t compare everything to my mother’s cooking. It’s not like this is better than that.”

As for Hagerman’s visual palate, it’s the subtler notes to which he’s drawn. “I suppose I sort of take quiet pictures,” he says. “I like to show things the way they are. There’s just a lot of everyday that’s beautiful and it’s the beauty of the mundane, the beauty of the ordinary that I like.”

At home in George Town, Malaysia, where Hagerman and Eckhardt live in a renovated, 100-year-old shophouse, there’s plenty of everyday beauty to capture. It’s nice to be able to walk out the door, and every time I go out see something that I haven’t seen before,” says Hagerman, who’s fascinated by the region’s many traditional trades and has recently begun a project called “Hidden Shrines,” documenting the city’s plethora of religious expression.

It’s something of a miracle that Hagerman manages to find time for personal projects given his schedule. When I spoke to him, he’d just returned from an assignment in Tamil Nadu, India, and was about to leave for Vietnam. The next few years also forecast a good chunk of time in Turkey, as Hagerman and Eckhardt recently landed a book deal to photograph and write about Turkish regional cuisines. Hagerman and Eckhardt first visited Turkey almost 16 years ago, and instantly fell in love, the connection so powerful that Eckhardt decided then and there to start taking Turkish lessons (she’s now proficient enough to do on-the-ground research). Since then they’ve returned often, crisscrossing the country on extensive road-trips.

“The special thing about Turkish food,” Hagerman says, “is that there’s so much diversity. At first you think it’s all kebabs but it’s not. Cuisines tend to be very local and determined by the topography and climate, which varies greatly. You can be driving in a place that looks like New Mexico and 50 miles later you’re somewhere that looks like northern California. The food reflects that diversity.”

Scheduled to come out in 2016, the book will no doubt be mouthwateringly good. Indeed, it seems as if there’s no dish the team of Hagerman and Eckhardt can’t make unreasonably enticing. Towards the end of our conversation Hagerman excused himself for a moment. “Sorry,” he said, “the dog was just trying to eat a book.”

To see more of David Hagerman’s work, visit www.davidhagerman.photoshelter.com or head over to Eating Asia.

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