Hungry for Adventure

A Conversation with James Collier

James Collier is a photographer and storyteller whose images have captured the magic of Eat Retreat. His newest project is a cross-country journey photographing iconic regional dishes and the people who make them.

You’re about to embark on a major photo adventure. Tell us about it.

So, I’m driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway a couple months back with my pup, and fellow Eat Retreater Sari Kamin messages me to ask if I have any interest in driving around the country shooting people and food for a project she’s working on. Hell yeah, I do. A few weeks later, I’m at a table with the firm in charge of designing the US Pavilion at EXPO 2015 Milano, running through the details.

Everything has felt a little surreal since, but sure enough, I’m hitting the road next week on a four-week sprint around America. My brother is traveling with me as my assistant. We’ll be spending time at a couple dozen iconic restaurants, making portraits of people and food that showcase “regional cuisine” here in the states. These will then be printed for an exhibit as part of a wrap-around map in the US Pavilion, which will be open along with the rest of EXPO from May through October, 2015.

You recently had a photography exhibition at the James Beard House. What was that like?

If I’m honest, this photo project stole a lot of my attention away from the exhibit, which just wrapped at the end of the year. But having my work up in such an esteemed establishment was pretty exciting. It was my first real taste of what opportunity can look like here in NYC. That was also the first time I’ve ever cold-called someone and asked them to look at my work, so it’s affirming that I’m channeling my creative energy in the right directions.

You’re from Louisiana, spent a significant amount of time in California, and now live in Brooklyn. How does sense of place affect your work?

Hmm, good question. Place affects my curiosities and my sense of purpose. This didn’t really surface until I moved to California, which is where I started exploring agriculture and raw ingredients. That’s also where I first saw a need for storytelling. I spent most of my 10 years there using written and visual stories to rally that community in celebration—celebration of what it grows and its rich diversity, which envelopes people/cultures/cuisines/flavors from all over the world.

I’m still exploring all of that and figuring out what my strongest curiosities are now that I’m in NYC. I can say they’re leaning much more towards people. I’m also more and more interested in exploring my roots, so I have some personal time planned for that this year—more time with my family and more time learning about the diverging histories there.

Care to explain your obsession with tacos?

This needs an explanation? All I knew before moving to California, taco-wise, was ground beef, “taco seasoning,” hard shells and shredded cheese. Then someone introduced me to a warm corn tortilla, cooked in pork fat on a flat top and weighted down with meat, onion and fresh salsa. Maybe a little cilantro. I was hooked.

I don’t really know how to explain it beyond that. I can’t tell you how many places I’ve tried, but I’ve covered 200 miles in a day just exploring. I may plan a vacation later this year just to spend time back on the west coast. The tacos there really are that much better than what I’ve found on the east coast.

You’re a three-time Eat Retreater. What’s one of the best collaborations that’s come out of Eat Retreat?

I’d have to put this EXPO project at the top of the list. Sari not only brought me in but also laid most of the initial groundwork for the itinerary.

But a few smaller projects come to mind, too. I’ve had countless adventures with fellow Eat Retreaters over the last several years, many of which have evolved into some sort of collaboration. One example is the Goat Tuade with Heather Marold Thomason and Bryan Mayer, which holds as one of my favorite photo stories from 2014. Another is a personal project that I tested with Mirit Cohen after the first Eat Retreat, which explores recipes that connect us to family histories and tradition. That project has been on the back burner, but I’m hoping to bring it back to life this year.

You love to tell stories through your images. Can you share a favorite story with us?

Back in the fall, I spent a week in the woods with my dad and grandfather. Three generations of James Russell Colliers hunting together. It was a very personal adventure. In addition to hunting, I was there to document my grandfather who, at 88 years old, still hunts by himself. And, he’s still a better shot than most.

Hunting is something that many of my friends haven’t experienced and often question about my upbringing. So, I wanted to share what that looks like, blood and all. I did that during the trip through Instagram, but I’m working on something more long-form to publish this spring.