For the past few years, Matthieu Paley has been on a quest to photograph the food of our ancestors. He traveled to the Arctic, to the jungle, to the mountains and the desert, looking for the world’s oldest diets and what self-sufficient communities could teach the rest of the world. What he found was an incredible ability of the human body to adapt to nature in a harmonious way, but one that was also threatened by the culture of mass consumption even in the most remote of places. The French photographer is now raising funds to publish “Men & Food,” a book he is working on with the independent publishing house behind the beautiful culinary magazine 180°C. He joined R&K from his home in Turkey.
Roads & Kingdoms: Did everything start with the National Geographic project?
Matthieu Paley: Yes, absolutely. I have spent a lot of my career photographing the regions of Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Pamir, so west of the Himalayas, the north of Pakistan, the north-east of Afghanistan and Tajikistan. I’ve worked there for many years and still do today. As I was working on these documentary projects, especially when I was with a very remote Kirghiz community that lives in Afghanistan, I started looking at food. In self-sufficient communities such as these, everything revolves around acquiring food and eating it. So in photographing this community, I photographed what it takes to get food on the table. I did a story on them for National Geographic in 2011, and when they saw that I took a real interest in food, they asked me if I was interested in shooting a story for them on the Evolution of Diet, which looked at humans’ ancestral eating habits that are still practiced today. They asked me where I wanted to go, so there was a long preparation phase first. I looked at the world’s different environments–the Arctic, the jungle, the desert, the mountains–and from there, I selected places where communities lived self-sufficiently.
In the Yaeda valley of Tanzania, the Hadza collect and eat honey combs and larvae from beehives. Photo: Matthieu Paley.
R&K: At what point did you realize you wanted to turn this assignment into a book?
Paley: You know, often photographers will work on one story and they’ll need someone else, an editor, to point out obvious things to them. I always work by instinct, finding things I’m passionate about, and it turns out there was a strong presence of food in my work. The team that makes a magazine called 180°C saw my work in Pamir and they contacted me about doing a food story in Pamir. I thought they were crazy. I was really surprised that a food magazine was interested in this, but I thought it was also very smart. We collaborated then, and again more recently on a story about Nauru. I became friends with the team and when I met them in Paris, they told me they wanted to start publishing books, and they wanted the first to be of my work. Of course, they’re independent so they would have to raise funds. I had other opportunities with publishers I’d worked with before, but I wanted to try and work with a small, motivated team whose work I really respected, so I said let’s do it.