At PRIOR, we have endless admiration—and endless gratitude—for Andrea Gentl and Marty Hyers, the expert pair behind Gentl and Hyers travel and food photography. It was they who shot our first-ever trip to India as a company, and in many ways they helped put into tangible form the vision of the way PRIOR wanted to do travel differently. You might say our community would never have been the same without their contributions.
Today we keep close touch with Andrea and Marty, their deep-dive approach to cultural travel an ongoing—and until this recent pause, omnipresent—inspiration and joy to follow. Besides having set an absolute bar for how photography can communicate what’s precious about a culture, they’re also two of the most thoughtful and down to earth people on the planet who know how to not just fully see a place and its people, but how to capture it.
The three of us connected by phone from our respective homes to discuss the global pause in travel due to coronavirus. We touched on personal travel style (theirs: start at the local market and talk to everyone you find) and their matchless collection of edible souvenirs they’ve carried home from journeys. But most pertinently, a chillingly on-point takeaway came through: that to engage with others through travel is a treasure that can and should never again be taken for granted.
Where are you grounded during the stay at home effort? What have you been up to?
M: We’re in the Catskills in upstate New York. We have a very tiny little farmhouse in the woods we’ve had for about 20 years. We’re here with our kids: Lula, who’s 22, and Sam, who’s 21. Our daily routine right now is based around working outside and cooking. Homesteading probably best describes it. These last two weeks, we tapped five maples, and collected about 50 gallons of sap and boiled it down to 1 gallon of syrup. We are foraging for wild foods—ramps are starting to poke through the forest floor. I ordered do-it-yourself mushroom kits, so that project has taken over the living room. We haven’t spent this much time together as a family in years and definitely not up here. It’s very grounding to be together in this time.
M: Also Andrea has collected so much from [our travels] in terms of pantry staples, like spices from India, and jaggery, lots of things we probably should never have been able to get past TSA. So now she’s organized them into jars and we’re also labeling them.
A: We’re digging into our foreign larder and making lots of comfort foods, like dosas, idlis, risottos, ragus.
Which passion came first for you: the food photography or travel photography?
A: One definitely inspired the other. We started out shooting food but very quickly moved into travel as well. Food stories came naturally through the travel and still do. Even when we are shooting a hotel or working on [a commercial project], we are always digging to find the local food stories as much for the magazine or the client as we are for ourselves. Is there a cheese farmer here or a market we could go to? One of the first things we do is go to a market—you can get a really good sense of the culture and environment of a place by starting there. We scope things out, talk to vendors, and then bring the camera in. And we always buy something before asking, “Can we photograph you, can we photograph your table, or what you have laying on your blanket?”
M: Andrea is highly engaged—she talks to everyone. If there’s a guy making a lentils in a bowl on the ground, she’ll ask him everything: what’s the bowl made of, what’s in it, what’s he doing. She engages and shows her humanness, and then they show their humanness and everyone is laughing, and that’s when a lot of cultural blockades just fall away. There may be a guy serving something with a brass ladle, and it’s not uncommon for us to ask, “Okay, who makes that ladle?” and go shoot that guy. It’s never really linear. It’s following these stories. We’re photographers, but we also just want to experience as much as we can while we’re there, so it’s super holistic.
What places have been on your mind while we’re all currently social distancing at home?
A: I really miss those markets. Also, Italy of course because, you know, I’m Italian. I feel really strong ties to Italy there’s such an octogenarian population there that’s been hit so hard.
M: I’d say India. We’ve been about 15 times and have so many friends there. If anyone has really been to India they would understand the reality of trying to protect a population like that—how social distancing may not be an option, how having the right resources or not will play in. In rural villages and in the cities, it could go on for quite a long time. So we feel sad for them. But at the same time, that culture is so not selfish. They live familially and by block and by building and by town and really support each other and care for one another, and that will go a long way.
A: A lot of the stories we tell are ancient food stories, so the people who are sharing their stories are quite old. I worry about them. We recently photographed these fisherwomen in Karala we met last year. We looked into the backwaters at night and saw these little lights on and asked what they were. The woman stomp around the mud, then grab the fish [that come up] with their hands. And in the morning, they take them to the market. It was heart-wrenching because we were leaving in the morning and didn’t get to photograph them. So when we were back in India recently we went back and spent two or three amazing days with those women. They were all 65 to 90 and went out three to four times a day with their baskets. They were constantly laughing and had known each other since they were 16 or 17. It’s a story we want to continue to photograph and maybe even go back to make a little film about them. These are the kinds of stories and people I worry are at risk.
What kinds of ways would you say you’ve stayed connected to far-off places while at home?
M: I’ve been of course thinking about those cultures that are getting swept up in a pandemic and people having a hard time, but also I’m trying to be here, be in the moment. My kids are here, the sun is coming up and going down every day. I’m just trying to not get scattered and not get caught up in the numbers and the news cycles. So I haven’t been connected in the usual ways.
A: I’ve been staying connected through Instagram. We’ve been texting and face timing with friends a lot, and I’m writing and sharing writing with friends. I’m also slowly working my way up to making a little database of all the farmers who are sharing and dropping off food [in the area], so that’s something I’m excited about that I think will be good for our community and farmers.
Where have you traveled in the recent pass that’s left an impact?
A: We shot a turmeric harvest and a chile harvest in India.
M: We just shot the Il Buco cookbook from [the New York City restaurant], and [owner Donna Leonard] took us to Italy and to Ibiza and Paris and the Champagne region to meet all her purveyors and we got this incredible tour of these parts of Europe, so that was amazing.
A: It was Sicily in the fall—seeing the markets there, going to the salt flats, the light, and just meeting farmers who were farming ancient grains was amazing.
M: [There were parts we were in] for 3 days but we could have stayed for 3 months. And that’s the thing: If you’re curious and you care, you can really dive into every single experience and find the story there. Everyone travels their own way and that’s great. But I don’t know how people can sit in a hotel on a beach when the world is so fascinating.
Do your travel photos actually serve you personally when you’re back home?
M: We shoot so much and nonstop back to back that, it’s true, some photos never see the light of day again. That’s okay, and that doesn’t feel bad. Because sometimes you open up a drive and find something and say look at this amazing place, I forgot we were even there, and you can revisit through what you find. That’s incredible.
A: I wish we could go back to those days in the 70s where families would have other families over for dinner and set up the carousel and look at slides while they have cocktails. But unfortunately we live in this world where everyone is constantly documenting. Maybe we’ll make a beautiful book some day—it is something we talk about.
M: One of the most fun parts I get the most excited about is sending the photos back to people [we shoot]. We’ll take portraits of rural farmers or kids playing cricket and take down someone’s contact info and send them photos after the fact. For them it can mean a lot.
What places are on your list for when travel is possible again?
A: We’ve never been to Mongolia and have really wanted to go. We would love to travel through Uzbekistan. I would love to go back to Oaxaca where I haven’t been for almost a year. This year I really want to get to Puglia and reconnect because that’s where my grandmother is from.
M: We’ve been to Burma, and we went twice before the transition to democracy and once after, and the changes were so substantial then, I’d be curious to go there now, 7 to 8 years on. I’d be curious to see what changed and what traditions stuck.
Any reflections on travel as a whole since you’ve been home?
A: We’re looking at the ways in which we consume and we’re looking at our global footprint a lot. Hearing encouraging things like that the skies over [certain parts of the world] are looking clearer and some incredible things are happening in the environment, I’m definitely thinking about how that is going to impact the future and how I am going to feel about all that air traveling in the future.
M: After this, it will be interesting to see how certain places dealt with [the pandemic] as a culture and what worked and what didn’t. We are Westerners and that’s very much one mindset, but lots of cultures have a completely different mindset, and this time is calling on people to do a lot—to work together, to test their resources where they can, to help each other. We don’t really understand what individual strengths other cultures might have and it will be great to go back and see what things we were missing entirely. It will be great to go back and look at the world again with that in mind.
How do you think your work might change?
A: We hope to continue to use our photography to highlight other cultures and not take from them—but to acknowledge their power and their place. And hopefully create some empathy through our work and through the stories that we highlight. With all the immediate sharing in the world it’s easy for people to take from a culture that is not their own. In our photography, we always try to take the conversation back to the source, to the people to whom the conversation belongs. I will always love storytelling, and travel is essential to that. I will never take my privilege to move freely in this world for granted ever again.
Stacy Adimando is the former Editor-in-Chief of SAVEUR Magazine and a James Beard Award-winning cookbook author. She is based in New York.