Jon: My guest on this episode of Wellfed is Alex Lau, Bon Appétit staff photographer actually just flew in from Los Angeles not to what three hours ago four years ago.
Jon: And we're in a secluded undisclosed photography studio in the Bon Appétit campus. So, Alex thank you for taking the time today taking a short nap and then coming over to record this with me.
Alex: Thanks for having me.
Jon: What were you doing in LA?
Alex: I was in LA just for a couple photoshoots with a chef out in Joshua Tree and I just went a couple days and last-minute shoot but yes here I am.
Jon: How was a Joshua Tree.
Alex: Joshua Tree is great. It's a very surreal place. I've never really spent much time in the desert so that was basically my first desert experience Joshua Tree. Pictures again with I don't know if any grand nature escape doesn't really do it justice and once you're there just looking around it's dead quiet, the air is dry, there's no wind and these alien like looking Joshua trees just looming over you. Yes, it was rad.
Jon: You're originally born in Queens and you moved at the age of 12 to San Francisco.
Alex: 10 but close. Nice.
Jon: Those early years in Queens before you moved have they been really influential and in kind of your growing? Since now you're back base in New York what was it like growing up in Queens?
Alex: I definitely I'm glad I grew up in Queens it's such a strange place and I do have fond memories of it. I grew up in Woodside which is off the seven train and growing up it was a predominantly Irish and Puerto Rican community and I was one of the few Asian people. But I also spent a lot of time out in Chinatown and Flushing. New York's just a really weird place to grow up. I think when you tell people you grew up in New York they tend to immediately think oh you grew up in the West Village you grew up in the Upper East Side, but there's five boroughs there's so much more to it. There's a lot that was in my life that I experienced my life that that it's just really hard to quantify in terms of how it made me the person I am but there's a lot. Like even from being in public schools and just being in the New York City public school system to being in the New York City Chinese community and just being close to the city but not quite it was a really good experience.
Jon: What were you like as a kid in school? Were you playing sports or anything like that were you taking pictures? Who was Alex -little Alex?
Alex: I think Alex was a jerk probably, but growing up I competitively swam for basically ten years and I did that New York City and when I was 10 I moved to California and also continued to swim but also picked up the saxophone and did a number of high school sports and was on speech in debate team. I feel like I was a lot busier as a high school student versus an adult. I don't know why I did so many things the AP class and all that. I don't think that I was particularly destined to become a photographer I don't think anybody ever saw me like Alex Lau he's got to be a photographer in New York City.
Jon: Got that creative eye since the bold age of 10.
Jon: What informed the move to San Francisco out to California from New York?
Alex: I think my parents just needed a little change of pace and they had moved to from China to New York in 1977 or 1975 and at that point in 2003 they've been there for a while. So, you know they probably wanted more space better weather New York City kind of takes a toll on you.
Jon: I'm here I grew up mostly in Jersey and lived you know in the area now in Jersey City for four years and I'm already like okay when am I escaping.
Jon: When you moved out to San Francisco did you have any family out there already or is it just your parents and you?
Alex: We had an aunt that lived out close by San Francisco and San Leandro but besides that we had more family out here.
Jon: And you were growing up you said you competitively swam which is a surprise because I mean for those of you who are listening obviously Alex is sitting right in front of me and Alex's is a very big guy, he's a big dude. I'm a small guy but Alex is a big dude and you competitively swam and were on the Speech and Debate team.
Jon: I played a few sports in high school and there were always the teachers that were actively proactively trying to get you to join like the Speech and Debate team so I was never really a scholar growing up. What did you do in speech and debate?
Alex: There's different kinds of different formats of speech in debate I can't really remember all of them but they're the ones that I participated were Lincoln Douglas debate, Congress and impromptu. Basically Lincoln Douglas was a team debate with duo and I had a partner and we would basically be assigned a topic 30 minutes beforehand and for today's proposition you were against this proposition, an example is lollipops are delicious you're going to spend 30 minutes debating why lollipops aren't delicious and there's Congress which is basically replicating what it's like being in the house and people getting together trying to pass a bill or reasons to not pass a bill and there's impromptu which is very similar but another improv based last-minute topic and you're supposed to give a whole spiel on it.
Jon: In that time that they give you the topic and like is there time to think of your argument?
Alex: You have 30 minutes.
Jon: Before you actually start presenting because I could maybe give two good reasons why lollipops are delicious and then maybe one reason why they're not in like 30 seconds flat.
Alex: There are certain formats where you do have maybe two minutes but the one I did with Lincoln-Douglas was a 30 minute prep.
Jon: Going through high school you were active you're playing sports you're doing extracurricular things. When was it that you started to kind of have an interest in maybe imagery or kind of creativity? When did you realize that you started shifting focus on to things that weren't sports or you know Speech and Debate Club?
Alex: Probably when I was 14 or 15. So, early on in high school I was living with my parents and my older brother when it was time to graduate college, he was staying with us and basically whatever he did I thought was super cool. A lot of his movie tastes and music taste influenced who I was. I would find like some 80s mixtape he made and I would listen to that religiously over and over again.
Jon: You remember any of the songs that stand out on the mixtape?
Alex: Sure, that your ethnic song Hall of Notes yes, some Fleetwood Mac's and I still listen to all that. He had an issue or a copy of the world Tenenbaums and that was the first Westerner film I watched- Wow movies are cool. He likes this so I like this. But I just really remember that I would sneak in his room a lot when he was gone because I’m a nosy little brother and I found a film camera and I always saw that and I was just too scared to touch it. I had my eye on it and I was very fascinated by it and I think at some point I just worked out the courage and asked, hey can I borrow this or shoot with this. It wasn't a particularly good film camera. I think it was just your standard mid consumer Canon film body, but he gave it me and I was in love with it and I bought rolls of film and just to shoot my friends, shoots San Francisco bike over to the nearby Walgreens, develop my film and just get really excited and like wait an hour and just like open everything up and just be so ecstatic. That kind of developed into shooting more and more and I made my own Flickr account.
Alex: Yes. Eventually I loved shooting with my film camera so much I also wanted to go beyond and get my own digital DSLR. So, at the time I was working as a high school tutor so I saved up all my money bought my own DSLR off Best Buy or something like that and just kept shooting and that kind of turned into using my camera to shoot for the high school paper. It's funny because I was on the football team but the same time I was also in the marching band so that meant I would play for the football team at halftime play, put on my marching band clothes and play my saxophone, but also other times I would be shooting game on the sidelines.
Jon: How'd that work?
Alex: So, it's really complicated. Oftentimes there would be some overlap but other times I'd be shooting the varsity team or the JV team to switch it off. I ended up shooting a lot of high school sports and that was my initial pull into being more serious about photography. I just like sports photography. I like sports and I would shoot any team that we had; so, women's soccer team; tennis; basketball. I feel like with any high school sports program people tend to be pretty big on it. So, it was always like a good environment to be in and shoot these fun games. That's what got me into it.
Jon: You're switching off between the marching band you're playing football. At some point did you just say that like I'm way more into photography now and slowly just kind of waned off of doing sports and more photography work.
Alex: Not in high school. When I was in high school, I just again did everything. But I did like photography and it was fun and it was a good creative outlet in addition to playing the saxophone and just singing jazz. It was just like being visual and I liked taking pictures of my friends or just trying to get better as a photographer. I never at any point thought oh this could become a career. I just thought it was fun and it was a good expression of myself. It was never something that I thought I could take seriously.
Jon: What were the steps after high school? What were you thinking? You started gaining you know your footing in photography you started really enjoying it what was your next move?
Alex: So, that's the thing I actually took music very seriously. I played the saxophone ever since I was a day and I was 10-18 and rehearsed for hours a day. There were all these jazz programs in the city that were all state programs like being the best in California or being the best in San Francisco. I actually really wanted to pursue a career in jazz. So, in addition to applying to a bunch of UC state schools I also applied to a number of musical schools and I auditioned for all of them. I never really considered being a musician, but then I got into the Berklee School of Music, got into NYU, got into the Heart School in Connecticut and a couple others. I think the most jarring moment was when I got into these schools based on my audition tapes and an audition in person but once I visited the campus and met a number of these music students I just kind of had this clicking moment and immediately just knew like I don't have what it takes to be a musician. I felt like that I was very good at emulating good jazz. I didn't think I would be able to create good jazz by myself and create original content. At that moment I just figured I also wasn't good enough to get full rides I would get half rides half scholarships.
Jon: It was pretty dope.
Alex: Or small grants. I immediately realized as a 17-year-old I had the foresight I didn't want to put myself into debt for something that one I wasn't super passionate about and two that I didn't think would be a particularly viable career. So, I kind of pushed that aside. I got into some UC University California schools and I just didn't really want to stay in California. I definitely had an itch to go back to the East Coast. I found this College called Emerson College at that point even though music was no longer a thing I was for some reason pulled to journalism. I loved magazines growing up. I loved reading these papers it just felt like a very appealing career to me. I don't think I was thinking as large in terms of let me pursue a career but it was interesting to me so sure I wanted to get a journalism major.
Jon: I want to step back really quick to when you had the decision to cut off music in a sense was there any reaction? I had a similar moment when I was looking for art schools and I was going to very particular art schools that were just at just the visual arts just design and as a younger kid I was just like I don't connect with any of these people and I decided to go do community for a bit. I found that my mom even though I made her drive like eight hours ago visiting schools and I told her after an hour of sitting in a room I was like we need to go - we need to get at it - I don't like this place she was okay she's a little pissed at first but like you know the reaction. I'm curious was there anything like that from your family or anything? Were they kind of baffled a little bit or were they super supportive and trying to pursue something and or navigate what you were really interested in?
Alex: I don't think my parents were particularly upset they had invested a lot of time into my childhood and into being a musician, but they also invested a lot of time into my swimming which I was also good at but you know after a certain point as you can see I don't really have a traditional build for a swimmer and everybody else starts becoming 6.4 and as hard as I can try you know they just out reach me.
Jon: We're both still waiting for that growth spurt.
Alex: Exactly but swimming didn't pan out but even though they had invested a lot of time but music didn't kick in but I think they more-so viewed it as it wasn't specifically about music or swimming that would make or break me as a human or a person. They were just like okay we're using these outlets for him to develop perseverance and what it takes to develop a skill and to get good at something. So, when I told them that I didn't really want to be a musician I think they understood but I think they also were kind of relieved as Asian parents traditionally want their kids to be in some form of stem so whether it be science or being a mathematics major or be pre-med. I think they supported my music but they were also they also realize like we don't want our son to be homeless. So, they were pretty relieved but at the same time when I told them that I didn't want to be a musician and instead I want to be a journalist they were not exactly pleased, but I think they thought it would be a phase that I would grow out of which I did kind of. They supported me nonetheless.
Both my brother's none of us have particularly traditional careers. My middle brother Carson he's a designer at Google. My older brother Roger he's chief of staff for senator Elizabeth Warren so politics and design and photography we don't really have the traditional jobs.
Jon: That was like none of you are stem.
Alex: Exactly our parents didn't particularly quite expect any of this but here we are.
Jon: So, you decided to go to Emerson you started to pursue photojournalism or is it just strictly a journalism kind of program?
Alex: No, again so the notion of me ever becoming a photographer was inconceivable. I had like kind of entertained it and tried to see if there were any photo programs I could enter and they all said to submit a portfolio and I thought none of this is submittable no one would want any of these pictures so I just didn't apply so I applied to the print journalism major at Emerson.
Jon: Cool. What was the program? I mean you moved from San Francisco back to the East Coast to Boston where there's snow there's all four seasons they're all pretty harsh. I would say that people complain about Boston but then you know I have a few friends from Chicago that are like Boston's got nothing on this. What was it like out there?
Alex: I mean my oldest brother Roger he lives out there so I already had a little experience being out there but it was very different San Francisco, but I think at that point in my life I was ready for a bigger change and I'd already seen New York. Boston is a very unique place. It's basically a college town in the form of a city I think there were over 100 colleges there. So, you can definitely feel that academia is not the right word but you can definitely feel the young energy in the city. But it's also funny the juxtaposition of how the brightest minds are there in Boston and whether they be there at MIT or Harvard or a number of the other colleges but also the Townies of Boston that Hangout in Dunkin Donuts and just scream at you while wearing red socks hats it's a very fascinating place.
Jon: How was the program? Did you kind of go through it and enjoy it? Did you have mixed feelings about it?
Alex: The program is great I feel like was with anything it's what you make of it and I was very fortunate to have a couple of great professors that let me annoy them in their office hours and just like bug them like how can I make this project better how can I make a story better. They were very supportive of anything that I pitched.
Jon: What were some of those pitches?
Alex: So, funnily enough even though I never really had a photo major for the first two years I didn't really photograph anything, but approaching my junior year I took a multimedia course and then I took a photojournalism course and for each of those stories for the photojournalism course. I pitched a story about the Cambodian community of Lynn Massachusetts which is sounds pretty normal but Lynn is I don't know if you're familiar is this just kind of a non-remarkable small town a little outside of Massachusetts. It’s a little depressing but it's also home to the third largest Cambodian community outside of Cambodia.
Alex: I had no idea about.
Jon: Now I do.
Alex: Yes, that I kind of found out about it from somebody. I heard someone use the phrase “Cambodian gangs” it's like watch out for those Cambodian gangs in Lynn and that's just a combination words that requires a double take what wait what, what does that mean Cambodian gangs. So, I asked about it found out that there's a total hidden Cambodian community in Lynn and I used this opportunity to investigate and learn more about this community. I knew nothing about Cambodian culture. So, for basically a year I dedicated my life to just kind of getting to know the town getting to know the Cambodian community. I would go to the Lynn's Cambodian temple. I would interview Cambodian gang members. One time I got invited to a funeral at the very last minute and they encouraged me to photograph it. There were so many people that I interviewed people that I photographed and people who are willing to take their time just like tell me their life story. So, that was the first larger project that just kind of immersed myself in. I'm a competitive weightlifter a power lifter sorry.
Jon: I’m going to ask you about that later.
Alex: I was more casual about that but I still had an interest and I found out that there's this nonprofit in Boston called Inner City Weightlifting. They taught Olympic weightlifting and they use that as a program as a means to take Boston's worst juvenile delinquents and kids that are frequently in trouble or even adults and they use only people in weight lifting as a means to help them get their life back on track, give them activities to keep them busy but also help them apply for jobs, help them avoid getting back in jail and I also followed that and that was also a really great opportunity. That was a little less near but it was also great. That was the moment I realized I really liked featuring marginalized communities. Both those communities like juvenile delinquents of Boston, the Cambodian community of Lynn nobody really knows about them mainstream media doesn't really touch on those subjects or especially nonprofit that does something like that. That was when I realized yes, I wanted to give a voice to people that didn't really have one.
Jon: While you're also doing the program, I noticed in your kind of experience your career experience that you've done a shit ton of internships.
Jon: You've done a lot like you went from interning to being like an editorial assistant and then you went to interning again to being like an another like you had an internship position, internship position and then a bunch. What was that process? What were you navigating trying to figure out when you were doing this?
Alex: Again, I am where I am but when people ask me how do you get here, I have no idea I just had a lot of different interests and some of them panned out and some them didn't. For the first years of college immediately after starting my first semester I got an internship at the State House of Boston, Massachusetts State House and I was in the legislative affairs department. I don't know why I did that. I think I just needed an internship experience and I thought oh maybe politics might be something that could interest me. After a semester I just knew that it wasn't quite my thing. I was glad I had that and after my second semester just focused on class and during the summer, I still knew I needed an internship I can't just go home in San Francisco and just bum around and I don't know go to the YMCA or something. So, I applied to a number of internships and here's the thing it's kind of like being in the service industry or being in retail; everybody requires four years of experience for a job that’s for an entry-level position. So, I applied to maybe 30 internship positions. I didn't hear back from any because I only had one internship on my resume and my other jobs were high school tutor or like camp counselor.
Jon: I had a camp counselor on my resume at one point no shame.
Alex: We all did. Nobody got back to me and the school year was approaching to an end and I saw a posting for Esquire magazine fashion intern. I saw it I figured okay shoot my shot what's the worst that can happen they just won't answer it just like the other 30 people that I emailed. I sent my resume and I said I did have an interest in menswear so I like fashion I like menswear I figured okay this is cool and I get to be in New York City. I send an email basically saying share all my favorite blogs here's what I like about street-ware, here's my passion, I can definitely do this. I just send out the email and figure no one is going to email me back, four hours later I got an email “Can you come in tomorrow for an interview?”
Alex: Keep in mind I'm in Boston.
Jon: Can you come in tomorrow?
Alex: They don't know that I'm in Boston so I said yes. I borrowed my friends suit and put on a tie and just got some dress shoes and thank God for the Chinatown Boston bus which is the route that runs between New York and Boston at the time it was $10. So, it got my $10 got on the bus, sat it for four hours showed up to the New York Public Library change from my normal clothes to a suit.
Jon: Clutch call - good call. Like I said I was at a wedding yesterday I should have brought like a number of shirts because I was just sweating.
Alex: I just needed a spot and the thing is it's hard to find a place. If you're just visiting New York for six hours it's hard to have a home base so I just kind of had my backpack with my interview clothes in there and my resume my full resume folder, change into my clothes, change into the suit and I put everything in a bag and I hid it underneath the toilet of the New York City Public Library.
Alex: I didn’t have a place to put anything. I didn't want to show up to the interview holding a bag with my things.
Jon: Like you're living around the corner or something.
Alex: So, I hid it under there, took the train over to the Hearst building right by Columbus Circle and showed up just kind of talked my way into getting in the internship. I didn't quite realize what it was I just knew that hey this is an internship and it involved fashion intern I don't know what that means it's for a big-time New York City magazine let's do it. At the time the assistant fashion editor was Michael Stephanoff. I think he still might be there. But he took a chance on me. He said, “Hey you don't really have experience but you seem to know enough and I think you'll be a hard worker being in the fashion closet. Okay we’ll hire you start next week.” So, I'm back to Boston, school year ended, hit the ground running to that summer and just had my first taste of the New York magazine world.
Jon: Did you move to New York?
Alex: I was very fortunate in that my aunt lived in Brooklyn or lives in Brooklyn so I just kind of crashed on her couch for the summer which I did for the next three summers every time I had an internship in in New York. Again, at that time the internships weren't really paid.
Jon: Yes, my first like three were just unpaid.
Jon: And at that point I had to convince someone to pay me $50 for like the day.
Alex: I was just glad to be there like okay you want to have me here you want invite me to your fancy building in Midtown. So, I did an internship, I was running the fashion closet which basically is just a place where the magazine source clothing loans they used for magazine shoots. So, it's $10,000 suits and like $5000 pants and jackets. I was in charge of making sure everything was in its place was returned by the right time was delivered the right time was at the right shoots. Have you watched Devil Wears Prada?
Jon: Yes, but like not recently.
Alex: So, it's kind of similar to that.
Jon: Like the assistant. I don’t remember the actresses name. Meryl Streep's assistant.
Alex: Anne Hathaway.
Jon: Anne Hathaway.
Alex: Yes, so it's basically like you're in charge of the very expensive clothing and people are always yelling at you and you're always going like running back and forth between photo shoots and grabbing coffee. I grab a lot of coffee got, took a lot of people's dry-cleaning, got yelled at by a lot of PR companies about missing fancy like Louis Vuitton jackets, but it was it was cool it was great and it felt fast-paced and it was exactly what I imagined. It was very much like Devil Wears Prada except I guess people in Devil Wears Prada probably meaner. Yes, I think I got to work on a bunch of photoshoots. I did a photoshoot with Ryan Gosling.
Alex: Yes, so that was that's a very New York City moment. I was like 19 or 18 years old and on set with Ryan Gosling like feeding his dog apples because he needs to be kept busy.
Jon: You pet Ryan Gosling's dog?
Alex: I did it.
Jon: I'm sure you've probably achieved the dream of many-many people.
Alex: It was great a giant Muppet. But it was moments like that wow this is crazy and just like seeing again the magazine lifestyle seemed very like glitzy and glamorous less so now but like back then oh wow this is the peak of New York City lifestyle like being a fashion editor so cool and wearing all these clothes is so great. So, that really just I caught the bug after that internship.
Jon: This was one of the first ones, right?
Alex: This is like literally my first New York City internship, but before that was just the legislative affairs intern in Boston.
Jon: Wow to fashion.
Alex: A total fluke. Again, like there was no plan there's no system I just it's just someone decided and responded to my inquiry out of everybody else.
Jon: So, this Esquire one wasn't even in a photo it was more fashion. You then went on to do kind of more edit photo internships one or two.
Alex: For the next few years I actually wanted to continue being in menswear so after that I was at Nylon Guys as another fashion intern in the next summer and very different vibe. Whereas Esquire is very old-school everyone wears nice suits and it's very gentlemanly and like British influence.
Jon: Clean cut.
Alex: Nylon Guys it's just like the total opposite.
Jon: Punk rock.
Alex: Yes, the office was in Soho and it was just like a lot more grunge, way less of a budget but it was a very different energy than the entire other end of the spectrum, but I also love that. And after Nylon Guys I did a little time at Complex, GQ and then I did work for small menswear startup called Boylson Trading Company which was a subsidiary of Karmaloop which at the time was like a big brain in Boston for fashion.
Jon: Karmaloop was big I remember getting coupon codes.
Jon: All the new releases I think I bought like one hat and I still get the email shout out.
Alex: I spent a lot of time on the website looking at clothes I couldn't afford.
Alex: I ended up Boylson Trading Company where I was also a fashion intern and a lot of folding clothes. I did some copywriting for their products. I helped out on photo shoots. I think that was last fashion internship. Eventually I just realized that as much as I love menswear, I didn't really have a specific goal. I didn't want to write for menswear. I didn't want to be a stylist and I didn't think I'd be good enough to be a photographer so what's my end goal and what am I doing. There's that moment I I was also kind of getting burnout being in fashion it was fun but after two years I was just like how many shirts cannot iron. How many more things can I steam before I just I'm sick of this and I was just kind of sick at that point.
Jon: I know you just said two years but in my mind, I thought this is over like a four year time period and I think that's just an example like how fast pace yeah it can seem. I'm like you're doing a lot man like that's crazy burnout for sure.
Alex: It was a lot in like I think it's close to like three years but after three years, okay I'm good especially because I wasn't getting paid. I have very specific memories of being an intern in New York City not having money skateboarding from Midtown all the way down to East Broadway because I couldn't afford to take the subway and that one stop on East Broadway doesn't have anybody at the turnstile so I would skateboard all the way down there and just hop the turnstile take the train back to Brooklyn. I would like wait for free events that had food and just like this is a shuttle everything down.
Alex: Exactly two-dollar halal food. Living in the moment I was like this sucked but I look back fondly on it okay like I didn't have money and I didn't really know what I was doing but I was having a lot of fun and just learning what it was like to be kind of in this world in the New York City fashion world in New York City magazine world. After a certain point I just realized I wanted to move on.
Jon: So, it's almost like a third time now you're kind of having this moment of this isn't what I want to do and you just kind of like somewhat severing you know you're like okay now I need to refigure it out navigate this. What was going through your mind at that point where you were going to go next?
Alex: Well honestly at that point I never really viewed it as I'm resetting when I'm restarted. I was just let me use the experience I've had and accumulated to bring me some whatever the thing I want to do next. And at that point in journalism I loved writing, I was very into writing and I loved all my creative writing workshops and I thought okay maybe I could pursue a career in nonfiction, but at the same time I also loved Public Radio. So, I was very interested in working for NPR or working for the Globe. Again, I applied to that NPR and the Globe and nobody got to me. I applied to NPR and I got past a couple rounds and I was actually very set on okay I’ll be at NPR in DC for this summer and it'll be great and I’ll build on from there. But I got interviewed twice and the third time they said yeah thanks but no thanks. It maybe wasn't a sign but I just kind of viewed that as like okay like cool maybe public radio isn't for me. I was very heartbroken by that though. But once again here we are two three years after my email to Esquire I was about to start my summer approaching my senior year just wrapped up my junior year and I was just on the internet for a bunch of any internship nobody's getting back to despite having a lot more my resume which is weird. I see up posting for the Bon Appétit photo internship.
Jon: It's like okay guys I have all this experience you've been telling me about like what's the deal.
Alex: So, I see the Bon Appétit magazine photo internship I know nothing about Bon Appétit magazine. I'm like hey I like photographs. I'm like that's cool so food and photo. My girlfriend at the time she was actually very into food and she told me “Hey, you know Bon Appétit is a big deal.” Really? Okay look I'll apply uh so I applied and I didn't expect to hear back and once again four hours later I got another email can you come in tomorrow. People in New York City tend to think that everybody lives in New York City, oh just come in. I'm like okay. So, I took another $10 bus--
Jon: Email at 8 PM, hey you want to come in an hour.
Jon: No problem.
Alex: Took another Chinatown, bus hid my all myself under the toilet at the library.
Alex: That was my home base that's great. For any unpaid interns out there or people that want to interview that's your home base.
Jon: Choose a different toilet though.
Alex: Different toilet definitely.
Jon: We've blown the spot at this point.
Alex: Exactly it's the third one on the right. So, I interviewed there and once again they looked at my resume like this is cool you even or interned at a lot of places but you have zero food experience or photo experience, but honestly because you have a lot of experience with national New York city-based magazines we want to hire you. So, they took me on board and that was my first experience at Conde Nast and once again the option of doing the internship for college credit which is basically code for pay $3000 to work for free. I was like I don't want to do that okay “Well we can make you an undocumented intern.” Look great cool. So, at Conde Nast I was never an intern. That was my first time in food and it was really nice. It was so different from fashion and everybody's just so much nicer. There's a lot less stress there's a lot yelling but also its people were giving me more opportunities of being on shoots, but I learned what good food was or what a good food photograph was, I spent a lot more time around creatives versus just being in fashion, I met more designers I met the art director I met photo directors and didn't take a single photo but I learned a lot more about what goes into making the magazine look good. I left that internship just with a full heart and just knowing that wow food publishing might be something I really want to pursue this is much better than fashion. I think my end goal at that point was like okay wrapped up my internship. My immediate goal is to be an assistant photo editor that'd be cool I could definitely see myself being a photo editor. I don't think I'm good enough to be a photographer, but I think I could produce stories. In retrospect I can't. I'm a very messy and everything's always just not together so I cannot produce things but so I left that one to be an assistant photo editor.
I went back to Boston for my final year and I got a digital internship with Boston Magazine which basically meant that I was helping write stories for the website and take photos for the website which is great. No other magazine or in print would ever give any intern an opportunity to write stories or write and shoot stories for their magazine. So, for an entire semester I basically did a bunch of random assignments. I would cover iPod releases. I would go cover these restaurants and they’re like “You worked for a food magazine, right?” Yes. “Can you shoot and write about this?” Yes. Overhead shot of bowl of food next to a window I can do that. So, I actually did my first big a story with Boston Magazine and I pitched them hey I want to do a Vietnamese pho round up of Boston. Honestly, I never really ate pho or good faun in Boston, but I was just like okay this is something that could be visually appealing and could probably do well on the Internet. I picked 8 pho restaurants just based off Yelp in all in different neighborhoods and I picked a specific kind of pho for each one. I biked over to each one each restaurant, took a photo of it ate it and got all the photographs, put it together, just wrote a little roundup and like hey these are the places you should check out and it actually did it really.
Jon: The most traffic.
Alex: Thank God for Internet traffic. But it did well enough to the point where the people at Boston Magazine were like “This is really great. Let's have you focus maybe do more exclusive food stuff.” So, I would mainly shoot a lot of restaurants and that was actually really good training. I had no idea what I was doing but okay I have a camera I'm going to.
Jon: Figure it out on the way.
Alex: Exactly. So, this whole time as I'm doing this is my first semester of senior year, I still had graduation on mind but I need a job. I would email our photo director from Bon Appétit at the time Alex Pollock. I was like “Hey I'm graduating soon if there's any positions opened let me know - no response which is funny because at the end of my internships like keep in touch like let me know.
Jon: Of course, as you’re saying before it's just like people or more so New York they're just like the inbox is just like just bum-rushed with emails constantly like and that one's going to disappear soon.
Alex: I never really understood why people do that but honestly now as a person that works for a magazine like Lives Here like oh yes, I'm terrible with answering emails. But I shot an email no response, every three weeks I sent another follow-up or every month and like hey here's some stuff here's some food photographs I have taken. If there's any assistant photo editor job open, I will gladly come in and interview for it - no response. So, I was like okay I'm just going to keep emailing her maybe she's seeing maybe not. At one point I showed up to four Times Square the old Conde Nast building and I was like “Can I see Alex Pollock?” She didn't answer the phone.
Jon: That's crazy so you just keep persistent in that.
Alex: You say persistent I say dumb. So, I focused on Boston Magazine after winter break I came back to Boston magazine to kind of keep doing the same thing except this time they just brought on a restaurant and food editor his name is Chris Hughes and we just worked together and just like again focus exclusively on restaurants and food for the website. It was great. It just helped me build up a large food portfolio and every time I shot a bunch of new things, I was sending it over to Alex Pollock with no response. As graduation started getting closer, I started applying to a bunch of jobs. I didn't really know what I wanted to do. Teach for America recruited me and I went in for a bunch of interviews and I was like okay this could be cool and this could be a great viable option. After a certain point I just realized I wanted to take the job at Teach for America because I thought it would be a cool thing on paper, but I realized after submitting teaching plans and like meeting a bunch people I wouldn't be a good teacher especially the whole system of Teach for America is like take a bunch of younger students and send them to schools that you know experienced teachers couldn't even really handle. So, if I'm not good at teaching and I don't really want to teach why would I want to set myself up for an incredibly difficult situation so I kind of pass on that. I applied to Food & Wine magazine as a production assistant which at the time I didn't really know what that meant, but just means you're doing a lot of clerical work and like doing production like shipping photos on to the magazine.
Jon: But it's a way in.
Alex: It's a way in. I I didn't think of it as like oh this is a great gig I was like if I do this, I'm in the magazine. So, I went in interviewed and they offered me the job and I'll say okay cool like I think I'll do this. I moved to New York and I'll just be a production assistant at this food magazine and this is still in food publishing. I went back to Boston this is again maybe two weeks out from graduation I'm like great have a job lined up. I get a call from this New York City number I'm like who is this. I answer the phone and it's the photo director Alex Pollock. It’s just like “Hey, how are you?” I'm good. She's like “I'm so sorry I haven't answered any of your emails it’s just always so busy. I'm like I totally understand it's like what's up. She's like “So, I've got all your pictures and everything you sent over the course of this year.”
Jon: And the last six months.
Alex: The last six months and it looks really good. We actually just opened up a new position for a staff photographer role at the magazine and it's kind of a junior role, but we're looking for something to do video and photo for the magazine for the website. Would you be open to coming in and talking about that? Talk to our editors about that. I'm like absolutely yes 100%. “Can you come in tomorrow? So, hopped in the Chinatown bus.
Jon: I love this like repeat.
Alex: So, many endless bus rides on that specific route.
Jon: But you got to get there and you got to do it. Even if you got to wake up at like 3:00 in the morning just get on the bus.
Alex: At no point in time was I ever like pissed about it. I'm like this is what I have to do to get here fine. I went in to the Bon Appétit office and it was kind of nice because I don't know maybe only six months prior, I was in the office and I knew the culture and I knew the people. So, I wasn't particularly nervous. So, I interviewed with Alex and then I interviewed with the deputy editor Scott Simon. They’re like we'll let you know in about like two months-ish if this job opens up. I'm like, here's the thing I just accepted a job at Food & Wine.” They’re like “What?” I'm like yes you called me but like you called me like three hours after.
Jon: Literally walked in the door of the acceptance offer.
Alex: Exactly like oh and like let us make a couple calls. I left the interview and I was on my way back to Boston on the bus and they Alex called me and she's like, “Hey can you come in actually tomorrow to talk to the editor-in-chief Adam Rapoport?” I'm like tomorrow in New York. I'm like yes. I'm like all right. So, I was on the bus and I had to like beg the bus driver to let me off the bus. I'm like please-please-please I can't get on this bus and he's so pissed. I got off somewhere in like Queens.
Jon: You’re still in New York it’s okay.
Alex: I'm still in New York so I took the train back but I stayed in New York and I interviewed and basically within a span of a week before graduation I was not really knowing what I was doing and maybe being a production assistant of a food magazine to being a staff photographer at Bon Appétit.
Alex: It was very weird and like even during the interviews it was a lot of just me saying yes, the things I was hugely under-qualified for like yes you photograph and I'm like yes. I've like shot web stories like oh do you shoot with strobes and lights - of course. “You do studio shoots?” It's like easy.
Jon: That is easy.
Alex: All the time. They're like oh and do you shoot video? I've worked on so many projects.
Jon: That's why I only shoot that's why you only see images and why I only use natural light at the moment because I'm so over those things.
Alex: You can edit videos? Yes. So, I got hired and like my first honestly first six months I was like number one my goal is don't get fired, number two I was just like googling everything someone asked me to do “Oh can you light this?” Yes of course and frantically--
Jon: Turn around with your phone.
Alex: That's so easy and I would just Google for four hours on how to do something.
Jon: I want to break down some of these things. So, this whole kind of last bit has been in a span of like six months right so like when you started at the Boston magazines.
Alex: September 2013.
Jon: You're getting ready to graduate come what the spring semester.
Alex: Yes May 2014.
Jon: That's six seven months you got a job at Food and Wine. Before that you were just consistently emailing Alex you know, hey just staying in touch like this is what I'm doing which you know I think I've fallen off of doing that but it's good to stay in touch like your professors and people that you've worked with just to see how they're doing what they're up to nowadays and it's so easy now and they seem like email and Instagram whatever it is. You ended up getting a position at Food & Wine before even hearing from Bon Appétit and just luckily you got a call from them, they had conversations with you about the new position. It's kind of sounded like they built it in a way for you right like hey we have this new position.
Alex: I don't know if it was necessarily built for me. I think it was just a new role that happened to they just realized that it was--
Alex: The climate of where they were was changing and they were just looking just having the thought like hey it's cheaper to have a staff photographer and we want to create more web content.
Jon: than hire freelancers consistently.
Jon: And then having that job offer already in the pocket and not to say like, hey go find a job and then use it to your advantage, but it kind of puts the ball in your court.
Alex: Oh, for sure.
Jon: Because you're like I told them I'd start in two weeks I can't really wait two months if you guys are really interested or serious about this like you know I'd love to continue this conversation, but in a more rapid pace please because I got to get another bus to from Boston to New York if I have to.
Alex: Yes, it's funny they were playing the whole being coy thing oh yes, we're interviewing a bunch of candidates we'll get back to you. I’m like, yes but here's my deal and later I find out that I was the only person they interviewed. Yes, it definitely put the whole ball in the court and I honestly think if I didn't have that job offer, I possibly might not be here or things would've taken much longer like it would be slightly different where I am now.
Jon: Food and Wine is not in New York is it?
Jon: When you moved did you move permanently after school to New York once you got the job for BA?
Alex: Yes, I once crashed my aunt’s couch bless her so patient just letting me be a bum, but I stayed there and I saved money until I could afford an apartment and then moved out to Brooklyn.
Jon: You mentioned before we started you live in Crown Heights now. Has that always been the area you kind of lived?
Alex: My first apartment I moved into was in Crown Heights and I've stayed since.
Jon: I don't think I have had really a lot of guests from Crown Heights what's the area like?
Alex: I mean prior to moving there I had never been there I just kind of went there because it was cheaper and like oh this is close to Manhattan. It definitely has its own identity. It subsists of basically three demographics the West Indian Caribbean community, the Orthodox Jewish community and just Brooklyn Millennials.
Jon: Trying to find cheap rent.
Alex: Exactly but it definitely changed a lot in the past I don't know three years since I moved and it's nice. It has a neighborhood feel to it, it's close to work and there's good food and vibes.
Jon: Where are some of the spots to hit up for food?
Alex: I love hearts but it's technically Bedstuy okay but hearts is great.
Jon: I'll allow it a little bit.
Alex: It’s like a 5-minute walk to my apartment. I love this other place called Gen Japanese spot basically run by these like Japanese girls with dreads and they just like play like rock in there and it's very Japanese when you go in there. I love it and it's very homey. Barbonchino is great for pizza. Gold is also great for coffee and pastries as well.
Alex: Yes. When it's cold out like this--
Jon: I find I'm very I'm very warm, but like dude a bowl of just warm broth like I'm doing especially during the winter I've kind of learned to do it during the summer as well like I just love it.
Alex: I don't know people say it like hot liquids cool you down and it doesn't for me.
Jon: I don't know about that.
Alex: It's like a weird myth that people keep trying to push. I'm like dude it won’t cool you that's not true.
Jon: That is bullshit.
Alex: I like ramen I like both which is that ramen I think it's a little too rich for me. And also, I feel like with any ramen spot in New York City that I've seen or other cities it's just always a two-hour wait and I don't want to wait two hours for a bowl of noodles.
Jon: That’s a first. You know I think everyone on the podcast so far has been heavily sided to ramen yeah maybe that's because I would say ramen guys I also very much enjoy pho.
Alex: If I had to pick between the two, I would definitely pick pho. I love Vietnamese food. phoa it tastes cleaner.
Jon: I would agree with that.
Alex: I won't feel gross after eating a bowl of pho. I think people don't give it enough credit. There's like oh that's so simple and it's like I guess it's not as visually sexy.
Jon: The broth is a little bit more like--
Alex: Clear, lots of colors.
Jon: Slice meat in there which is so delicious.
Alex: It is so rich and so simple.
Jon: You've been a part of Bon Appétit for how many years?
Alex: Four and a half years and May it will be five.
Jon: Wow! Congrats. What's your day-to-day? You're not a junior staff you're like the staff photographer.
Alex: We now have two staff photographers. I think for a good three and a half years is just me, but now we have another staff photographer who helps out. It's really hard to describe a day-to-day because I don't have a day-to-day everything's just so unpredictable. Some days I'll be in the office editing or doing expenses the other day I'll be like hey you're going to Korea to shoot a story or I'm shooting here in the studio or I'm shooting in another studio in Brooklyn or in Midtown or shooting at a restaurant. It's always very last minute and unpredictable.
Jon: As a designer and having worked on websites and magazines there's always a relationship with photographers naturally getting imagery and things like that. What's that relationship here at Bon Appétit? Are you thinking about those things when you're taking pictures for an editorial layout or for the website? What's your mindset while you're going through a shoot? Are those considerations you working with an art director designer on set for things like that?
Alex: Generally, for shoots prior to any bigger shoot I will consult with my creative director Michelle Outland who's great. I've learned so much from here, she's so talented and it's like she's a genius and at what she does. We will often sit down discuss direction and how to shoot something and I assume that as she's discussing this with me, she talks to her team of designers and art directors on what to expect and how these two things can be cohesive. I believe that design is so important. I think they don't get enough credit in the magazines especially at Bon Appétit I feel like I don't get enough credit and our designers are so talented. Even if my name is on the byline all the art directors none of the art directors or designers get their name on there just on the masthead. I truly believe that great design can save a bad photo, bad design will just destroy a good photo.
Alex: I have good relationships with our designers and when shooting I definitely tried to keep in mind the consideration of what they need. If they have any requests, they'll tell me.
Jon: You guys are working very closely together obviously.
Jon: That's awesome. I mean there's plenty of situations where you're just like we're going to get the images from a photographer and there's no conversation before that or anything. They're just like, yes we want you to shoot this and like send it to us that's it so I can hear you it can be kind of tough.
Alex: I think that's definitely the main benefit of being on staff because if I am assigned a story I can either go down to talk to Michelle or talk to Chris or Christa and just say hey what's your thoughts on this, you have any ideas, is there a specific shot that you're imagining and I'll have a much better idea of how I should shoot something.
Jon: I would say that I'm pretty sure that I'm familiar with Bon Appétit like prior to being in media and things like that like I've seen the magazine and in stores and I've picked it up before I think graduating college and stuff like that so I think I have a good idea of the visual kind of direction that I was always going into it which is you know the last five years you've been a big component of that. How do you think it's evolved since starting because I look at your photography and I look at your images and it's very much part of like the brand skeleton the way the images are photographed the way they're kind of the contrast like always like all that art direction like how has your style contributed to that conversation of the and shaping that and how has it evolved since becoming staff here?
Alex: Appreciate that. Honestly, I feel like that for the first two or two-and-a-half years I didn't really have a voice. Again, I was just trying and struggling to learn how to shoot and learn how to be a good photographer. I didn't really shoot anything much in print for the first two and a half years and I shot a lot of web and like shot a lot of product shots. I would always see like the big-time food photographers on set and like look from afar oh my god maybe one day I can be like that and like shoot these cool feature stories. But I'm very thankful for my old creative director Alex Grossman who is the old creative director for Michelle. Him and Alex Pollock really just decided to take me under and just kind of-- you ever watch Whiplash?
Jon: No what's that.
Alex: It's this movie about jazz.
Alex: But it's basically just like about really drilling in and being good at your craft and like on some level like Grossman was really tough on me but I think for the better maybe a couple times where I would consider like am I good at this, is this something I should be doing. But I think the tough love aspect of what he did just made me hey let's get it let's get my shit together and just respond to that and just get better and better every day. For a while I didn't feel particularly confident in how I shot. I didn't really know how to light. I just felt a little lost, but after a certain point just the more and more shoots I did I just kind of felt more confident, felt more comfortable with being on set. There were a couple stories that Alex Pollock took a chance on me with and even if Grossman was like oh maybe he's not right for it, he's still too young, still inexperienced Alex Pollock would just be like give it a Lau. Lau can handle it. Let's send him off to San Francisco to shoot the story about burritos.
Jon: That's awesome.
Alex: Which is hard because you would think that that's a good story, but imagine shooting a burrito it's just a tortilla like rap.
Jon: This is a baby or small child in foil.
Alex: It's no grain ball. Do. they send me on stories like that where I just shoot you know the Mission District and shoot a bunch of taquerias. I used my I don't know instinct and just honestly a lot of fear-based creativity. I’m like okay I can't mess this up, they're taking a chance with me, they're sending out to San Francisco to shoot this big feature story. Let's just go out there and execute. They'll send me out to Korea to shoot this Fried Chicken story. I think these two stories the burrito story and the Korean fried chicken story was where I really got to just create my own voice and it was really good because both times, they never really gave me specific direction for the story. So, it was just up to me to go out there and trust myself and just do my own thing and hope that they liked the story. Those were those are definitely the two most formative assignments that I think set forth how I wanted to shoot.
Jon: Were there any kind of things that you were doing outside of maybe work that you were either like inspiration like looking at things? Were you going out and shooting more often to try and start like feeling more confident in those processes? Was there any kind of practice that you were doing even though it's kind of weird to label it as practice but in a sense just like you know you're going out and practicing the craft? You're doing it over and over again so you can get better.
Alex: I feel like I've been saying for the past five years that I should take more and more side projects to like develop my mind and gain more creativity and inspiration as I just haven't done it because my job is so busy. But there were a lot of late nights of being here at the studio and you doing test shots just like trying to figure how to light something, asking my photographer friends that I liked and admire I'm like hey how would you do this, like how did you like the specific thing, what are some techniques that you like that you think I should learn. There was definitely no specific practice but I think it was more so just being sent on assignment after assignment and just getting better and going from hearing your photo director and creative director say we don't like this why did you shoot like them being, oh yeah you did great or going beyond that and them expecting me to be great every time which was very-very comforting after some point.
Jon: I like to ask everyone that I have on there that was a creative somewhere like are they designers, photographers or like things out there that you look at for inspiration. I use the example of a designer I know loves to look at architecture for composition or his designs and things like that. Is there any place or something that you kind of look to pull inspiration from?
Alex: People tend to ask me “Oh who's your favorite food photographer?” I'm like I don't have one.
Jon: I kind of don't like to ask like, hey you're a food photographer what's your favorite you know like I know that's tough. I think when you're creative you can understand like yes, I'm a designer. There's a definitely designers that I love but I also like I am taking from that example of like looking at architecture now for like color like looking at like really weird places because you find like really interesting moments that you if you look at it and understand it makes you that much better for understanding why they use it in that situation and when you could use it in yours versus like yes I look at this designer and take exactly what he does because then you're just kind of like regurgitating.
Alex: I find its kind of how comedians don't watch each other's sets because they don't want to steal that's kind of the same approach. I mean like first off, I don't want to look at food photography. I spend my entire day in life shooting it I don't want to look at more, but at the same also I don't want to accidentally take or steal someone's idea yeah even if it's like intentional or not I don't want to do that. I tend to watch a lot of movies. I really like just how cinematography works it's a very fascinating craft to me. I think in some like alternate life I would have wanted to be a cinematographer but the whole--
Jon: I'm saving a chunk of my life to get into film.
Alex: Two years from now you'll see me trying to get an Emmy. Yes, it's just the way from everything from like framing to which lenses they want to use for a specific shot or just like the way how they'll treat color like the movie that that's also important I get a lot of inspiration from that. Architecture as well is very inspiring to me, I don't know how. People often talk to me like “What's your creative process?” “What do you do?” I don't have a creative process.
Jon: Show up, arrange things and take the picture.
Alex: Yes. There's a lot of things where like something as mundane is I don't know go into the supermarket or maybe going to a bookstore or going to a farm I don't know that might inspire me to go to the park and just like watching some pigeons eat. I don't know how my brain is processing it, but it's like I am a big proponent of, hey live your life and some ideas will come to you. I wish I could say hey I'm looking at these specific photographers. I'm going to art museums and I'm eating at all these fancy restaurants and getting inspiration from that but it's like that's just not the case.
Jon: I mean kind of like you said you know you don't look at food photographers, you don't steal ideas all of those things that you just said are like all in the same vein of like making art. So, it's like when you look at art, you're just going to make more of the same art in a sense so it's like get out there. I agree like it's weird when you go on vacation sometimes and you're like I am NOT going to do any work, but you're just like constantly thinking about ideas and just like all right I got to write this down. Somehow it just happens. I think it's different for people I'm sure you're similar because as you mentioned like going to the park and watching pigeons eat is a simple task. You're not making anything, your hands aren't moving, but your brain is like probably going a thousand miles or just like oh that's that would be a great idea if I did this it happens.
Alex: That's another thing that I've had trouble with like I think I've only recently come to terms with understanding that creativity isn't linear. You don't get more and more creative every day and if anything, it's very much peaks and valleys or sometimes the plateau. Initially when I would reach points where I feel like I'm being less creative or not I'm not anymore and I was before I would freak out and I'm like okay like my one commodity like what I have to offer isn't getting better or it might disappear and I’ll no longer be valued. I've just come to accept it like hey it comes and goes sometimes and like you just kind of have to live your life and it'll come to you or talk to more people and like I don't know maybe a simple trip is like going to my grandma's house could spark crazy.
Jon: Totally. Grandma's always got the best ideas anyway.
Alex: She always does.
Jon: What's the vibe in the BA kitchen? I watched YouTube. I watch Bon Appétit on YouTube I watch the shows with Andy and all the time when they do like the pastry chef, they shot she just did the video for the Pringles.
Jon: Claire she's great. Brad-- are you in the kitchen a lot? I know you travel, but like are you hanging around these people a lot.
Alex: I'm actually in the kitchen a fair decent amount especially since I'm in the studio that's on the same floors the kitchen literally 10 feet away.
Jon: I forgot it's the door next to us.
Jon: What's the vibe like?
Alex: It's very fun. Claire no longer works at Bon Appétit but she still comes in and does the videos, but it's a good energy. Brad is exactly how you would imagine just like this Jersey fisherman that came straight out of a Springsteen video.
Alex: Claire is just so precise but so kind hearted and she's an angel and like all of her food is so delicious. Annie is just this manic energy that is just so talented but such a diva. It's just like a good environment of good people and it's definitely not like being in a restaurant kitchen I'm sure some people think it is but it's much more relaxed. Chefs that come in are like wow it's so chill in here and it's just obviously there are times it can get crazy but it's a very good energy with a lot of laughs. People always like trying to create the best way that they can. It's a fun time.
Jon: I want to kind of switch gears a little bit. I know we mentioned a little bit at the beginning that maybe people wouldn’t know off the bat but like you said you do competitive powerlifting. How is that going? Did you recently compete? I think I saw you training for that.
Alex: Yes, training since last October. So, yes, I am a competitive power lifter it's fun it's just that the two worlds could not be more different. Some days I'll be shooting some nice restaurant like Estela.
Jon: Something very delicate.
Alex: Delicate or just like being surrounded by creatives and like arty people and the next day I'll be in the boonies of Jersey as Bon Jovi's blasting on the speakers and like everybody's huffing ammonia and I’m trying to squat big. They are very different demographics and I kind of like that. But yes, I've been powerlifting. Funnily enough I start powerlifting around the same time that I started working at Bon Appétite. I kind of got into it because I've done a lot of sports in high school and I'm not a particularly outright competitive person but I needed a competitive outlet and so when I was in college I also I just went to the gym and it was just the workout and after a certain point it just got kind of boring to me and I was look at my numbers for squats and bench and my numbers are actually quite close more competitive for a powerlifting meet. Granted back then powerlifting was a lot less competitive than it is now. I’m just looking at like the age division but I was like oh like I could take a state record in Massachusetts for the 19-year-old division. So, I had it on my mind but I just didn't have the money to like buy a nice belt or equipment, but once I had a job at Bon Appétit I was like oh like let's try this out. I had my first competition in October of 2014. I got second place like oh wow like this is my first competition second place.
Jon: Second place in the first competition.
Jon: What is the training leading up to that? Like how do you nail a second? To get second place in anything for your first competition there's a lot of prep and practice and training that goes into that right? You don't just walk in Lottie Dottie no and just being like oh yes, I could squat all this weight?
Alex: Yes, ****and just dial back powerlifting as a sport is squat and bench press and the deadlift and basically your main objective is to total the most weight out of all three of those lifts and whoever gets the biggest total weight wins. I currently have a coach his name's Sean Collins and he runs Murder of Crows Barbell out in Brooklyn.
Jon: Hi Sean.
Alex: Hey Sean. I'll see him later. It's a very systemized style of training. He'll program often 16 weeks out eight weeks out.
Alex: We're often training that far ahead while having a specific competition in mind and like there's an offseason and there's an in-competition season and depending on that we go harder or we go less intense.
Jon: You mentioned earlier that you're traveling to Beirut.
Alex: I think I’m going to Lebanon like two weeks from now.
Jon: That's for assignment for Bon Appétit?
Jon: Where are the other places you've traveled?
Alex: A big majority of it tends to be domestic. I was in Lebanon. I did a story in Portugal; Korea and I think I went to London and then basically every almost every city imaginable in the United States.
Jon: So, you pretty much hit up all 50.
Alex: I won't say all 50, but like a lot of like smaller cities that you weren't thinking of like San Antonio.
Jon: Okay that's pretty dope. What do you have planned other than this trip to Beirut? We’re just coming out of the New Year. Do you have like any New Year's resolutions to kind of one objective this year that you're trying to tackle?
Alex: I'm not really one for New Year's resolutions but I just want to do a good job, take on bigger and better projects and be the best photographer that I can be and I don't know maybe you'd be better at managing workload. I feel I'm pretty good at that now but you know it can always be more streamlined.
Jon: Where can people find your work? Where can they stay in touch with you? Where are you online?
Alex: I actually don't have a website so I guess if you want to see my work by Bon Appétit magazine and go on the website or go on the healthy ish website. If you want to keep in touch with me you can go my Instagram. It's not really any of my professional work.
Jon: I think your Instagram is quite satisfying though because it’s like traveling, food it sums up very much like your brand of what you do and like what you believe in what and we've kind of talked about today so I would say that's a really good place as well.
Alex: I definitely think of it more as a visual diary versus like oh here's my professional because I don't really post much of it there. You can also follow me in there if you want to keep in touch like message me or leave a comment.
Jon: Awesome. Well Alex thank you so much for coming on this episode of Wellfed.
Alex: Thanks for having me.
On this episode of Wellfed I speak with Alex Lau, staff photographer at Bon Appétit magazine. A good way to describe this episode is to quote Alex, "when people ask me how do you get here, I have no idea I just had a lot of different interests and some of them panned out and some them didn't."
Alex was gracious enough to sit down with me after returning from a work assignment in Los Angeles. We talked about his childhood growing up between Queens and San Francisco. Although Alex is now a photographer, photography didn't come into the picture till later on in his career. Alex was a competitive swimmer and studied Jazz till the end of high school. Although Alex there were a few moments in school where he picked up a camera for the school newspaper he never considered it something he wanted to pursue.
When it came time to apply to colleges, Alex mostly auditioned for Jazz programs until he decided it wasn't for him. He then applied to a journalism program in Boston and returned to the east coast to begin his college career. While on the east coast Alex interned within the men's fashion industry and learned the ropes of what it was like to work for major magazine companies. He also got to watch Ryan Gosling's dog during a photoshoot!
Eventually Alex landed an internship at Bon Appétit magazine as a photo intern. This exposed him to a completely different side of the media industry. By the end of his internship he came away feeling fulfilled and inspired to pursue a career in food publishing. Alex returned to Boston to finish out his program while working for the Boston Magazine where he was able to write stories and photograph for the magazine's website.
As graduating neared for Alex he lined up a job as a production assistant at Food and Wine magazine. At the same time his colleagues at Bon Appétit reached out to him as they just opened up a new role for a staff photographer at the magazine. With two amazing opportunities in front of him Alex joined the Bon Appétit team and the rest is history.
Big thanks to Alex for joining me on this episode!