Globetrotting Photographer and Power Lifter Alex Lau’s Life (and Suiting) Tips

Globetrotting Photographer and Power Lifter Alex Lau’s Life (and Suiting) Tips

Taking pictures of food is stressful: am I embarrassing my tablemates? Am I embarrassing myself? Is it considered poor form to stand on this restaurant chair to get the shot? Is it worth it anyway? What am I doing with my life? And why, no matter what I do, does my photographed food always end up looking like the scooped out guts of a decaying pumpkin?

Alex Lau, staff photographer for Bon Appétit, has answers and solutions for at least some of those questions. He also spoke with me about the headache of finding a well-fitting suit as a competitive powerlifter; his tips for wearing a suit in the heat; and the kinds of stories he wants to tell with his photography. Meet Alex Lau, below. (And if you can’t find him there, he’s probably lying down in the Bon Appétit’s test kitchen freezer — hot suit hack/job perk.) 

Bonobos:  Tell me about being a competitive powerlifter. 

Lau: Powerlifting is a sport comprised of three events: squat, bench press and the dead lift. You have three attempts at each lift, so you have nine total attempts. Your goal is to total as much as you can throughout all the lifts, and whoever has the highest total wins. That’s the easiest way to sum it up. 

It’s a strange hobby. It’s very, very different from what I do for my day job. I’m in studios in Manhattan, or Brooklyn, very magazine/editorial world, and on weekends I go to Derby, Connecticut, or some place in upstate New York, and I play, like, Jon Bon Jovi — unironically. I compete two times a year. It’s definitely strange, but I do like it a lot. I’ve been doing it for five years. 

Our mutual friend told me that you had trouble finding a suit because of how weightlifting has changed the shape of your body. Happy ending: you found one at Bonobos! What was that process like?

I had to go to an event. I wasn’t as big as I am now, maybe 10 pounds lighter, but I still had trouble finding a suit that fit. The store I went to had me try a bunch of different suits. I have a smaller waist in comparison to my legs; if I’m a size 31 waist, my legs are going to be a size 34, so I either have a waist that fits and super tight pants, or legs that fit and a very floppy waist, and I have to take it to the tailor to get it taken in. It’s very annoying. My shoulders are too big for a standard suit, so then it does that weird pinching thing where it looks like the suit’s too small for me, but if I go up the next size then it looks too big.

Something was off no matter what we did. I finally asked [the guy helping me], “Hey, what can I do?” He was visibly frustrated. He said, “Honestly dude, you want to get a suit that fits, stop lifting.” 

I went to Bonobos because a friend recommended I go there, and I tried it, and I was like, “Oh my god, this might be the first suit that fits properly.” It’s crazy.

Apart from fit, what makes you say, “That’s a good suit?”

I’m really big on texture. I like things that are like a little less shiny, a little bit more matte. Breathability is very important to me because I sweat a lot, and whenever I have to wear a suit, I will almost undoubtedly sweat a lot. 

Have you come up with any hacks for wearing a suit when it’s hot out, or do you just suffer through it?

The key is to not wear the jacket until you absolutely have to, and you just kind of walk around with a jacket in your hand.

Another thing I do at work if we have to wear suits for events: I go into the walk-in fridge [in Bon Appétit’s test kitchen] just to cool off a little bit. I am known at work for that. “Oh yeah, Alex is hot; he’s going to go wait in the walk-in fridge.” This is walk-in fridge season for me, I’ll be there, laying down in the ice. If I’m wearing a suit I’ll probably be in there.

What is the coolest place that you’ve traveled for your job?

I’ve been to a couple places internationally. I really liked shooting in Korea. The thing with these travel trips is that everything’s always so run-and-gun, so you experience culture in such a condensed and fast-paced manner. I was told I was shooting in Korea with four days notice. We landed, and I don’t Speak Korean — I had a handler — and then we instantly started shooting. It was three straight days of shooting. Shooting late night Korean fried chicken places; drunk businessmen; inside a little Korean street stall and I’m shooting a giant pig’s head as like, Korean Tom Jones is playing on the radio. That was probably one of the more memorable shoots I’ve done.

I think people tend to think, when I say food photographer, I only shoot food. When you’re telling a story, people are almost always attached with food, so if I’m shooting a restaurant, I want to shoot the person creating the food. If I’m shooting this Korean fried chicken shop, I want to shoot the grandma who’s spent decades cultivating this recipe and making it perfect. 

The more “real” people look, I love that. I don’t really like anything like super manicured or perfect. I want to shoot the fisherman who doesn’t have teeth, who chain smokes, and is [catching] fish right by the water; that’s the guy I want to shoot. Anything that’s a little grittier, nothing too polished, that’s what draws me. Especially if the food is gritty, and the person is real, [it’s] like, there’s a relationship here. Conversely, if there’s a Danish restaurant in Copenhagen, very sleek and clean and refined, and the chef is very polished, I want to shoot the chef. There’s a time and place for both. 

What stories do you want to tell through your photography?

I want to do more work covering marginalized communities and doing work with people of color, chefs of color. I want to use the platform I have, and the ability I have to tell a story, to [share] these stories that nobody knows about. 

There’s this woman in Philadelphia, [Cristina Martinez], making amazing tacos [South Philly Barbacoa]. She and her husband are doing their best to help undocumented immigrants. That’s the type of story where, if I found out what they’re doing, I’d be like, “Wow, not only is your food good but you’re great human beings and you’re doing your best to make the world a better place.”

At the end of the day, all I do is take pictures of food. I’m not saving lives. I’m not being a brain surgeon, but what I want to do is use the platform that I have to bring light to people who are doing great things. 

Are you a good cook?

No. Not compared to my co-workers. I can cook, but they’ve all worked at the best restaurants and I’m like, “Hey, here’s my roast chicken and vegetables, what do you think?” 

It’s really hard for us non-food photographers who want to capture a great looking meal. I always make it look disgusting. It’s also embarrassing to do if you’re in public. Any pro tips? Even it’s, “Don’t do it.”

I have no problem with taking pictures of food in public. I still do it from time to time. Pro tips: if you’re using your cellphone, try to get a seat right by the window, or sit outside. The light’s almost always going to be amazing if you’re sitting outside.

A lot of people hate on the overhead angle for food, but more often than not, it’s a very flattering angle for food. If the table has cool patterns, that’s a winner.

And sometimes, food just doesn’t look good. Trust me, no matter how many shots you take of apple sauce, or your baked sweet potato, it’s probably not going to look that great. Sometimes the food just has to be pretty.

Follow Alex Lau on Instagram, @yungbludlau

Amelia Diamond is a writer and creative consultant. Follow her on Instagram, @amilli0naire.