Ranji Thangiah , aka Tooting Mama, is a well known and popular flood blogger living in South West London. She has a long background in Corporate Communications and is a passionate food photographer, building a prolific catalog of images and clients who commission her to take their branding and marketing photographs. She juggles multiple hats and strings all her skills together in her working day, recently she has been commissioned by Hi! Magazine in Sri Lanka to share some of her recipes.
You will find a few of Ranji's favourite recipes in our Sri Lankan food section.
Here, Ranji shares a bit about her story.
1. Will you please share a bit about your career path?
A career in the creative industry wasn’t an option growing up. I know it’s a cliche, but my parents (first-generation immigrants) were ushering me towards science, accountancy or law. None were a fit for me and I eventually carved out a career in corporate communications. It was my personal life that led me towards writing and photography.
After adopting two children, I started a blog to share my experiences. When the kids got too big and no longer be a part of this, I pivoted and turned towards writing and sharing stories about food, Sri Lankan food and culture.
I started to explore photography and sharing stories through a visual medium. I attended workshops, watched hours of YouTube, and participated in mentoring programmes to learn my craft.
I am wholly self-taught. Photography is a passion I discovered later in life, and it’s a journey I love. I’m keen to take my photography further and look beyond food into genres such as still life, street and travel photography and portraiture.
I’m growing and evolving my style and pushing myself to be the best I can be.
2. What is it about your photography that inspires you so much? What genres do you love and why?
Storytelling has been a core part of my professional career. As a communications professional, I craft stories to change opinions, and behaviour, and get a workforce behind a new strategy. Stories have so much power. I’ve taken this skill and transferred it to my food writing and latterly photography.
Photography is a profound medium. Photography can have an impact and elicit emotion from the viewer. Dorothea Lange’s haunting photo of the migrant mother or Daine Abrus’s striking portrait of Germaine Greer.
A photo can take you to a far-flung beach or into a war zone. The Ukrainian photographers, who are risking their lives at the frontline are vital to bring us the truth.
The photographs by Eranga Jayawardena and Rafiq Maqbool in Sri Lanka won the Pulitzer Prize. These images drop you directly to the heart of Sri Lanka’s recent political crisis.
Then of course, I love food photography- there are so many food photographers who I admire - people I look up to include Gentl and Hyers, Peden + Munk, and Susan Bell, their work is incredible. There are too many names to include.
I love fashion photography too. It may seem frivolous, but flick through the pages of Vogue, and you’ll see incredible photography. Fashion photographers are some of the best photographers in the world. There was a shoot in a recent edition of the Financial
Times HTSI weekend supplement which was stunning by the British Indian photographer Vivek Vadolia. It’s great to see a British South Asian photographer in the mainstream.
3. Tell us about your career highlight to date.
Being shortlisted for the 'Pink Lady Food Photography competition' was an amazing moment. It's a global competition attracting thousands of entries, and getting to the shortlist was a huge feat. I had to take a double-take when the email dropped into my inbox.
Last year, I went on a 5 day photography retreat to Spain run by my mentors from the Two Photographers. The retreat allowed me to explore different photography genres - food, travel, portraiture, and interiors. It was a brilliant opportunity to grow and develop. This is my path, it’s where I belong, and I’m channelling everything I learned towards my photography.
4. Any funny or silly moments you have experienced?
I met another photographer who takes pictures of celebrities and said food photography was like pushing peas around a plate! He’s not wrong! The other day I was carefully arranging chickpeas into pani puri shells, and tweaking tiny bits of coriander with a tweezer. The details matter!
5. What inequalities do you see in your work?
Like any part of the creative sector, the photography and writing world is competitive. It can seem closed, built on established networks and contacts. You have to work hard, be persistent, not give up and be ready to kick down doors to be seen. This can be hard, and at times exhausting. And there’s a lot of rejection.
Networks are springing up to support people of colour in creative industries. This is great, as the industry is starting to acknowledge that there needs to be different voices.
6. What is your passion within your field, and what motivates you?
To showcase Sri Lankan food through writing and photography, which allows me to explore my heritage.
I lost my father in 2020, he was a phenomenal cook. Both of my parents were great cooks, yet they never wrote anything down. Sometimes they used a recipe, more often than not, they cooked from instinct. I want to preserve this part of my heritage.
I’m excited by the new generation of Sri Lankans in the food world. Many of them have grown up here, and are stepping up to create their interpretation of their food. It’s authentic Sri Lankan food with its own unique identity. They own their story, their food and their heritage.
Behind this, is a drive to honour past generations who have worked hard and made sacrifices. There’s something humble and celebratory about this movement. Some brilliant stories are waiting to be told. One of my projects is to document Sri Lankan food stories in the UK.
And, there are stories like Chanch who has founded Kimbula Kithul, a brand that sells the purest form of kithul (a sweet syrup from the kithul palm). Her brand is preserving an ancient practice of hand kithul tapping for kithul. This is such a fantastic story and deserves wider recognition.
I’m always on the hunt for new stories to capture through writing and photography.
7. How can we create change and see more DEI in the world of photography and food writing?
In the food world, there is an issue of cultural appropriation. Sri Lankan food is on trend, and you’ll see many brands have created a Sri Lankan line, but when you dig deeper there’s very little that’s Sri Lankan. You can’t throw in a cashew nut and call it Sri Lankan!
We need to challenge stereotypes and educate the food world about the diverse richness of Sri Lanka and its food, history and culture.
I’m hoping to see what Edward Eninful did for fashion to make it more inclusive. I hope this will have a ripple effect, and decision-makers and budget-holders in publishing, marketing and brands will be more inclusive about who they commission to do their work.
There are magazines such as Whetstone and Rasa, which give a platform for writers and photographers of colour. The digital platform Goya is doing great things to showcase food in India, and Diet Paratha does a brilliant job of promoting South Asian talent in the creative industries.
8. Why do you think there is a shortage of female Sri Lankan photographers on public platforms?
There’s a startling statistic: In the UK, 70% of photography graduates are women, and only 13% of working photographers are women.
There’s no denying this is a competitive industry and breaking in is hard.
Diet Paratha ran the Family Mentoring Scheme. This linked aspiring South Asian talent with established creative industry mentors.
Hanifa Haris, Creative Director at Verizon launched an inclusion initiative that helped over 50 photographers from historically excluded backgrounds lead photography for major campaigns, which is brilliant.
I’m a mentor for Be Inclusive Hospitality, which supports people of colour within the hospitality industry. More platforms are needed to raise awareness of Sri Lankan female creatives to hear our stories and see our work.
9. What advice would you give to youngsters who want to follow in your footsteps?
Take pictures every day. You have a camera in your pocket - use it!
Develop your eye and the art of seeing.
It doesn’t matter what equipment you have, you can spend hundreds and thousands on fancy lenses, but at the end of the day, that picture comes from you and what you see.
Creativity is a muscle that needs honing. There are no shortcuts, just practice, practice, practice. You have to do the work.
Network, follow people you admire on Instagram, reach out and connect. Find gatherings, and conferences and try to connect with people in real life.
Immerse yourself in art. Go to galleries, do a photo walk. There are some brilliant podcasts about photography which are worth listening to.
Work doesn't drop in your lap. Be bold, and create your opportunities. I learnt this from an incredible female photographer, Sane Seven who was single-minded about becoming a top portrait photographer.
Rejection. It’s part of the creative life. We have to grow a thick skin and don’t take it personally.
Stay true to your art form.
Invest in yourself.
Success doesn’t happen overnight: celebrate the small wins.
10. How do you want to use your voice to create change?
I want to use food writing and photography to highlight emerging talent in the British Sri Lankan food space. We have an incredible story to tell about history, migration, and culture -our past, present and future which plays out in our food.
This is the first time I’m saying this. I want to create a platform to tell our stories - through a podcast, photography and ultimately a cookbook. A cookbook that looks equally as great in your kitchen or on your coffee table.
11. Which female Sri Lankan inspires you?
I can’t be limited to one!
From a food perspective, without a doubt, Cynthia Shanmugalingam. She’s worked hard to create Rambutan, the cookbook and the restaurant. She’s been involved in grassroots food entrepreneurship through a programme called Kitchenette. I admire her drive and ambition to share the story of Sri Lankan Tamil cooking. She’s such a fantastic person who I admire.
Sonali Deraniyalga who wrote The Wave which recounts the loss of her family in the 2006 Tsunami. She tells an emotionally charged and beautifully written story of overcoming unbelievable tragedy to rebuild her life.
And finally, Usha Jey who burst on the scene with her viral #HybridBharatham video. She’s done incredible work in the dance world. She and her dancers switch between hip-hop and Bharatanatyam. Her videos are set to tunes by Lil Wayne, Jack Harlow and DaBaby. She’s only 26, and her star is rising fast!
Food website: Tooting Mama