Is coffee part of your morning routine? Then you need to thank the millions of people who make the drink their life’s work.
Celebrated photographer Sebastiao Salgado takes readers deep into that grind with his latest collection, The Scent of a Dream: Travels in the World of Coffee ($75, Abrams Books), a truly grande-sized look at the landscapes and labors behind the $100-billion-a-year business with black-and-white images from ten countries around the globe.
It’s hard to imagine a better guide than the Brazilian-born Salgado. His parents owned a coffee mill, and he began his career as an economist at the International Coffee Organization in London. As he writes in his forward to this book, “photography would prove stronger than coffee.” But Salgado never forgot his roots — or the agricultural commodity that loomed so large in his development.
Here’s our conversation with him, edited for length.
There are so many images with babies and kids — how much do they remind you of your own childhood?
There are 25 million families that work and live around coffee. It’s basically a family industry, and when it’s a family, they are together and children are all around. I came from a coffee family. My father had 15 mules, and he transported coffee to a train. I love very much to do these pictures and return to my own life. Most of the coffee comes by mule in many parts of the planet. What made me a big pleasure to see [since] we live in an urban planet. When you climb a mountain and see coffee is produced the way it was always, it’s one way to come back.
How much have these coffee families changed in your lifetime?
Not too much. Coffee is isolated. It’s produced at a certain altitude. When I was in Costa Rica, I had the same feeling as when I was in China. It’s the same clouds, same mountains, same behavior. The difference is the language they speak and the clothes they wear. The way to produce coffee today is similar all over the world. When you spend the day with the people and go to the fields with them, it’s slow and patient work. For me it was a relaxation moment.
What do you hope readers can learn through these images?
You can get it in a café and have the impression that it was made in the backyard. So I hope they understand where it comes from and the importance of this product. The way coffee is produced is at peace with nature. There is respect for soil and ecology. It’s a very important product in this sense.
There is that gorgeous image of a smiling coffee picker on the cover. How happy are these workers?
These families live in peace, in equilibrium. In El Salvador, where there are problems, the coffee areas are isolated from main roads and protected from violence. We do need to have more free trade. There’s a lot of fair trade, a lot of cooperatives, but it’s not all fair trade.
How about their health?
The health is quite good. When you have families working, they have their own chickens and fruits. They provide for themselves. We think of development as some amount of money. That doesn’t exist there. There are other patterns to measure the happiness of people. They cook very good food and live in peace. It’s tougher in the big farms. They work for the kilos they can collect. In Costa Rica, a lot of Indians and Nicaraguans come to work. It’s a lot of work. They came for two to three months and work hard. You see they are tired. They are seasonal workers and made good money for the society they live in, but they work hard.
How much time did you spend in each of these communities?
It varied between three weeks and one month. Sometimes things happen at different times. The [coffee] crop isn’t the same season as flowers.
I noticed your photo of flowers came from Minas Gerais, Brazil, where you’re from.
That was special. I made three trips to do these flowers. They happen just after the rain season. One week to 10 days later, the flowers come. After three days, there are no more flowers. Some years we had rain but not enough. And nature doesn’t give an appointment. I did see some flower but not full flower.
You say in the book that you don’t drink coffee. Is that true?
I drank it when I was a child. Here, in the north of the planet, coffee is too strong for me. For me [as a child], it was more like a tea. You could see the bottom of the cup.
The public may not know where coffee comes from, but do the people in your photos know where coffee is going?
The good coffee is produced in small places. They select it by hand, wash it, put it out to dry. They know exactly where coffee goes.
What image should people have in their minds the next time they drink coffee?
If they see my pictures, respect the people. It’s a product produced by a group of people together. Coffee is the most human product on this planet.