Like many other Central American countries, coffee was introduced to Guatemala in the 18th century by European missionaries. By the middle of the 19th century, coffee production had achieved significant economic importance. Today, coffee is one of the country’s most important exports accounting for 40 percent of all agricultural export revenue. Spanish photographer, Santiago Albert, has lived in Guatemala since 1996, and describes the country has having “infinite photographic potential”. His photojournalistic approach is an attempt to capture the cultural traditions and personal stories, which define this fascinating country. He has dedicated years to photographing the production of coffee in Guatemala. We caught up with Santiago to find out about his approach to photojournalism, his love for the Leica M system and why a photojournalist’s camera is their only true companion.
How did you discover your passion for photography?
I have wanted to take photographs for as long as I can remember. The passion increases as you go, but if I had to put my finger on it, it would be when I realized I simply couldn’t stop taking photos. This was when I found a voice of my own. It was the romantic side of photojournalism that drew me in; the travel and the possibility to do the job in any part of the world. You work to tell a story or to show an event or life around you. It all comes from the desire to communicate something. At some point I felt that I simply had to become a photojournalist.
Who influenced you and your style as a photographer?
Salgado has always been a point of reference, along with Koudelka, Bresson, Doisneau, García Rodero and many others, who create humanist photography and tell the stories of people’s daily lives. The way to see these images before the Internet was at exhibitions, galleries and in magazines. What influenced me, besides these people, are the experiences, movies, books, stories and everything else that constitutes a visual education. I think that style is not something you can search out, or at least you cannot force it. It comes from working and shooting, internalizing the many references through your eyes.
When did you first start shooting with Leica cameras? And what does the brand mean to you?
I first held a Leica in my hands in 1992. It was an M4-P. I was in the Dominican Republic (taking occasional trips to Haiti) and had a 6×7, medium format camera. Then one day, I passed a little shop in Santo Domingo, and this Leica camera was calling me from the window. I had never expected to find something like that there. I traded my medium format camera for the Leica M4-P. Since then I’ve worked with the M6, M7, M8 and M9, while now I am enjoying a Leica M10.
Leica has become part of my process. It’s discreet nature allows me to go unnoticed. The M becomes a true extension of your vision, without much menu complexity or too many parameters to control. The telemetric system – being able to see the action while shooting – is also essential. I need a reliable tool that does what I need and I have found exactly that in the Leica M system.
You were born in Spain but have been living in Guatemala since 1996. What brought you to Guatemala?
I was living in Costa Rica but couldn’t find the stories I wanted to cover in my work. I also felt a desire to move and therefore decided to go to Guatemala. Back then the country was experiencing far more conflict than today. After 3 days on a bus, I arrived in Guatemala with the idea of staying for a few weeks or months. I’m still here today, trying to get to know this country after twenty-something years. It ensnared me instantly. The country has infinite potential on a photographic level.
How much do you think being a foreigner or outsider influences your story-telling?
Obviously when you arrive in a country so different from yours, you see what is otherwise normal and everyday with fresh eyes. Everything is different. Even your own way of observing is educated by another visual reality and you notice those things that local people no longer look at. You have an alternative approach and your narrative is different.
You have been dedicated to documenting the coffee industry for years now. Where does this interest come from? And what are you hoping to show with this series?
The coffee industry is very present in Guatemala. I did a couple of on-demand projects and couldn’t leave that world anymore. As with the rest of my work, some people strike me and leave a lasting impression. The system of coffee production, merges with family and social structures. You can observe relationships between people and nature; parents and children; bosses and workers. Coffee is the way of life for so many people, from owners of large farms, small producers and cooperatives, to entire families moving from one place to the next for the harvest. The harvest season coincides with school holidays, so the whole family moves temporarily to work and everyone participates in it.
In this particular case, I wanted to show a changing reality that will surely be totally different in a few years. Above all, with emotion and sincerity.
Can you tell us more about the plantation(s) where you shot this series?
This series, which is a long-term project, is carried out throughout the country from farms in the lowlands, all the way to the mountains. Some of the photos were taken at small cooperatives, others in large farms. I’m trying to cover the entire process and document different forms of cultivation. I have been able to develop relationships with the workers and all sorts of people involved in the process of coffee production. This makes my work easier and very importantly often takes place during long conversations over a good cup of coffee. Photography has led me to meet people, whom I would not have met otherwise and immerse myself in another way of life.
The workers include all ages and genders, from young children to grandparents. How would you describe the people, who work in this type of coffee production? Is it something you could describe as a family business?
Families are always involved, although not always as owners or as part of a proper family business. Everyone in the family takes part in the harvest. They have been working in coffee production for generations. Children and grandchildren accompany the experienced elderly family members. In large farms the whole family takes part and they live there all-year-round or move from other parts of the country for the harvest season. Even large farms that have been in the same hands for generations are a kind of family business.
The series delivers a lot of information with a great mix of portraits, action shots, landscapes and close-ups. How do you choose which types of shot to include in a documentary series like this?
What strikes me above all is people and their relationship with the environment. However, I also want to capture the action, to make the process itself visible in the most accurate way. I intend to capture everything, conscious of the viewer who doesn’t know the place or the type of harvest and who has never seen a coffee plant before.
When it comes to capturing action shots that are the most interesting and happen just once, you have to anticipate them. For that the Leica M is an essential tool. It is always ready and allows me to follow the action through the telemetric viewfinder. People perform the action and are at the same time part of the landscape and the environment.
Landscape is another focus for me. I include the shots I consider necessary to create a complete storyline. Therefore as I shoot, I’m thinking of the narrative. In this particular case, I’m telling the viewer how the process of coffee production unfolds, so they can have a rounded idea. When creating a narrative, I always try to convey the emotion I feel when taking the shot.
Why did you choose to shoot this series in black and white?
Most of my work is in black and white with some exceptions on specific jobs and assignments. I have found my style and my photographic voice in black and white.
Black and white allows me to focus on people without “distractions”. I’ve always thought that black and white photography forces the viewer to stop and engage because it’s something that the brain does not register as having already seen.
Which camera and other equipment did you use? What do you think are the advantages of this set-up?
For these images I used a Leica M8, although I have used an M9 and an M10 on the same project, which is still a work in process.
As for lenses, I prefer wide angles that allow me – and force me – to jump into the action and, at the same time, to include elements of the surroundings that give the image information and location. I am talking about the Tri-Elmar 16-18-21 that I used in this coffee series up to 24mm and including 35mm.
An M10 body with 21, 35 and 50mm lenses is my current set up. I always leave my house with the 21mm. For the still portraits I use the 50mm.
What one piece of advice would you offer to your fellow photographers?
It is hard to give advice. The most important thing is to have passion, to get involved and to commit to what is going on in front of the camera. Only then will you be able to tell it in your own way, with emotion and sincerity. It is also crucial to consider, who will be viewing your images, while at the same time following your instincts.
Being a photographer can be a lonely job. The camera is your only true companion. One piece of advice I would give is to carefully choose your travel partner. A well-chosen set up will make your work and your life easy out there in the field. You need a set up that best suits your needs and that you know you can rely on to translate reality into a photographic series that tells a story.