The Mexican state of Oaxaca is known for its heavenly Pacific coast and thick cloud forests; yet it is also rich in cultural achievements and traditions passed down from one generation to the next. One of these is the production of the country’s best-known spirit: mezcal. Travelling with a friend who is an initiate in the art of this time-honoured process, Jonah Smith took a look behind the scenes.
What motivated you to photograph the process of mezcal production?
In November 2021, I spent a week riding a motorcycle from Mexico City down to Oaxaca. One of my dear friends, who was also with me on the trip, is involved in a mezcal brand (Madre Mezcal). Once we got down to Oaxaca, I spent a number of days exploring and photographing the 200-year-old process of mezcal production, with him as my tour guide.
What does the process look like?
The agave plant is harvested, chopped down to its heart, and then roasted. The workers create very large piles of agave in the “smoke pits”. The smoking process takes a number of days until the agave is soft and mushy. It is then transported to a distillery so it can be smashed up, which helps the fermenting process. After all this, it is finally ready to be distilled in copper pots.
What impression did the protagonists leave you with?
I loved how proud they all were of the process of making mezcal. Every distillery or farm has its own “recipe”, and I love the passion the people have when telling their stories. Some have been using the same techniques for over a hundred years. All these little stories have stayed with me.
What is, in your opinion, special about this tradition?
I found the people and the process to be fascinating. In today’s modern world, this felt like a very old-fashioned way of making something. There were no computers or printed paper with recipes or guidelines; it was just one guy giving direction from memory. There isn’t any rule book or manual, it’s just taught and passed down through the generations. It feels like each grower and distillery follows its own secret formula. The people I documented have been doing it this way, in this particular way, in this location, for generations…. This is part of the unique quality of mezcal. It is so labour-intensive to make each bottle with so many different variables, that each batch is always slightly different (similar to wine and how the same grape changes season to season).
For the uninitiated, how would you describe the taste of mezcal compared to tequila?
Mezcal, unlike tequila, has a signature smoky flavour that comes from smoking the agave in pits – mezcal literally means “roasted agave”. In the case of tequila, the agave plant is steamed, which has a sweater taste vs the smokey taste of mezcal.
How was working with the Leica cameras?
As with all my adventures, I wear a Leica Q across my body while I ride a motorcycle or while I walk the streets of a new city or town. I find that I can always turn it on and shoot while speeding down the road, or pick it up and take a quick candid shot before the moment is lost. I have been using this camera for the last 7 years. Prior to that, I was using an M6, but of course that was a slower process… When I need a longer lens, I use the SL2 with a 50mm or a 24-70. All these photos were taken with the Leica Q2 or the SL2.
Did you have a certain photographic approach? Is there anything you wanted to evoke in the viewer?
I try to shoot in a documentary / Cinema Verite approach. I love finding the moment when people aren’t aware I’m there. I find the images and the actions to be very compelling and powerful when it’s a real natural moment. Obviously, this was harder being a visitor and everyone could see me coming; but after a while and with the use of such a small camera (Q2), I was able to blend into the background and people forgot I was there.
Were there any photographic challenges to overcome?
The bright sun. I hate shooting in bright daylight, without cloud cover or shade. The smoke from the Agave burn really helped defuse the light and gave me some amazing light. Also the interior of the distillery had this beautiful, soft light that the fast lens of the Q2 really helped capture.
What did you learn from your time in Oaxaca?
The kindness and the work ethic of all the people I met. I’m excited to return soon to continue on with this photo project and indulge in all the amazing food!
Born and raised in Connecticut, Jonah Smith grew up around photography, often spending time on the intricate sets of his father, the late photographer Rodney Smith. Enamoured with images, and cinema in particular, Smith attended NYU Film School and went on to become an independent film producer upon graduation. He made more than 10 movies, including Requiem For a Dream, A Scanner Darkly, and the documentary Religulous. After 10 years in the film industry, Smith and his business partner, Palmer West, decided to pivot to the clothing industry, co-founding AETHER, a technical apparel company for both men and women, inspired by adventure travel. Currently, Smith lives in Los Angeles with his wife, two sons and a small dog named Pepper. Find out more about his work on his website and Instagram channel.