The surge in global coffee consumption since the start of the 21st century has renewed an interest in its ancient supply chain. First established in the early 15th century, coffee as a global trade grew gradually. Soon enough, the drink helped broker deals in London’s shipping industry of Lloyds, and later fuel the Confederate effort in the American Civil War. This increased demand has brought to question the ethics of coffee and the origins of its role as a cash crop in colonial history.
With the help of camera phones, the ease of broadcasting through video and images has helped producers, roasters and coffee shops share the settings of coffee producing regions in the likes of Kenya, Java and Colombia. Yet the everydayness of coffee is rarely exposed effectively and in detail. In a 2016 tour of Kenya’s coffee supply chain, London-based documentary photographer Jake Green uncovered some of the finer details of coffee production, soon launched in a photobook, Coffee Kenya: Kunywa Jasho Langu (“drink my sweat”).
Images range from the dramatic moments to the benign details of the early stages in the supply chain. Meanwhile an A2 insert outlines the mechanics specific to Kenyan coffee including the role of auction markets, co-ops and processing techniques. An index of photographs provides an overview of Green’s impressive itinerary, travelling with specialty coffee importer Nordic Approach between farms, factories, the Nairobi Coffee Exchange and warehouses storing coffee for export.
Here is an interview with the photographer in which he outlines his experiences and process when shooting coffee in Kenya.
Did you have a plan before setting out to Kenya, an idea of what you wanted to capture ahead of trip or did photographs come more naturally once you were making your visits?
When I travel anywhere I try to limit any pre-conceptions - even if I have very specific ideas about something I travel with the mindset that those ideas will probably change. When I travelled to Kenya I knew that I was going on a coffee related trip with market leading and well respected green coffee buyers Nordic Approach that I could expect to meet coffee farmers and visit farms and that those farms would be representative of some of the best coffee farms in Kenya. Pictures come very naturally once I pick up a camera - especially in a country as beautiful as Kenya.
How did you go about setting your itinerary?
As I travel to coffee origin it’s in collaboration with Nordic Approach - I piggyback on their trips to farms and exporters with coffee roasters from all over the world and then take detours to specific places once I’ve identified a unique angle or something peaks my interest. In Kenya I went to document the Nairobi Coffee Exchange and spent a long time at one of the mills in order to get the shots that I felt help to represent the narrative of Kenyan Coffee. Alternatively on my coffee trip to Colombia I flew to the port in Buenaventura and documented that aspect of the infrastructure, but that wasn’t arranged until a week into my visit.
Can you explain the layout of coffee in Kenya, in terms of locations, supply chain, volumes, markets and the changing status of the industry?
The economics of coffee are constantly changing - there is a very long answer to that question which I’m not really qualified to answer. One thing I will say is that the markets fluctuate drastically and the effects of that are felt throughout the supply chain.
What surprised you during the trip? What unexpected aspects struck you?
On the trip to Nairobi and the surrounding coffee region of Nyeri I was really inspired by the huge co-operative approach that I hadn’t really seen elsewhere. When you see a large community all sorting and weighing their coffee cherries it is remarkable that the co-op manage to maintain such a high quality with so many different people making an input. It really does speak volumes about how inherently good the conditions are in Kenya for growing coffee.
You’ve had exhibitions in Walthamstow & King’s Cross already and have published a book. Did you have a clear idea of how you wanted to display the photos when you were shooting?
When I was shooting I was only ever thinking about what I was seeing through the lens and getting the most honest and engaging representation of how I felt at the time of shooting. I was translating my observations in the first person into images. Those images are not objective documents but subjective expressions of my experience in that space at that time. When I was shooting I was engulfed by the moment and the book and exhibition are just my way of communicating that feeling as best I can.
How is photography uniquely positioned to tell the story of coffee in Kenya?
Kenya is has an incredibly complex story - I don’t think that photography can tell the story in its entirety but I do think an image can capture someone’s imagination, get your attention and give the impression of a story.
How has the trip informed your approach to photography?
Every trip whether to Kenya or Leeds informs me personally - it is isolated time away from my routine and completely dedicated to observation and learning. My personal experience then informs my photography practice and personal projects in a way that I can’t really quantify. The Kenya project specifically (not so much the trip) has highlighted the remarkable alchemy of art and the creative process, which since shooting in Nairobi in 2016 has very much taken control of me with the production of these exhibitions and books. I find it quite amazing that I was in a coffee field in Nyeri Kenya in 2016 and now I have a book in my hand that represents my visit in a way that I could never have imagined prior to booking the tickets to go on that trip. The process in its entirety from working out the itinerary to doing the final edit, picking the paper, identifying exhibition spaces, binding the book, designing the covers - all of it is about creative exploration, collaboration and learning and less about the end result.
What do you have upcoming / what can we look forward to?
Since working on the Kenya book Coffee Kenya: Kunywa Jasho Langu, I have been to Honduras and El Salvador documenting coffee production, which was another eye opening experience thanks to Nordic Approach, pictures from that will probably be released in late 2020 - I also hope to visit Ethiopia for coffee. Ethiopia is considered the spiritual home of coffee as a result of it being first discovered there. Aside from ongoing coffee projects, I have a new hard back edition of Pie & Mash which documents every single remaining pie and mash shop in London. Next year also marks the fifth anniversary of my first book, The Bookmakers Studio, which documented children book illustrators - this will get a super limited pre-release featuring new and extended content. Oh, and maybe a little second edition of Beber Mi Sudor: Coffee Colombia which is also looking really interesting.The main thing for now is to share the release of Coffee Kenya: Kunywa Jasho Langu with as many people as possible, officially released in April 2020…
Find out more about Jake Green and his work, visit jake.green. All images Copyright Jake Green.