Editor’s note: A different version of this article originally appeared in Daily Coffee News on August 4, 2020.


Consent and Participation: On Photography at Origin

Consent in photography is a complex topic, and one that has been explored in great depth by anthropologists, philosophers, legal minds, and academics of all casts. It is also a relevant topic for those of us in the coffee industry – especially those of us in marketing. While most of us don’t particularly have the time or bandwidth to perform an academic study regarding consent in coffee photography, we should at least take the time to understand some of the issues that surround the act of taking a photograph.

As someone who has been involved in photography for most of my life and around coffee for much of my working life, I have been reconsidering some of the underlying issues related to consent, art and ethics in photography in communities where coffee is produced. After all, our subjects are certainly worth the time we spend thinking about them.


My Personal History with Photography

Perhaps unwittingly, I began fomenting on these issues almost immediately upon picking up a camera. My first camera was a plastic point-and-shoot I got for Christmas in 1992, and I learned quickly that it wasn’t polite to simply shove a camera in someone’s face and take a shot with full flash. I call this my Weegee phase. Later, I also learned that I needed to take time to compose my shots carefully, as film and development wasn’t cheap. Read: I couldn’t sell enough lemonade on the street corner in the summertime to pay off my processing costs.

As I grew older, teenaged, and even more self-conscious, I opted to take fewer shots of people and more shots of nature and cats. Surely everyone can relate with a landscape or a cute animal, and I didn’t need to worry about consent (my cats didn’t have the opposable thumbs to sign a release form). Of course, I was young and still naïve to issues of consent, but I’d like to think that these ideas were jangling around somewhere in the back of my head. I always felt a bit awkward asking someone if I could take their photo. It seemed to take away the spontaneity, both for the photographer and the subject. Also, I started mowing lawns and washing dishes, which pays a little more than selling lemonade; this made my photography hobby a more reasonable expense.

Later, in college, I started to learn by watching some of my fellow photographer friends who were able to slip into social situations and photograph others without changing their expressions (shout out to M. Scott Brauer and Ryan Bressler). This showed me there was yet another skill to develop. The key seemed to be that they always had their camera at their hip, to the point that people around them almost expected to be photographed at any time, or at least were habituated to the sight of a camera.

At this time, I was working more on capturing what famed photojournalist Henri Cartier-Bresson coined as the “decisive moment” – when the stars align, and your perfect shot comes into the viewfinder. Setting up the camera in a situation where the perfect shot was bound to happen taught me patience, but that sometimes the perfect shot just wouldn’t happen. Capturing the decisive moment on film is an exercise in patience, and at this point in my journey, I had a clunky medium-format camera. Working as a barista and still with not much money to pay for lots of film and development, I thought it better to concentrate on composition.

The Problematic Democratization of Digital

Transitioning to digital took me a good long time. I wasn’t prepared to buy a digital SLR until it was affordable to get one that could print an 8×10” photo without too much loss in quality. Nearly all the photos I took were using a film camera – until 2007.

The way that digital opened up the photographic landscape was both democratizing and tyrannical, to my mind. People no longer had to concentrate on getting a shot, and could just take photos willy-nilly. Poor-quality digital photos proliferated on still-nascent social media. Pretty soon everyone was a photographer, but grumpy old me wasn’t having it.

I was through with college and headed on to Indonesia to study Balinese gamelan, but my college years and Susan Sontag’s On Photography were still fresh in my mind. One of the first arguments she makes in that piece is that ‘being educated by photographs Is not like being educated by older, more artisanal images.’ Perhaps I focused too much on trying to accomplish something more artisanal by not jumping headlong into digital media, rather than on the more salient points she makes throughout her piece: that to photograph is to collect, appropriate, distort, and idealize the world. The medium lends itself to these things by abstracting our relationship with the real world. As she so succinctly put it: “Needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is now addicted.” I was then, and I am now.

So just like coffee I’m not resisting the allure of my fix, but rather dive headlong into it with all the problems intact.

Marketing Through Coffee Photography

One particular encounter struck me. I was speaking with a coffee roaster about using photos of coffee producers in marketing materials. I shared my consternation about including photos of these people without their consent, without their names, and without knowing if they felt comfortable. This person’s perspective was different. The photos of these people would help to sell their coffee – and this by itself isn’t wrong. I wouldn’t be here writing this if photos like these did not help to sell coffee. Laying aside the issues of consent for a moment, we should understand why photos like this attract people. Setting aside the issues of consent for a moment, let’s consider why photos like these attract certain people.

So: Why exactly would seeing the photo of this producer entice someone to purchase coffee? Does the photo reflect on how close we are to the source? Is this photo incontrovertible proof of our company’s proximity to production? More abstractly, does one somehow feel closer to the producer themselves upon seeing a photo like this? Are we attempting to live vicariously through these photos, much as we would looking at luxury hotels on some curated Instagram page?

These photos occupy a space somewhere in between confirmation bias and meme culture – we feel happy when we see a photo of a producer with a good cherry selection, we recognize attention to detail and manual dexterity when we see someone hand-sorting freshly hulled coffee. We then make the logical jump to believing that this is the very coffee we are buying and drinking, produced by the same people in the photos.

I would argue that origin photography of producers without consent and documentation is inherently exploitative, especially when used for sales. This content exists to confirm our narrative and our view of the ‘reality of coffee production.’ Unless, of course, those photos are taken by the producers themselves or someone participating in their community, and for the benefit of the community.

Leaving aside your local farmers’ market, the food production supply chain is far beyond being able to assure a consumer that their food comes from any particular person. To believe otherwise is to fool ourselves, and to misunderstand the complexity of the supply chain. Origin photography helps to close that gap for the consumer, but only with photos that confirm our narrative – it’s not often that we see photos of ports or container ships, for example.

Lots are blended and mixed, products change hands and are repackaged, but there are counterexamples. We can say with confidence that some lots we procure are indeed from particular people, or at least that a particular person or family is responsible for getting this coffee to market. The Catracha Coffee Project is a great example – we know for certain that these coffees came from particular people. We can also say that we have visited these people year after year, have asked politely to take their photos, and conveyed the purpose of the photos in question.

It would be disingenuous, however, to assert that a Guatemala SHB stocklot came from one particular farmer, and we should make the distinction between types of producers very clear in this case. While there may be one producer responsible for the final milling, packaging, and export of this coffee, we cannot rightly call that person a farmer. But we can refer to them as producers without qualms.

Thinking in terms of the music industry, this producer’s station is much more akin to a music producer – they alter the raw product, refine it, prepare it for delivery, and the result is a finished, consumable product. This is not easy work, and just like music producers, there are producers of large blended lots that should also get recognition. Who’s the Dr. Dre or Rick Rubin of Brazil 17/18s? Who’s the Prince of Sumatra Mandheling? Let’s give them credit.



This is all leaving aside the core issue of consent. Before taking a photo, perhaps we need to ask if these people want notoriety, if they want attention, or if they want to be associated with their work in our industry. I have worked alongside many excellent baristas who didn’t want to be seen as such. As much as we revere these positions in our industry, my fellow baristas and roasters were artists, musicians, and academics first in their own eyes. We would be wise to remember that this same attitude could be applied to any industry; people are not their work. As Maya Angelou said “I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as making a ‘life.’ Yes, Aida Batlle is very good at her job – and I’m pretty sure she wants to be seen that way, too. Would she have consented to an article in the New Yorker if that wasn’t so?

Our photography at origin only tells one story. This story is captured not only through the lens of our camera, but through the lens of our experience, our interpretation of the world around us. While Sontag’s argument that “Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it” no longer holds up in an era where digital manipulation is so widespread as to be expected, the rest of the quote is apropos: “But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no.”

So, frequently on trips to origin, I put down the camera and participate in the moment. I do say No, not every second needs to be documented and altered by the insertion of a camera. That this moment doesn’t need to be seen through my lens. I think of this in terms of the participatory versus the voyeuristic, and Sontag made a comment regarding war photography that “photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention” in that very same essay. The implication is that either you participate in the moment and intervene where needed, or you get that shot. Eventually our work becomes this: how do we use photography as an intervention, and as a participatory act?

If our origin photography isn’t a participatory act with a collaborative bent meant to benefit the communities we are visiting, should we be visiting these communities at all? There are so many excellent photographers at origin for us to build relationships with, as well. Some of the best photos we have from origin at Royal are commissions from photographers who live and work in these communities. Why not trust them, and support their local economy in this way as well?

When I began to write this article months ago, we had no idea that COVID-19 was coming. We weren’t listening deeply enough to the experiences of our BIPOC friends and family, and we still aren’t. We didn’t know that there would be ramifications for origin travel, or that some of our closest friends at origin would be affected so negatively. But we are just beginning to understand the long-lasting effects this pandemic will have on our habits; this is the perfect time for reflection and examining how we relate to one another through coffee, through technology, and through clear communication.



So What Do We Do?

So with all the above stated, it seemed necessary to take action in order to change the way we relate to origin on this issue, rather than just talking. Geography and language are no longer daunting barriers to overcome; technology has afforded us the means to make these relationships more equitable, and all we require now is the will to change.

I would like to introduce a resource for coffee buyers, as well as for photographers at origin. This list is only a start, but for those of you looking for an honest and clear look at the places you buy coffee from, it can be an invaluable tool. The professional photographers listed here work with globally renowned publications to provide top level photojournalism. They are also current residents of (and in most cases, were born in) coffee producing countries. If you’re looking for an opportunity to build a relationship with the community you’re buying coffee from, why not engage with someone who lives there?

And for photographers at origin, don’t hesitate to contact us at photos@royalcoffee.com with your portfolio and contact, and even a little bit about you. We’d love to get you added to our database, and provide references for photography commissions!

While it is sad to say that we may not be traveling for some months still, this is a prime opportunity to gain an understanding through the lens of another. Take a look through some of the portfolios below – you might find a kindred soul half a planet away.