Coffee + Photography = ?


I like to take pictures, I like to travel, and I sell coffee. On its face, myself and many others do the same in a straightforward way, especially when we go to a specific farm or mill where we are buying. We point our cameras at the farmer, at their trees, and their dog, at their wet-pulper machine, at their family members, and we take a picture.

Use of “origin” pictures has some implicit baggage. For me, it’s less specious when they are a diverse set of pictures, and when they seek to inform about broader issues. The photos take on a different meaning when used directly to sell a product. Why choose one particular image out of hundreds? What is it about the images I don’t choose that makes them less than ideal? What is the ideal?

I feel that posing these questions is a good part of any creative process. They are not a means to stop creative production, or making the enjoyment of a good-lookin’ coffee photo somehow an act of bad conscience …not at all! But the value is recognize the way in which photographs are being used, what might motivate editing choices, and open up alternatives where I didn’t see them before. There are benefits to these forms of critical thinking, yet it seems somehow taboo, as if the only aim was to find fault with others or oneself. That’s a shame because it’s nearly impossible to form an understanding of what’s at stake without context; Google images provided me with a nice backdrop for looking at some of my photo editing decisions…


A couple months ago we needed a new postcard to send with orders and I chose this one from San Gaspar Guatemala of a farmer who I really liked, Herculano. That’s all good – the image was a reminder of a very positive encounter with a person I had good feelings toward. Something about this image just begged to be featured on the front of the card, but it was so pat, bordering on cliche, reminiscent of so many “coffee farmer pictures” I had seen. It was unchallenging. I decided to use it because another I liked better had focus issues. But something about it continued to bother me. And since we put these up at SM and I see it all the time, it kept bothering me.

For coffee buyers and sellers in general, we don’t take “origin” images for our own edification, or to show our loved ones where we just went. We take these pictures to use along with descriptions of a product, with a price attached. People buy the product, what will ultimately go inside the cup; they don’t buy the pictures. And yet we don’t sell coffee without a description, and at SM we don’t often sell it without imagery too. Whether a coffee business puts this additional content, pictures and words, on a bag of coffee for sale, or on a web site, on a wall, the imagery has found an important place in communicating the quality and social goodness of what we sell.

At this point in coffee retailing, it would seem odd not to have these add-ons There was a point in the so-called specialty coffee movement when the roasted bean itself was the image. Coffee was sold whole bean and that somehow had some meaning, a return to the “truth” of the substance, something honest evidenced by a barrel and a scoop of “whole bean coffee”. And to keep the bins looking full and that dark oily coffee looking as it should, the rack of false-front polycarbonate plastic bulk bean bins became standard fare at supermarkets, always full.

But in few retail environments, or online, would it suffice to just show the coffee itself without some explicit or implied narrative about “origin,” because all the coffee comes from somewhere, and for some reason we must tell about it.

Why? I would advance the idea it comes from an era of greater suspicion about fairness in global trade, which was at its height in the crash of New York C Market coffee prices in the early 2000s, at a time when the economies in buying countries peaked (very roughly speaking). There was also an intensification of a sense of global disparity that peaked at the Battle for Seattle the year before, protests of the WTO meetings. Before then, there was an emerging narrative about “estate coffee”, an unabashedly elitist notion that good quality came from the idyllic “haciendas” of the third-world’s colonialist old guard, a romance that was impossible to maintain alongside this new sense that U.S. consumerism was funding poverty and violent suppression in the coffee-growing nations.

Fear and Guilt

Many consumers have always had a general concern about where things they buy come from, sometimes out of a low-level fear of the purity and safety of products (lead paint in toys, e-coli, BPA). But there is also a sense that consumer goods might be produced in exploitative environments, and the retail price paid is not shared with the producers of goods. Fair Trade and other pricing models certified the “goodness” of a product in this regard, even if consumers didn’t fully understand what the FT logo on the bag actually meant. It also allayed fears of exploitation and conferred an aura of general “goodness” on those who opted to buy certified items. The product purity they assured was that of conscience, and it wasn’t evident in the “whole beans” or the taste, but in the FT logo (…or Rain Forest Alliance, or Organic Certification, or in that of the company such as Starbucks*).

If you consider that coffee is a non-essential luxury good, a small added perk to the day, it is indeed hard to imagine many US consumers deeply enjoying a sip of their coffee with the image of women being beaten and malnourished child-laborers attached to the production of their morning cup. It sounds ridiculous, but those images (and more gruesome) exist in the awareness of many with a connection to Ethiopia (famine), India (Bhopal), Nicaragua (the Contras), or Colombia (Guerrilla Warfare). The disparity between a relatively stable and fruitful life in the US in contrast to this imagery of global strife in countries that produce raw material for our enjoyment is a powerful force that often has implicit concern and guilt attached to it.

In our coffee merchandising, there are two basic threads to communicate: the story of where the coffee comes from and the qualities of the substance itself. In our reviews this takes the form of “farm notes”, and a mix of taste notes with numerical measurements of quality.

At one time it might have been good enough to sell your bulk oily whole bean coffee with an origin description like “Guatemala.” That was enough. People could use whatever experience they had with the descriptor “Guatemala” as a differentiator of “taste” quality and make a buying decision. Now, when you hear people say such open-ended judgements of taste like “Guatemala coffee is so good”, it’s hard to understand what they mean. And in fact, the idea of coffee trees having nationalities is more than a little farcical. (And yet current trends in micro-descriptors are no more or less farcical as these function to distinguish classes of people, of “tasters”, as much as actual factors of differences in coffee).

Now the story of coffee origin is compartmentalized into small chunks that talk about altitudes and latitudes, micro-regions, soils and climate, co-ops and farms, individual farmers, their personal relations with community and kin.


Perhaps more significant, and the title of this here article, is the photographic imagery. It might be true that the photographer simply went to the place a coffee came from and took pictures. But photography is not the naively direct showing of “the way things are”. It never has been and cannot be, as it is a mechanical form of representation. Example: If I could rip up a coffee tree and bring it to show you, I would be presenting it. If I take a picture of the tree and show it, I am representing it. I stood in one place for the photo, not another. I made a rectangle around what I wanted to include to show you. When I did that I made a decision to exlude around 260 degrees of surrounding context, what I didn’t want to show in order to focus my lens on what I wanted you to see. Even if the photographer has little intention (if you have seen photos by a 5 year old you know this type of imagery!) besides pointing the camera and shooting a picture, the act of choosing and displaying some images, not others, involves representational selection.

When it comes to showing the source of coffee, the farm and farmer, there is a concentration of themes. A reading of the visual elements of these images is interesting, both in the meta-themes they suggest, and how they stand in contrast to the dramatic images of crisis and poverty in countries that produce raw materials.

Here is a screenshot of the top results in Google Images for “Coffee Farmer”:

The general theme here is a the peaceful collection of nature’s bounty. Coffee is uniformly ripe in rich, luscious red, carefully foregrounded. The work is easy, as if coffee ripened just at the perfect height for easy picking. No “farmer” needs to squat or extend themselves much or otherwise contort their bodies in their harvest labor. Generally, the work seems pleasing, and they harvest and hold the coffee in an almost sensuous way. When the farmers hold the coffee, they offer it up in a willing, unguarded way, implying a kind of complicity in their labor. In only one image is there a sense of tension, because the faces of labor are obscured (yet the coffee is still offered up in baskets, willingly). In other all other cases, recognizing the faces of the farmer in their contentment seems strategically important, signifying that producing coffee is pleasing, and is work toward their happiness.

The intense greens and rich reds, the saturated sunlight, the cultural objects like baskets, hats, and dresses all communicate a vibrant and fertile environment: Perhaps this seems like a compensation in itself above the actual payment for coffee? A privilege to live in a beautiful place, one worth photographing and romancing, all demonstrated in the photographs as if “that’s they way it is”, rather than something constructed by photographic choices and by editing. For me, this situates these coffee farmer photos in a history of exoticism, a soft-focus idealization of the faraway in the broadest terms.

Coffee Farm

The Google image search for “coffee farm” communicates a verdant lushness of plentitude as well, with the surprising presence of overview, landscape images of softly rolling hills. In one image you can see mechanical harvesters. The “coffee farm” search results show images of a crop more akin to rolling fields of grain or corn, North American harvests, a farm method more familiar the rural midwest US (in fact a few images are Hawaii).

I am not really sure of what to make about the stunning absence of people in the “coffee farm” search. Suddenly they just don’t exist. Labor isn’t hidden, it’s largely gone, except in the oddly repeated image of faceless, disembodied hands holding up their harvest.

This shows another a desire for familiarity as well in the image of the farm. This is what struck me in my own image of Herculano as well, how much he appears as a square-jawed cowboy, resolutely and contentedly surveying his land in this saturated evening light. His hat is tipped back, he looks like he could fit in as an extra in a John Wayne film (if there was a John Wayne film on a coffee farm, ha!) What’s wrong with the image is the extent to which nothing is wrong, how well it meets expectations, how familiar it is, how this coffee comes from a sqaure-jawed cowboy that one might really want to meet, not a culturally exotic person, not the other, but one of “us”.

In contrast, there was a very beautiful image of a coffee pulper machine operator in Kenya we used recently on a different postcard. It has the hallmarks of many other cliches as well, so I am not going to call it a “challenging” image (aka Man and Machine). But his gaze is straight on, dead set, and could even be read as confrontational. Although at rest, he looks like someone who has been doing hard physical work, in contrast to the placid images of coffee labor in the “Coffee Farmer” Google result. He stands a little too upright, a bit formal and apprehensive. He is grimacing a bit, as if the pose is painful for him. It begs the question, does he want to be photographed working, in his work clothes, with sleeves rolled up? Is this how he wants to be seen? This draws a contrast against the ease and complicity of smiling farmer images framed with their lush red coffee cherry or offering up their handfulls or baskets of fruit.

While reading the visual vernacular of an image, bringing it into language, might be something for advertising campaign managers or for academics, I think it’s clear to consumers when an image is not “right”, either because is ineptly chosen, but also because it might run contrary to the most effective narrative used to sell coffee.

These infractions suggest how dominant the “standard” images are. While a focus on ripe coffee cherry emphasizes contact with nature, freshness and quality of the coffee product, the images of workers in coffee production seems to have promise of hope and contentment (smiles, lots of smiles), but also latent anxiety. The anxiety helps to produce the problem that the consumptive act will alleviate, especially in the case of Fair Trade coffee.

Did Fair Trade Make the Mould?

Whether a coffee is Fair Trade or not, I think of the visual language around depictions of coffee farmers as greatly shaped by the Fair Trade marketing efforts. It’s worth a look at the language to see what the photograph’s role is in the cycle of ethical consumption.

On Fair Trade USA site, the coffee introduction reads:

“Your rich cup of Fair Trade coffee can help farmers escape poverty. Most small-scale family farmers live in remote locations and lack access to credit, so they are vulnerable to middlemen who offer cash for their coffee at a fraction of its value. Fair Trade guarantees farmers a minimum price, and links farmers directly with importers, creating long-term sustainability. Through Fair Trade, farmers earn better incomes, allowing them to hold on to their land and invest in quality.”

To break this down … you can enjoy your “rich” cup, use your wealth to indulge yourself without action on your part (you pay your way out with a slightly higher price), as it is offset by “helping” the poor, via an “escape”, the way out of poverty opened up by Fair Trade, and funded by you, the consumer. Rest assured, you didn’t perpetrate this against the poor (whew …not guilty!), but if you do not help the farmer who is vulnerable to preying middlemen (who are guilty) due to their geographical remoteness, then you are taking this rich cup, yet shutting the door to giving. The terms of this exchange establish a clear “us,” the consumer being spoken to, and “them”, the farmer in their remote, faraway place. We esentially pay them to stay there on their farm, preserving our distance. The two circular arrows of FT logos signify this return cycle of a simplified view of global trade, givers and takers, winners and losers. Your choice to purchase a FT product means that, incorporated into the price, is a dose of good conscience, one that purports to prevent an economic crime by “middlemen” (which you are party to if you are buying non-FT coffee?) and a second travesty, the potential loss of farm (and home).

My search for Fair Trade Coffee included this pair of images side by side, which communicated this consumptive and redemptive cycle quite well:

(The imagery of children in Fair Trade campaigns has been a powerful connection for consumers, as the powerlessness of a child invokes the need to care, and to provide institutions of caring, schooling, as well as prevent exploitation. It’s now uncommon, perhaps because it’s too manipulative, to use pictures of child labor in coffee fields, which is in fact common during peak harvest. In coffee, it’s more common to see the “comforting” image of smiling children in these contexts. But I saw a video recently that struck me as extremely exploitative in a different way, because it typecasts “our children”, priveleged ones who have the advantaged lives that allow charitable caring to be possible, making strongly “shaming” statements that, in other media narratives, adults would not be allowed to say. These lines would read as blatantly righteous things from adults, and easy to reject, but somehow okay for children to repeat: It’s quite a “use” for kids.)

Focus on the (Smiling) Farmer

The Google Image search for “Fair Trade Coffee farmer” has an amazing concentration of images of farmers in easy, untaxed work poses.

The repeat appearances by the same farmer, from the same photo shoot are noteworthy as these are basically stock images for sale that have been tagged “Fair Trade Coffee Farmer”. There’s no actual identification of the farmer by name, or if they are a member of a FT coop. If they are not a member, then they don’t get a FT premium, nor a “second payment” distribution if a coffee sells as Fair Trade. (Only a portion of the coffee produced by FT coops sells as FT, and it seems to be a dwindling percentage as there is a glut of FT coffee on the market. FT is overproduced). Scrolling down these Google search results, the uniformity of images, the hands offering up the coffee with pleasure and willingness, the ease of work and smiles of pleasure, the happiness to pose during work, is remarkable. Even the search for Fair Trade Coffee Farm, which just shows farmland mostly without the FT, is loaded with the “content producer” theme, as this serves a proxy assurance that the critical act, the consumer opting for the FT product, has it’s promised result. The purchaser can’t be sure s/he actually made anyone happy buying the pound of coffee, if anyone was delivered from poverty, or was able to keep their farm. So the image is the connective presence that offsets the alienating remoteness of buying global products. It makes sense that farmer images are so important in the ethical consumer act. It’s that telegraphed answer from afar.

Anxiety Ads In General

None of this is new, but coffee seems peculiar to me. I’m really unqualified to launch into this …but here it is anyway: The most prosaic mode of advertising imagery was simple association, to increase the allure of the product by positioning it amongst desirable or attractive stuff. (Well usually that stuff was ‘women objectified’, if the market was male buyers). So basic media criticism that advanced the “reading of photographic signifiers” was developed looked at dominant media sources. Extending Roland Barthes Camera Lucida, I was exposed to writers like Stuart Hall on media criticism.

It seems that ubiquitous close-up image of ripe coffee cherry belongs to this level of association. It’s a little but like canned fruit/vegetable labels. It’s deceptiveas the fruit on a label of Del Monte canned tomatoes, for example, is not the what’s inside, that the image is impossibly good. The pictured fruit is supposed to represent the taste quality of the contents. In coffee, the picture might be taken by the coffee buyer of the company, might be at the farm location, so it has some added authority, perhaps. Yet the same process of manipulation occurs as the cherry photo is framed, cropping out the rest of the world to form a simple association with something attractive that adds luster to the product.

But in the case of marketing the coffee farmers, especially to address the possible anxiety of the consumer due to this global gap and resulting anxiety of a “right to enjoyment”, it is more difficult for me to come up with analagous products. Marketing to consumer anxiety has a long history of course. Coffee brand advertising capitalized on fear of domestic turmoil, laying blame on women for lack of coffee-making skill (as an obviously lame stand-in for sexual pleasure). Most ads targeted body image of all genders, especially women and teens. These cash in on personal anxieties promulgated in the culture, and the anxiety between self and other: I cannot see myself as others see me, and they may think I am fat, so this garment will reshape me in to the ‘me-as-I-want-others-to-see-me.’ Here too, classic media criticism was and is an effective tool to expose the mechanism that exploits and heightens fears.

But what of this anxiety of a world where we don’t deserve our enjoyment unless we offset it with a “conscience premium”? Is it simply another aspect of our concern for our own well-being, that a global product might not be substantially tainted (i.e. BPA), but could infect our conscience similarily? Does the imagery and what is implied by it bring us closer to this “producer” or fix them into a cast, the role of a faraway person in a remote, exotic locale, doing work to make this product, and now that we have an image of their contentment, we are okay with our power to buy and enjoy these luxury items? What kind of images don’t work along these lines, but perhaps bring more depth to the relationship of production and consumption? And how does the role of media-critical techniques shift when the target is “ethical consumerism,” and industries that claim to provide a measure of economic justice, and general social goodness?

The End Is Disappointing

I write this because I followed an isolated train of thought that started at the coffee conference in Atlanta, and continued, but honestly I have no idea how to end this article. I guess it’s because, outside of academic writing (which I know little about), you end with some sort of dumb answer or “next steps.” I feel gratified just to acknowledge issues I sense in my own image decisions for SM, and what I see around me in my coffee dealings, things I feel are surrounded by a kind of muteness. It’s not judgement on practices, but an alternate description of them.

While morals are invoked in marketing coffee, to influence consumer practice, the substance of the exchange is not moral, which is not to say it is ideal, or even good. Really bad deceptive practices might be represented by effective, inspiring imagery (or logos), and thoughtful, opportunity-generating efforts in coffee work might be described by terrible, lame text and photos.

If I had to advocate for action, it would be to broaden the types of language and imagery used to sell coffee, to avoid the easy material and risk challenging consumers because (I believe) they can handle it! And image use has totally different implications in different contexts in meaning and scale, from illustrating the informative article or editorial, to a small company sharing pictures from an exciting trip they just took, to a Starbucks full page spread in New York Times.

The effort to look critically is toward opening up new passages and possibilities, not to close down options, nor to imply or enforce a “right” or “wrong” approach, or to make moral judgments behind that approach. For myself I had a note I wrote on my phone from 3 years ago that I keep there as a reminder, a call out to myself I guess, that reads “challenge your photo sensibilities.” Embarrassing …but useful.

I will still take pictures of farmers and macro pictures of coffee, as well as everything that inspires thought around me as I travel. And I’ll try to surprise myself and those who look around our site. We who buy and sell coffee can’t change to global nature of this trade, we are not saviours, and buying coffee from producers isn’t some morally “good” thing we do. We sell coffee, right? So we need to buy it as well. We can do that in a decent manner, in an eye-to-eye way with producers, without making a huge deal about our own goodness. We with small coffee businesses are lucky to have our own sphere of influence, decisions we make in how we represent what we do, and we can play with that to promote an informed awareness. Plus, mess with things and have fun. -T.O.

PS #1: I looked around at some coffee sites listed as “top coffee roasters” and found a trend away from using “origin photographs” as the central imagery to sell specific coffees. What I saw was pictures of packaged coffee, whether straight-forward labeled bags with certain design pretensions, or bags/boxes against beautiful retail backdrops. So it seems like the brand is back, and that we are being asked to ‘just believe’ in the brand again. Just as someone might have said “I’m a Folgers person” then, it’s “I buy Blue Bottle now” but obviously with completely different implications of “taste” and class associations. For examples of these “package picture” sites, try Sightglass, Stumptown, Blue Bottle, etc.

PS #2: Along with this move, some sites have shifted the focus to blends in a big way, which is also their gambit to shift toward brand trust. Its logistically easier in buying, packaging and marketing, you can cut costs on coffees, and it builds your name. It’s also a move away from transparency toward the opaqueness of the past.

*PS #3: Intellectual spazs and fake coffee drinker Slavoj Zizek had comments on the ideological “extra” sold with each cup of Starbucks from the film Perverts Guide to Ideology:Here is the clip on youtube. While claiming to be an old Hegelian Communist (?) his broader criticism of neo-liberal Western ideology is fresh stuff most of the time.

PS #4: I suppose I can’t go back and add this to my already-bloated piece, but it’s so creatively amusing to consider all those images “on the cutting room floor” and even more-so, those never taken. It’s trendy for to talk about “the coffee industry” and the “coffee supply chain” to imply a sense of real, bare-bones ‘businessiness’. But when we focus on that chain, or show that industry, we only open a peephole into life on the farm, or a close-up macro shot of espresso oozing out, or a vignette of a beautiful coffee bag. Details … not the actual industrial factors that moves coffee (and nearly every other commodity and finished product), not the shipyards, not the jute processing factory in India, not the diesel pumping station for those container ships, not tarmac roads in Tanzania, not the offices at Maersk, not the plastics factory, not the shop where the Izusu local truck gets repaired, not the contracts, not the shipping documents etc etc. Of course we wouldn’t and we can’t in most cases. But at the SCAA show I see all the manufacturers of global goods that wrap, strap, pack and move coffee, true “industrial” factors in the coffee supply chain, making their meetings quietly off on the side, while the throwdowns, competitions, cuppings might be seen as a new veneer. This is really a different article tho…

PS #5: There is an article The Problems With Fair Trade Coffee to download on this pagewhich I read in writing this. It’s more about FLO vs. FT-USA. I didn’t really mean to focus on certified coffee here, but the imagery lead me to look at FT marketing. I am writing here about the FT marketing material, not on the benefits (or deficiencies) on what FT delivers. That is a different thing completely.

PS #6: I keep messing with this article. I don’t know why. If you have comments or contradictions,