Steve McCurry travelled to 12 countries in three continents to photograph the daily lives of people who produce the world's coffee. Spanning 30 years, it's been a dream assignment, he tells David Clark

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Elderly man in a green room, steve mccurry

Portrait of an elderly man sitting in a green rom in Ethiopia, 2013. Photos by Steve McCurry

Coffee is one of the world’s most valuable commodities. Its production and sale is a huge global industry that continues to grow. People around the world now drink 500 billion cups of coffee a year; in the UK alone, we spend over £1 billion a year on coffee consumption.

It provides a livelihood to more than 25 million people around the world, with 90% of those living in developing countries. Steve McCurry’s new book, From These Hands: A Journey Along the Coffee Trail, focuses on people who grow and harvest coffee. His pictures show farmers, farm workers and their families, most of whom work hard for little money and live simple lives in rural areas. McCurry’s images, taken over a 30-year period, give an insight into their daily lives, at work and leisure, with humanity and warmth of spirit evident throughout his work.

When we meet, McCurry, long established as one of the world’s top photojournalists, is in London to promote his book, en route to mainland Europe. His schedule is hectic and recent assignments have taken him to Ethiopia, the United Arab Emirates and Russia. ‘As usual, I’ve been travelling too much and not getting enough sleep, but it’s fun,’ he says. ‘I’m always glad to do work in places that are inspiring.’

Coffee producers

His book on coffee producers, he explains, gradually took shape over a long period and was a mixture of commercial and personal work.

‘I had been working in many coffee-producing regions without realising it, going back to the late ’70s, in countries such as India, Burma and Vietnam,’ he says.

‘About 12 years ago, I started working with [Italian coffee company] Lavazza on the ¡Tierra! project, which aims to help small local coffee producers use better farming techniques and get a better yield. Then, when they get more money in their pocket and are producing at the highest levels possible for them, they can provide a better life for their families.

‘The brief was to photograph coffee producers, where they lived, every aspect of their lives. For me,
it was a kind of dream assignment where the only requirement was to show who these people were and how they lived.’

McCurry spent a few weeks each year on the assignment. Gradually, he realised he had the basis for a book, but more work was needed. To complete it, he used his own money to travel around coffee-producing regions and spent time getting to know people in a relaxed and unpressurised way. By the time the book was finished, he had photographed coffee workers in eight countries, including Ethiopia, India, Vietnam, Columbia, Honduras, Peru and Brazil.

Approach and technique

Looking at McCurry’s pictures, it’s clear that he has a unique ability to connect with his subjects and get the best out of them. To some extent, the pictures are a reflection of his relationship with the people he photographs. How, I asked him, did he choose his subjects?

‘Sometimes there were just people that somehow spoke to me,’ he says. ‘I met hundreds of these workers, but with some people there was this connection and attraction. It’s hard to describe, but I always try to be hyperaware of people’s faces and the stories that are written on them.

‘For example, there was one Indian woman who was very well turned out and stylish in her own way. She was someone who gets up every day and works basically as day labour, yet takes such care of how she looks. I thought it was kind of wonderful that she would take the time and effort to do that.’

The pictures, whether taken indoors or out, are beautifully lit and often have attractively coloured backgrounds. Interestingly, McCurry says that he usually chose the location and the light before he chose his subjects.

‘I photographed these people where I found them,’ he says.

Farmers spread coffee, steve mccurry

Farmers spread coffee beans to dry in Brazil, 2010

‘Part of the key is to find the light first and then to find the action and the people. In the homes, you can find really incredible light. All the interior light in the shops and kitchens is all completely natural and it’s just wonderful by itself. It’s not so much about directing people and moving them around, it’s more about going to a restaurant or coffee shop and spending half an hour looking and waiting.

‘In one town, I literally went from coffee shop to coffee shop. I went in and sat down and ordered a drink. Sometimes things came together and sometimes they didn’t, but I found if I persisted, I would eventually find a picture.’

McCurry has always been fastidious about only using natural light in his pictures and even avoids bouncing light with reflectors. However, he has recently started to use small, portable LEDs to add a little extra illumination to a face or object in a scene.

From These Hands features images produced since 1984, spanning both film and digital eras. McCurry estimates a third were shot on film and two-thirds on digital. Although formerly known to be an avid user of Kodachrome film (he was given the last roll of the iconic film ever made and the contents of that film were published in National Geographic), he’s now a great enthusiast for digital capture. ‘It’s a huge, huge benefit to work in digital,’ he continues. ‘Not only can you work in extremely low light, you don’t have to worry too much about colour temperature, filters for tungsten lighting, and so on. We can also now evaluate focus, light and composition.

‘Some of my favourite pictures from previous years, taken with film, were back focused because I was shooting in a dark place and I couldn’t really tell if they were in focus. In some cases, these pictures can’t be enlarged too much as it shows. With digital, I have time to check it, or if the light’s not quite right, I can change it. So that’s a major benefit.’

One of the things that stands out in the book is McCurry’s ability to make insightful, well-composed pictures, which often incorporate rich and vibrant colours. He says he’s able to do this partly because of his long experience of photography.

‘When you’ve been working with colour photography for 35 years, your mental computer is trained to look for things simultaneously. You’re evaluating light, the composition, what people are wearing and a person’s expression all at the same time.

‘It’s not about pumping up the colour in post production; a lot of the saturated quality of these images comes from recognising where the good pictures are, and how the light is going to affect and enhance the colour in a location.’

McCurry does very little post production work on his images. ‘I try to keep it pretty much the way it was when I made the picture,’ he says. ‘When pictures start to look too overproduced or too worked, I think people tend to stop looking at the image, or what you were doing, and just think how false it looks. In the end, we want people to get lost in the story and the person. Everything else should really take a back seat.’

McCurry recently turned 65 but still spends most of each year travelling, both on assignment and on his personal projects. He has no plans to change his itinerant lifestyle but says he now has to choose projects more carefully than ever. ‘When you get to a certain age, you realise that you don’t have a lot of time to waste,’ he says, ‘so you have to concentrate on the things you really want to do.’

Capturing the moment

A farmer's son in his father's truck, Steve McCurry

‘A Farmer’s Son in his Father’s Truck, Lambari, Brazil’, 2010

‘I spent quite a bit of time with a coffee farmer and his family in Brazil, photographing them in their home and out in the fields,’ says McCurry. ‘The farmer’s son had an incredible face. In this picture, the boy and his father were sitting in a kind of vintage truck. The truck was interesting, the father was interesting and I noticed the way the kid had his hand on the mirror. Everything just came together. I took a lot of pictures of this family, but I thought this was the one that really got it.’

Biography

Born in Philadelphia, USA, in 1950, Steve McCurry became a professional photojournalist in 1976. Since then, he has travelled extensively on assignments around the world. His work includes photographing the conflict in Afghanistan in 1979, the First Gulf War in 1991 and the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks in New York. He has been a full member of Magnum Photos since 1986 and is a senior contributor to National Geographic magazine. His awards include the Robert Capa Gold Medal and several First Prize awards in the World Press Photo competition. His books include Portraits (1999), The Unguarded Moment (2009) and Untold: The Stories Behind the Photographs (2013).

Steve McCurry headshot

From These Hands, A Journey Along the Coffee Trail by Steve McCurry is published by Phaidon, £39.95