The Human Side Of Coffee: Sebastião Salgado

There is an entire world inside a cup of coffee. There are the fragrances and the exoticism of the marvelous places it comes from. There are a thousand years of history, geography, art, the families of thousands of people, of entire populations.

What has always struck me about the places where the best coffee is produced is the total, palpable communion between mankind and nature. An amazing sensation of harmony is conveyed by walking in a plantation, spending time with the people who work there, sniffing the humid air that is so characteristic of these places and admiring these true natural paradises. This wellbeing and equilibrium have been lost in our part of the world, but today regular people, intellectuals, economists and artists all dream of finding it once again.

It was in this spirit that we kicked off an ambitious project in 2001, when we asked Sebastião Salgado to collaborate with us by taking photographs of the farmers in the countries which contribute to making the illy blend. It was a journey through images to the lands of coffee, and its goal was to document the beauty of the nature and culture of these countries. The project took him Brazil, India, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Colombia, China, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Tanzania and Indonesia. Sebastião’s photographs focus on the people, their work, their activities of farming, harvesting, drying, selecting… The coffee we drink every day comes from these ancient gestures. Salgado’s lens reflects an important conviction: in order for a product to be good it must be sustainable, and coffee is a wealth only if it is produced in accordance with this principle.

SalgadoDuring the trip to India, my sister Anna, who accompanied him on these journeys, told me they would go to the plantations every day early in the morning to await the arrival of the harvesters, a river of women dressed in brightly colored saris. Salgado took photos of them as they walked up the access road. He had asked how to say “thank you” in Hindi and had written “dhanyavad” on his hand in order to thank the people whose pictures he took. Silence reigned in the harvest area; the only noise was the sound of ripe coffee cherries falling into the baskets. Sebastião asked why nobody sang and he began singing, explaining that in Brazil everybody sings during harvest. At first, he was the only one singing; but a short while later an old man stood up and followed his example, and just a few moments later everybody in the field was singing. It was a thrilling scene.

Everywhere he went, Salgado observed the impact of climate change, the unpredictable nature of the rainfall, the changes in the rainforest’s vegetation, the need to avoid deforesting the entire jungle for coffee cultivation so that insects could find their own habitat and not attack the cultivated plants.

Those first trips, and the many others to the plantations that followed, marked the beginning of our collaboration with Salgado and it culminated with the big exhibit at the Expo in Milan, which consists of large prints of the photographs Sebastião took as part of this twelve-year project spanning ten different countries. There are also four multimedia booths, dedicated respectively to his photographs, coffee locations in Trieste, the Trieste Coffee Exhibit, and an exhibition in the community conceived by the Trieste Coffee Cluster that “links” coffee locations in Trieste and uses oculus rift technology for virtual visits to the Coffee Cluster in Milan.

Over the course of the years, our collaboration has never stopped, just like our dream of making the planet more sustainable, even with coffee. In fact, over time, this objective has sealed our friendship and Sebastião’s photographs always remind me to look with love at the land and at the families who process the coffee. The wise and attentive hands and eyes of the farmers are our allies in the extraordinary challenge of producing the world’s best coffee, with reciprocal respect and for the happiness of all.

Andrea Illy with Sebastiao Salgado


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