It’s difficult to imagine that master photographer Sebastião Salgado ever did anything but make pictures. But before he picked up a camera, he studied economics in Paris and worked for the International Coffee Organization, traveling to major coffee producing countries in Africa. Salgado’s parents owned a coffee mill in his native Brazil, so his coffee industry career came naturally. In the introduction to his new book, The Scent of a Dream: Travels in the World of Coffee, he explains that his first job as a child was to help his father by drying beans and sewing the jute bags used to transport them. “This is how I earned my first modest wages,” he recalls. Later, on his trips to Africa as a coffee industry economist, he began making photographs, launching his second career as an internationally acclaimed artist.
Salgado reconnected with the coffee industry three decades after he made the switch to photography in 1972. He began a project that took him around the world photographing coffee plantations and the workers they employ. His images of majestic landscapes in Guatemala, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Tanzania, India, Brazil and other locales are pure Salgado, epic in scale and filled with light and shadow. That coffee producers have a major role to play in environmental stewardship is one of the themes of the book.
His portraits of the men, women and children who grow, process and hand select the beans are full of appreciation for their work and the lives they lead. The images in which he captures laborers at work and at rest amid the incredible landscapes are often heroic. Salgado writes that in his travels he was “struck by the similarities of the coffee farmers’ lives” from one country to the next, and his images, presented without captions (which are listed in the back of the book), give a sense of an interconnected global community of coffee producers. As a child, Salgado was part of this community, and his images reflect that connection and appreciation. “For them, coffee is inseparable from their lives,” he writes. “The grains in every cup of coffee were once touched by human hands. To those hands, I dedicate this book.” —Conor Risch