To travel with coffee is to see everyday life.

Visiting a country as a specialty coffee trader is completely different from visiting it as a tourist. One of my colleagues once told me that ‘to travel with coffee is to see everyday life’ and there is something to it. I have traveled all across the world as a tourist, but never gotten to know local people and their culture in the same way as on my trips to our producers.

That can be both positive and negative. I have seen total poverty in Ethiopia and feared firsthand the crime of El Salvador. Experiences like that can make you want to shut down your emotions in self-defense. But I have also met passionate people and seen how coffee can improve people’s lives. I have gained wonderful, unforgettable memories. And not least insights and perspectives on both coffee and my own life.

My name is Jonatan Låstbom and I am, since 2009, a photographer and Art Director at Johan & Nyström.

I want to tell about one of my experiences of the people behind the coffee and life next to the coffee farms, which I’ve gotten to see and experience when I’ve joined as a photographer.

A powerful memory is the trip to Indonesia. We were heading to Aceh, in the northern part of the coffee-producing island of Sumatra. The only thing I had heard beforehand was that there are strict religious laws there. I had thought that it would result in a stifling public silence. But I was met by hustle and bustle everywhere I looked. Flags in bright colors dotted the side of the road. Hundreds of mopeds with loud engines swooshed past me with complete disregard for safety or traffic rules. And, whilst alcohol was banned, people filled the restaurants and cafés, talking and playing board games. The atmosphere was calm and harmonious, yet fully alive. 

In Sumatra, Fairtrade cooperatives are common, which should mean a more even distribution of income where members elect a board democratically and all share the profits. From a previous visit to Ethiopia, I remembered that Fairtrade did not always look as good in reality as on advertising pillars: there they still often seemed to live in severe poverty. Not everyone seemed to get a share of the cooperative's income due to corruption and other problems. In Sumatra, however, it was obvious that Fair Trade co-ops work pretty well and made a big difference. Members own their own homes, farms, and tools, and they are able to build schools and infrastructure.

I did not know how we would be received in Aceh. I feared that, because of the cultural differences, I would not find the warmth of everyday life that I had experienced elsewhere. I have encountered varying degrees of openness during farm visits. Some people like to keep things strictly professional; they gladly show us their farms, their coffee, and their processing facilities but then bid us farewell. Others throw a party, invite us to spend the night, and treat us like family. Our hosts in Sumatra definitely fell in the latter camp.

When a co-op member’s relative tragically passed away during out visit, she invited us to the funeral the next day. We felt a bit lost, but mainly honoured, as we made our condolences in the silent co-op building. Just a few days later, we were invited to a wedding in the village. We ate and talked and danced and partied long into the night.

There was an openness in Aceh that filled me with joy. As we flew back home from Sumatra, I flipped through the pictures on my camera to see if I had pictures that resembled what I felt inside. But the strongest impressions were difficult to capture in a photo. I had experienced community, change and openness in the country where I least expected it.

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