Photographer Sean Hawkey has worked in international development, advocacy and humanitarian efforts in 40 countries, spending 10 years in Latin America alone. Now as a freelance photographer and communicator, Hawkey travels the globe documenting good works. Thanks to funding from Irish Aid, Hawkey, along with photographer James Rodriguez, traveled the whole of Central America making images and recording the stories of Fairtrade farmers. Hawkey has also made pictures of Fairtrade farmers and workers in Senegal and Peru. See more of Hawkey’s photos here.
You had an intense travel schedule throughout Central America, how did it go?
I drove over 50,000 kilometers going between Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador and about a third of the trip was in first gear because all of the roads were so rough. It was a long journey, but a fascinating one. I was able to take photos of most of the producer organizations and in many of them I’d visit several farms. We deliberately chose the harvest time for coffee, but also I covered cocoa, and honey. I’ve been stung by Africanized bees in the Peten jungle, made photos of sesame and peanut producers, cashews, cotton, and a variety of other products.
What type of ground did you cover for the majority of that 50,000 km?
Coffee typically! For a good coffee - the best ground is high, so typically we’d be going up steep mountain roads that aren’t paved. They’re just dirt paths, no gravel or anything. They’re easily washed away. Need to be frequently repaired to get product out of the farm. Almost none of the producers are near the good paved roads.
Then for cocoa, going down into Wasalala in Nicaragua is the worst road I’ve ever been on. It’s like driving across ploughed fields and stone quarries. I had three punctures on the way down. When I got there, people said, “What? You only brought one spare tire?!”
As a photographer, what do you experience in the field?
There’s a necessary process of sitting down and talking to people. If they’re coffee producers, they always like you to taste their coffee, but it does take time to build up a bit of rapport with people. As a photographer what I want to do is make best use of the golden hour, which is when the sun is low in the morning and in the afternoon because that’s the nicest to shoot in. But it’s difficult to get the farmer to understand the necessities of a photographer <with all of the demands of daily work>.
But I also wanted to show, in a lot of the images, what normal life is. I think these are a connecting point, reference points, like showing a woman in her kitchen to spend some time if she’s cooking a meal - that’s what people can relate to. It’s those normal everyday things that give us reference points to identify with people in Fairtrade across the world.
How did you get into photography and storytelling?
I began visiting Latin America for aid and development work, so I have a background in rural development. The best development work is getting those long-term decisions right, the political decisions and structural things rather than giving out food to people. It’s these long-term things that are most significant.
Anywhere I go, when I ask what people are most proud of, it’s normally about long-term structural changes and there is a really important role for communications here. You need to convince people of the usefulness of any project you’re doing. It’s an absolutely key part of it.
We need to show people evidence of how Fairtrade is changing people’s lives – and it really is changing tens of thousands of people’s lives. So that’s how I got into the process of taking photographs.
What do you see as the benefits of Fairtrade?
I think the whole Fairtrade process of becoming certified and the regular audits encourages people to think strategically about how they’re using the benefits of Fairtrade – The Premium and so on. Typically the cooperatives are small enough that they have a really good sense of what the needs on the ground are.
And that contrasts with the way a lot of development organizations work, which they send someone in from the outside to come in and look at what the needs are, which may contrast with what the real needs and priorities are.
But the strength of the Fairtrade model is that co-ops really understand because they’re part of it. They’re not detached in any way from the reality on the ground. They understand what the needs are and they can prioritize how that money is used effectively.
You have visited much of the world. What is the most impressive thing you observed on your trips for Fairtrade?
The value of women in their communities and their co-ops has changed enormously. And I’ve seen situations where, for example in Senegal, women wouldn’t even be allowed to sit with the men, and when Fairtrade came they said, women have to sit with the men and they have to have power of decision-making exactly the same as the men. It’s radically changed.
This isn’t one of the big selling points of Fairtrade, but in those villages in Senegal its greatest strength is that it completely changed the power of women in the community, dramatic change. Fairtrade demands it, so they have to change the structure of the cooperative, the way it’s managed.