Photographing Latin America Through a Fair Trade Lens
Photographer James Rodríguez shares insights and experiences from his Fair Trade journey
Today, we are honored to share a Q&A with one of our very talented friends, photojournalist James Rodríguez. James is an independent U.S.-Mexican documentary photographer based in Guatemala since 2004. Fair Trade USA has been working with James to capture the incredible stories and photos from Fair Trade communities in Latin America. To contact James or view his work, please visit his personal website at mimundo.org
Q: You photographed quite a few Fair Trade communities since 2012. Tell us where you went.
Thanks to my collaboration with Fair Trade USA, I was able to witness firsthand the benefits that locals receive from Fair Trade in Northern Mexico, Guatemala, Ecuador and Peru. Previously, I have photographed Fair Trade communities in Belize, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras and Nicaragua.
Q: What was it like getting to these remote farming communities? Did you have any trouble along the way?
Well, when you are on the road all the time, and you live and work in the Global Economic South, one must be patient, as mishaps become the norm… so does sleeping on wooden planks or getting bit by just about every insect you run into. But fortunately I have been very lucky with no major issues. The places I have visited are very often off the tourist routes, so it is always a great joy and privilege to share time with such amazing people and visit these amazing communities in unbelievable settings.
Q: What was the most surprising thing you learned about the impact of Fair Trade?
The thing that amazed me the most is how truly empowering the collective decision-making process of Fair Trade is for communities in general.
When you have entire communities get together, decide on, and eventually work for a common goal, the atmosphere is really special. The positive effects clearly spill over into the different social structures and institutions.
Q: When you photograph people, you also record their stories. What was the most touching story you heard?
Most people I meet are really inspiring. But the one that keeps coming back to me is the story of Carmen Pucuji, an employee at Agrogana, a Fair Trade flower provider in Ecuador. She is a tiny, tiny woman, and single mother of a 14-year old boy named Kevin. She has been working at Agrogana for over a decade and is such a hard worker and amazing mother. Her son is an outstanding student that excels in English and Computer Science. He has been rewarded with numerous scholarships and prizes, including a computer that proudly sits in a very humble home.
They are both such inspiring people—living examples of hard work and perseverance despite major obstacles. I can still remember how Carmen proudly said to me “I work for him, he is everything to me.” The sparkle in her eye was really special. To me, this is what it’s all about.
Q: Based on what you’ve seen and heard from farmers, what do you want people in North America to know about Fair Trade?
I have always believed in the concept of “think globally, act locally,” hence I often tried to buy Fair Trade products.
Obviously, as a college student or young professional, I often could not afford to spend that little extra in order to support my ideals. Nevertheless, now that I have seen the benefits with my own eyes and heard it from those on the receiving end, I cannot imagine not spending that extra bit. It makes a huge difference and it is really an investment in our world rather than an extra expense.
Q: You’ve photographed many other communities in Latin America. How do the Fair Trade communities differ? Do you notice anything different about them?
I have been to many communities not involved in Fair Trade, and I can honestly tell you that even if the economic impact may not be obvious at once in communities where Fair Trade products are certified, at least the spirit of those involved is always positive. There’s a sense of hope and the awareness of global solidarity, the search for equality. I have had many locals tell me how happy they are that at least people far away care about them since they are willing to pay bit more for their product.
Q: What would it take to make Fair Trade work even better?
Well, I am not an expert in economics and I barely know the surface of how Fair Trade works, so this is hard. But I think it’s important for us to be aware that participating in the Fair Trade system – whether purchasing products or producing products for the Fair Trade market – must be complemented with other progressive ways of thinking and acting in order to improve the way things work. We all know poverty is not a natural problem, but a social one.
Hopefully the success of the Fair Trade system can help inspire governments, activists, entrepreneurs, and everyday folks to realize that we can do things differently, in a more humane manner, where solidarity and fairness are above individual, immediate profit.
Q: What countries or products would you like to photograph next for Fair Trade?
Well, the truth is I want to go everywhere! But if I had to choose, I would say Brazil. I lived there for six months in the early 2000s and speak enough Portuguese to get by, so it would be amazing to go back and see how Fair Trade works in such a budding economy and incredibly unique country. Haiti would also be interesting, since it is the poorest country in the hemisphere. I love Latin America and am continually amazed by its diversity, history, and people. I feel it is my home, and my skills work best here.
Nevertheless, I would also be thrilled to document a few communities in Sub-Saharan Africa. I spent a few months living and working in Kenya and Ethiopia in 2011, and I feel like I have just barely taken a peek into an astounding region full of life and both heart wrenching and inspiring contradictions.
Q: What are your favorite Fair Trade photos that you took last year?
About James Rodríguez
James Rodríguez is an independent U.S.-Mexican documentary photographer based in Guatemala since 2004. He grew up in Mexico City, but attended high school in the Los Angeles area and graduated from UCLA in 1996 with a degree in Cultural Geography. After working abroad as a language teacher and human rights activist, James decided to focus on a long-term documentary photography project that would expose issues involving land tenure disputes, human rights violations, post-war processes, and extractive industries’ conflicts with local populations in Latin America. He also provides short-term photography work for progressive organizations—such as Fair Trade USA—that contribute to the development of a fairer global economic system based on solidarity, equality and integrity.
To contact James or view his work, please visit his personal website at mimundo.org