Garden & Gun
Art Director: Marshall McKinney
Photography Director: Maggie Brett Kennedy
Associate Art Director: Braxton Crim
Assistant Photo Editor: Margaret Houston
Photographer: Jody Horton
Heidi: How many days did you have to shoot this project?
Jody: All production was accomplished in 3 days. We had a travel day on both sides so I was gone for 5 days in all.
Do you speak Spanish?
I lived in Costa Rica for a few years after college, and living in Texas speak limited Spanish with frequency, but its pretty survival-level.
Were there any language barriers that made this colorful or a challenge?
At one point I was trying to ask a mezcalero how old his youngest son was, but accidentally asked him how old his worst son was. I realized this only much later.
Did you study the agave process before the shoot?
I knew how maguey were cut and trimmed and that the piñas were roasted underground but had not even seen photos of the fermentation and distillation.
Can you tell us your approach to a project like this? Do you story board it?
I love when I can jump in and photograph people doing what they do and can simply document it, staying out of the way mostly, but also asking questions that help me understand what is important to the subjects, why they do what they are doing, and why it has meaning to them.
One goal of mine with the mezcal shoot was to photograph all of the stages of production. There were many natural moments in this process but because making mezcal takes several days, and because we were working in remote areas without the benefit of phones or e-mail, there was no way to schedule a shoot – or to know at what stage of the process a given mezcalero would be in when we arrived. As a result, some directing comes into play – asking people to do what they would do if they were doing x – and making this feel like a natural moment.
When an image has to fit into a very specific space – to account for copy or other predetermined limitation – I love to sketch it out. For editorial work I almost never storyboard, but I do visualize what I hope to see, or what I hope to create.
Were you traveling with the writer?
Yes. I traveled with writer Logan Ward. Due to the challenge of travel and communications this was the best option by far and I’m grateful this was so. It was a fantastic collaboration, and I think we both feel like we made each other better. Our great producer, Blair Richardson, also traveled with us. Blair, who lives in Mexico City, deserves the credit for finding the story in the first place.
Several of your portfolio galleries center around the process of harvest. How did you get started in this niche?
My first exposure to food photography was while working with a small publication when in grad school for Cultural Anthropology. I was attracted to the idea of transformation – things or people moving from one state to another. This is inherently interesting to me and translates, in food work, to harvest/processing/preparation.
Seeing a harvest, or a documentation of it, is also a very tangible way to connect to being conscious of where food comes from. I’m also drawn to the energy and human interaction that happens here – and the goal of capturing and reveling something not widely known.
Its gratifying then to show someone how an oyster is dredged from the Gulf and have them say “Wow, I never knew that was how they did it” – even if they had eaten the same oysters all their life.
The best part of being a photographer is having an excuse to have access to go see and do things like this. I started by asking ” I wonder what this looks like” and then tried to find a way to get to take those pictures. There are so many projects that I hope to do like this in my lifetime.
I recently produced a project for a tequila company in Jalisco, Mexico. I understand there’s an old growth agave shortage at the moment. Were the fields you were shooting in patrolled? Was security an issue for you?
These fields for the mezcal piece were in very remote areas on small farms and were operated only by the families themselves for the most part. Except for rows of baby plants – that were used like a nursery to transfer elsewhere – there were no formal fields of cultivated plants. These guys had very little resources so no one would have been able to patrol the fields even if there was a threat – unless they did it themselves.
Its true that there is a shortage of maguey. The equation as I understand it is that larger tequila producers, who are supposed to use only one variety of blue agave from the state of Jalisco, have had trouble keeping up with demand.
An illegal trade in maguey harvested from other states (all varieties- not just blue) began 10 or more years ago to respond to this supply problem. Its unclear how much worse it has gotten exactly but given the rise of popularity of tequila – and now mezcal – reports that things are worse seem well-founded. I’m not sure how frequent outright theft of plants occurs from the kinds of fields I saw. Most often plants are harvested by local farmers from their own lands and sold to these smugglers – at a higher rate than they could receive for them locally.
I worried a little about security issues before I left, but we encountered no problems whatsoever.
Some outtakes from the shoot.