Documentary photographer and videographer Hannah Cauhépé never seems to slow down. From her recent film photography project shot in Mexico while visiting local coffee producers, to her series shot in Barcelona with our Babylon Kino 13 ISO film, she is always finding new and exciting subjects.
In this interview she takes us through her process and speaks candidly about creative blocks and the ethics of documenting the lives of others.
Hi Hannah! Could you introduce yourself to the readers of our Online Magazine?
Hello! My name’s Hannah Cauhépé (pronounced however you want, it’s a mystery to all), I’m 33, I’m a documentary photographer and videographer from France, though I haven’t really lived there since 2015. I’m currently based between Mexico City and Barcelona.
Tell us about your photographic background. What is your story? When did you start photographing?
There’s photographic evidence that I had a camera in my hands at around 5, but after that, I spent a good chunk of my life thinking I had no artistic inclination whatsoever. That led me to studying law, all the way to a very brief career as an entertainment lawyer, only to realize I couldn’t care less about how to better draft some actor’s contract. That realization also happened because at that time I started to take photography more seriously. I created a blog where I posted a new image everyday – the quality wasn’t there, but I feel much tenderness towards the person I was then, photographing without a care in the world, being happy about terrible images. After that I moved to Mexico City, worked as an assistant at a fashion photography studio and figured out documentary photography/photojournalism were what I wanted to pursue.
And when did your journey into film photography start?
Film photography came a little later and very slowly. Before I moved to Mexico I traveled around Central/Latin America for 6 months and I decided to buy a film camera for the occasion – an old Zenit with a 50mm I think (I still have the Zenit but it’s got a 28mm now) for like 20 euros. In the end, I didn’t feel too comfortable with it, and I also burnt a couple rolls, so I almost never used it, and at some point decided I needed something better – a Minolta SR101. I started using them more on another trip through Europe by train – the Zenit has a light leak but I kinda like it. The way I use my film cameras now reminds me of the feeling I had when I was doing the blog, taking photos just for fun, without any goals, it’s a joyful, light, feeling.
Who or what inspires your work?
I used to feel bad for never being able to name precise sources of inspiration until I read a book by Christian Bobin in which he explains not remembering the books he reads but says he believes they passed through him and left a mark, even though it’s not accessible consciously. That made a lot of sense to me. But I think in general themes and individual stories inspire me. I need to believe in something, or be moved by an issue, in order to produce work that I’m proud of, or that I feel is representative of me at least. It can be boiled down to connection I suppose. Same with people, I can’t make a good portrait if I don’t manage to connect with them somehow, even if it’s just a 30 second conversation on the street.
Your projects are mainly focused on Social Issues, environment, minority rights etc. In your opinion, how important is documenting individual stories, protests etc. via photography? And why?
It’s interesting how we all have our own paradoxes because I don’t really believe photographs have the power to change anything, and yet I think it’s important to document. It’s being made overwhelmingly clear right now with the photos coming out of Bucha (Ukraine) for instance (though that in turns brings up other topics of white gazes being parachuted in misery porn zones, but that’s besides the point). I think it’s always been and always will be important to document (and nowadays almost everything gets documented anyway because everyone has a camera on hand), but I think now the more relevant question is how we document – who gets to document what, from what standpoint, and why. And hopefully asking these questions should give more agency to people to document their own stories. We have to stop with this ideal of neutrality or objectivity, which not only is a myth but historically has only ever meant a white occidental heterosexual cisgender male gaze.
Please tell us more about these photos shot in Veracruz.
I went to Veracruz (one of the many coffee-producing regions of Mexico, along with Chiapas, Oaxaca, Puebla…) to work on a story about women coffee producers – I’d seen these “women coffees” pop-up in hipster cafes in Barcelona, so I was interested in learning about the realities on the ground and seeing if it wasn’t just some good old pinkwashing. When I started planning my trip, I remembered seeing someone paint portraits with coffee once, so I started to google how to print with coffee etc., and ended up learning about caffenol – i.e. using coffee in the film development process instead of developer (you still need a stop bath and the fixer), and I thought it would be absolutely perfect for this project. And I also decided to make my life more complicated by using coffee from the producers I would meet, instead of the instant coffee that is used normally for caffenol, which has created an added layer of uncertainty. This led to a less successful second batch of developed film (was it the size of the grounds, the level of toasting, who knows) but that’s part of the fun isn't it?
The series below was shot with our Babylon Kino 13 ISO film: can you tell us more about these photos?
I was really excited to try this film – I remember spending long minutes trying to decide which one I wanted, but sometimes, timing is off, and when I started using it, I fell prey to a creative block. After the images were developed, and I tried to cobble together an edit. It felt like they needed some kind of accompanying words, as I sometimes like to write as part of my work, so here they are:
For this Lomo film, I used my Minolta, not my Zenit and its entry of light, because I’ve already lost a couple rolls to its mechanical tantrums, but it couldn’t change the fact that my creativity was in a lull, embers of ideas getting covered by the ashes of a fire that no longer burned. I tried to remember to get the camera out, but the desire wasn’t there. When I got the scans back, one of the images was simply burnt film. I don’t know why it was put in there and not thrown in the bin. Perfect metaphor of a failed attempt at seeing.”
Do you have any interesting projects or collaborations planned that you would like to share with us?
I’m heading back to Turkey in the summer to continue work on a long-term project about, among other things, a queer soccer team from Istanbul, and I’ve actually been thinking of making some of the photos collaborative, through disposable cameras. I used them recently for the March 8 protests (last time I had one in hand I was maybe 12?), and I thoroughly enjoyed having to think about absolutely nothing technical whatsoever, what a nice breather for the brain! So I think they can be a great collaborative tool. I will also be continuing and expanding on the coffee story in Veracruz and maybe other regions. We’ll see!