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Thailand's Coconut Farmers

June 02, 2018 //  Commissioned Work Back to posts

An intimate portrait of Thailand’s coconut farmers


I recently travelled to Thailand’s Ratchaburi province to photograph the farmers of Harmless Harvest— a popular fair trade, organic coconut water. Rather than the typical advertising campaigns of palm trees and coconuts on a beach, we set out to create a window into the life of the real agriculturists behind the label: the harvesters who work on family-run plantations. These portraits would be used all over Los Angeles, New York, and beyond as print advertisements and billboards.

The people we chose to celebrate in the images are hardworking and proud stewards of nature. Within the vast irrigation canals of the coconut fields is an ecosystem of mixed agriculture: rare herbs on top to prevent soil erosion, medicinal grasses grown on the sides, and schools of fish within the water itself. Instead of using pesticides, a variety of beneficial insects are released into the fields to battle pests.

A short video of me running with my camera to catch up with the harvesters. They use long wooden spears to separate clusters of coconuts from the palm trees. One harvester cuts the branch while the other impales the stem, then directs them to fall safely into a irrigation canal for collection. 

A small metal boat equipped with a pressurized pump is used to water coconut trees grown beside the irrigation canals.

A grandmother and her grandchildren on their family’s coconut planation. 

Three generations of a family-owned coconut farm.

The Locals

These farmers had their plots of land passed down from generations. In periods of economic growth in the area, some families grew rich and industrialized their fields, producing an abundance of crops, but relying on non-organic practices. Recently, families who could not afford upgrading to the expensive machinery and chemicals of their neighbors found their luck reversed: companies like Harmless Harvest preferred their old-school methods and the flavor profile of this hand-crafted coconut water. Their humble fields were suddenly connected to a major gourmet supply chain.

In Thailand, foreign companies like Harmless Harvest are forced to dance around the countries strict localized regulations,  empowering Thai business owners and workers. Due to fair trade policies, everyone in the supply chain is paid decent and fair wages, and do not invoke the image of poor field workers so commonly depicted by foreign photographers working in Asia.

Now, if you spend this kind of cash on a bottle of coconut water, all this organic hippy fluff better be true. $5 for a 16oz bottle of coconut water?? But from what I saw during this shoot, all this stuff is very real. The Fair for Life certification has strict standards and conducts yearly audits. I’m not being paid to write this blog post, but as I read this, it seems I have now become quite the shill for Harmless Harvest… but truly, this project was visually a photographer’s dream and I was honored to shoot it. 

Black and White

Considering this was a fresh, new campaign telling the personal stories of the coconut farmers, we had a unique opportunity to establish a key look and feel in classic black and white. The advertising agency who hired me, DCX Growth Accelerator, was on the exact same page: we envisioned classic tones, simplicity in light and genuine expressions. The goal of the black and white treatment was not to appear “vintage”, but rather to emanate a classic, timeless look which reflects the natural ingredients in the product, and the honest and traditional agricultural techniques used by farmers. 

Using the Leica SL and 50mm 1.4 lens to capture a portrait, and my Phase One with waist-level finder for another setup.

Pre-Production and the Shoot


The formula for getting these shots and collaborating with the farmers wasn’t anything secret- it just required a bit of planning. First and foremost, we reached out to the farmers through our local contacts to explain the project in detail and get permission, especially considering the subject has to be aware their picture is being used to advertise a product. Then, before our 4 day shoot began, I personally scouted the fields and met all of our potential subjects. I found the Thai farmers delightfully open minded to photography. They were quite proud to be featured on billboards. They understood how the images would be used, and how this campaign would directly increase the demand for their crops.

4 back to back days- from sunrise to sunset- of shooting followed. We photographed the families and their employees as they harvested, but also tried to capture other details of their lives. We wanted to photograph the process Harmless approach from start to finish – from sourcing young organic coconuts, to giving back to the local Thai communities, to its ecosystem-based business model, and more. What began as an assignment to capture 8 images for an advertising campaign turned into a marathon of image making. I fell in love with the place, the people, and I shot enough to make an entire series.

When I spoke to my subjects, the translations were done by my incredible lighting assistant Jirathit, or “Nut” as he calls himself. Beyond being a technician, Nut would stand beside me as a I shot, and translate my directions during portrait sessions, or help explain what my subject was saying to me. We also had Sarinnaree Khamaiumcharean and her talented team helping with the production. 



My Tools

These images were shot with a mix between my Phase One IQ250 back on an XF body, and a Leica SL, mostly with the 50mm 1.4 lens. This was to capture a mixture of slower, controlled portrait environments on medium format, and action on the 35mm format. This was my first time shooting with my new Leica- which I was skeptical about at first. Like Harmless Harvest, the Leica is expensive, and I connected in my mind to rich snobs. However, once I used it, I fell in love with it. First of all, the tonal range is incredible and it holds up well even beside the medium format Phase One files. Secondly, the thing is sleekly designed but built like a brick out of a single piece of metal, and strapping that thing around my back and climbing up a tree was never a problem.

I shot a lot of natural light, but some portraits were augmented with large soft modifiers powered by either a Profoto B1 or the new tiny Profoto A1. We often just used these handhand and without stands, as we had to leap across the irrigation canals with our gear and less was more. 

Nut holding up a Profoto B1 with a Photek SoftLighter

Programming a Profoto A1, which can sync directly to my Phase One XF's internal air remote. 

Leaping over an irrigation canal is generally faster than walking around the long way...

Two harvesters work together to impale the stem of coconuts, and direct the coconuts to fall safely fall in the irrigation channels beside the trees.

A young harvester collects the fallen coconuts, roping together the large clusters, and scooping up the smaller coconuts separated from the batch. 

Coconuts bunches are meticulously sorted through, counted and loaded up in a truck.

If the farmer does not own a metal boat with pressurized water pump, the coconut trees can also be watered by hand.

Shooting portraits tethered to Will's computer while in the field.

Trying my best not to slip and plunge my camera into the water...

Wading through the narrow irrigation canals.

An offering is made to a buddhist shrine.

As someone who spends his time shooting 50% commissioned advertising projects and the other 50% traveling and shooting personal work, I always enjoy when a project bridges the gap and involves the merits of both disciplines of photography. My personal projects are in-depth explorations of real people and the subtle nuances of expression. I believe this shoot was a chance to do this, even though it was a commerical project.

Me in front of a big-ass billboard shortly after it went up in Brooklyn, New York.

Some of the final Harmless Harvest billboards spotted in NYC.


​I’d like to thank the following people for collaborating with me:

Local Production and Technical Crew: Jirathit "Nut" Saengavut, Sarinnaree "Honey" Khamaiumcharean, May Kittiya, Will Martinez, Chareef Eamittipol, Pharisorn Sutthasarn, Olympic San, Elle Sullivan.

Creative Direction and Agency: Jacob Ireland, Erica Mellow, Patrick McCormick, Talia Weisner, Tommy Noonan.

Harmless Harvest: Mathieu Chaumont, Raveepat Vattanarom, Akeluk Nebneard, Jenna Stephenson.

Behind the scenes videos and photos: Olympic San, Will Martinez.

Special Thanks: Ehrin Feeley, Ryan Cleary.



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ADD A COMMENT (24)

Shivakumar Lakshminarayana // June 11, 2018 13:43

Hey Joel,

You are still one of those very few people who blend the technical mastery with creative visuals and give timeless feel to the images. All your images either this or the ones from your previous work have that something unique which makes the viewer connect direclty to the subject in the image. Thanks for sharing this behind the scene effort that went into making those images.

-Shiv

Yann Lenz // June 11, 2018 21:48

Joey, acompanho o seu trabalho há alguns anos. Sempre inspiraram os meus....
De tudo que eu já vivi e referenciei, nunca vi algo parecido com o seu...
Eu acredito que você tenha atingido o patamar mais alto do mundo profissional, a área atmosférica e solidária.
Sempre trabalhando muito bem como esses elementos naturais interagindo aos artificiais de maneira perfeita... Imperceptível.
Seus ensinamentos mudaram a minha vida e perspectiva, consequentemente a de muitos outros fotógrafos também!
Eu acredito que futuramente os elementos diferenciais na fotografia serão na área da luz artificial. Por todas os outros estarem sendo alcançados nos celulares....
Como eu nunca vi ninguém dominar também bem essa área, você é o futuro da fotografia.

Muito obrigado por tudo, Joey!

Yann Lenz.

Yann Lenz // June 11, 2018 22:17

Joey, I've been following your work for a few years. Always inspired my ....
From everything I've lived and referenced, I've never seen anything like your ...
I believe that you have reached the highest level in the professional world, the atmospheric and solidary area.
Always working very well as the natural elements interacting with the artificial ones with perfect way ... Imperceptible.
His teachings have changed my life and perspective, consequently, of other photographers too!
I believe the differential in photography will be the area of artificial light. Because everyone else is being reached on cell phones ....
I've never seen anyone dominate this area so well, that is, you are the future of photography.


Thank you so much for everything, Joey!


Yann Lenz.

Webster Mugavazi // June 12, 2018 06:00

Hi Joel,

These are great! I love how you've framed these wonderful stories and given them an authentic and relatable feel. Keep up the amazing work! Always a pleasure and an inspiration to see your new work.

- W

Yuta Kato // June 12, 2018 07:16

Hello, Joey
I am so amazed by all of your work. I love the way you approach to photography. Your picture tells their stories before I actually read blogs. Thank you so much for all of your hard work and your amazing personality. Have a great day!
Yuta (Japanese 23)

Fritz Geiger // June 12, 2018 12:32

As always, your work has your style baked into it. You are a master craftsman. Come to Chicago, your first drink is on me. Do you ever do seminars? I’d be the first in line. 35+ years of commercial shooting, I look at your work and how far I’ve yet to go.

Nick Roush // June 12, 2018 22:51

Hey Joey,

Huge fan of your work, I love seeing how it's evolved over the years.

In reply to your email, on the select projects page for Harmless Harvest I like images 1, 33, 40, and 43 for print.

Any plans for a little video of your current print portfolio? I'm curious to see how it's changed since your blog post about it.

Jimmy // June 12, 2018 23:19

My favorites from the set are 001.JPG, 031 and 045.

I think you executed your goals with B&W very well, and I enjoyed the series as a whole. Always love reading more into these shoots, so thank you for spending the time to organize the blog posts with behind the scenes content. Thanks Joey!

Mila Lanfranco // June 12, 2018 23:53

Love your work Joey, You have grown so much since Varanasi, you and Cale were so young, there is a lot of meaning and depth in your work, just amazing, hopefully I will have one of your pictures, Brooklyn here I come, after all I live in CT .

Paul // June 13, 2018 00:06

Great story. Interesting captures. Most seem very over exposed / poor highlights and require more contrast though? A creative decision based on the brief no doubt - but the results are far from your best. It happens though and good to see the whole picture. Thanks.

Jen E. // June 13, 2018 02:27

Love the softness & that magical, morning haze. Every image feels sun-kissed. Beautiful job, Joey! Definitely hard to choose favorites, but would pick 5, 48, 49. (1, 9, 17, 35 are close seconds!)

Ralph Nardell // June 13, 2018 03:54

Joey these are wonderful Joey. I love the light, reminds me of how it pours into cathedrals or grand central station in nyc. Love your focus on eyes and hands too, the storytelling elements really bring you in. Gorgeous, strong work as always. Keep doing your thing.

Dan Biggerstaff // June 13, 2018 12:10

Love the story and the photos telling the story. I know the quandary of choosing a few favorites out of many after going over and over many photos - tough! To the point, my favorites are grandmother and grandchildren, landscape of woman crossing the canal, closeup of man with hat and mustache smiling and looking at camera, and the man checking the sharpness of the blade. Keep up the great work!

Anna Cooper // June 13, 2018 14:48

This is amazing Joey.
I hope it does a lot of good for the farmers. It certainly gives a new appreciation of the care that goes into good farming.

Lisa Casella // June 13, 2018 21:30

Joey, you've done it again. This is brilliant and beautiful. You told a story with your photographs and also nailed the ad itself. It truly has an organic feel all in its own! Wonderful work as always. One of my favorite shots was the boy in the water, with the net and the coconuts around him. That was a beautiful shot! I also loved seeing the workers together on the truck. It provided the viewer with a sense of community and happiness. I also loved the man walking over the water on the "platform". Your portraits were incredible as well. Bravo!

essay writing services look here // June 15, 2018 14:15

You can develop this blog and become a very prosperous blogger! My reaction can be interpreted in different ways... Best of luck for everyone.

Stephen Gomez // June 21, 2018 01:33

Really amazing work Joey. The images are thoughtful and quite powerful, and your use of both natural light mixed with artificial light is great. It's always inspiring to watch you work in these behind the scenes clips. Keep up all the great work and I look forward to seeing the next project!

-Stephen Gomez

iris // June 26, 2018 12:37

Seems like a lovely trip! And as for the pics, they're gorgeous! I've also switched to healthier life lately and training with SportMe <a href=“https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/marathon-trainer-and-run-coach/id588594735?mt=8”>running app</a> and also trying hard to sneak in my running routine into my exotic destinations. It's fascinating to always find new running routes around the word and your blog posts are a great source of inspiration.

Γιάννης Κανδυλάκης // July 21, 2018 07:14

I always enjoy your work mate. Keep it up.

Alim K // August 02, 2018 20:34

Great series, thanks for sharing. Always love your work!

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Thank you for a informative post.

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ajay walia // October 15, 2018 10:42

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