My husband says tequila fixes everything. Social anxiety? Drink tequila. You have a cold? Tequila. Broke your leg? Tequila, then perhaps the ER.
While the tequila we know today began after European contact in the 1600s with agave distillation, variations of the drink date back thousands of years. The Aztecs were known to throw back pulque, a sap of the agave plant, during festivals. While made from the same plant, the milky-like drink’s alcohol content is low—around 4 percent and 6 percent, compared to tequila’s 35-55 percent.
Real tequila can only be produced in specific regions of Mexico: Jalisco, Michoacan, Nayarit, Guanajuato, and Tamaulipas. This is because Mexican law oversees the production of the spirit called the Tequila Denomination of Origin (you can read more about that here).
The state of Jalisco is where we find the stunning blue agave fields of world-renowned photojournalist Matt Mawson’s Tequila series.
When I first laid eyes on this project, I was blown away. This, I told myself, is why we started Slide Night. To capture places and stories that make us want to know more.
And while a picture tells a thousand words, I wanted to dive right into the world of tequila-making, learn more about the people who spend their lives harvesting the agave plant, and find out where this tranquil Mexican paradise was! So I asked Matt Mawson some questions…
Tell us a little bit about how you became involved with photography.
To get your foot in the door of commercial studio photography in London you have to work as an ‘assistant’ in a studio. The work, when I was assisting, was badly paid but you had access to that world. In my early 20s I made a start as an assistant at Holborn Studios, where some of London’s leading fashion and still life photographers worked: it gave me endless opportunities to learn from them first-hand. A few years later I was working as a freelance Still-Life photographer with a wide client base, particularly high-end gourmet magazines and ad campaigns.
Uninspired by the studio system I went on to develop my passion for reportage and documentary photography and in a freelance capacity documenting worldwide humanitarian crisis and war situations within Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. The disciplines of studio set-up and lighting meshed with reportage techniques and evolved into my individual photographic style: a combination of spontaneous and cinematographic imagery, which has become a hallmark for my subsequent commercial assignments and latterly my move into documentary and experimental short film-making.
You’ve covered tyre factories in China, gold mining in Africa and even the Bosnian war of the early ‘90s. Is there a particular photo series that you are most proud of or that you can’t believe you were a part of?
I would say that the series most gratifying was the one I made in the gold mines of Southern Africa. Gaining access to a working mine as a photographer is virtually impossible but luckily a few doors opened. I think all photographers enjoy a challenge and it was a most challenging environment deep under the ground where the darkness, the noise, the dust, exhaust fumes were extreme as were the danger of falling rocks, disappearing waist-deep in a water covered hole or tumbling down a slope and of course dodging heavy fast moving machinery.
All this made for an exciting and dangerous project. I like to work spontaneously under stress which allows for serendipitous mistakes and I think this is the only way one can work in this chaotic setting all the while trying to anticipate the dangers.
Your ‘Tequila’ series is extraordinary. How did you become part of this project?
Living in Mexico I have always wanted to document the making of that alcoholic spirit. The history of tequila runs concurrent with the history of revolution in Mexican’s past and the word ’tequila’ inspires in me a romantic vision of this country and a desire to experience part of it if possible. Access to tequila’s manufacture as a photographer is restrictive unless you are with a tequila maker.
My Cuban-American friend Kris de Soto from NYC recently began a tequila brand called Hiatus and I was brought in on a long term basis to record the visuals - film and photography - so had access to the fields and the factory where it is distilled. The brief was to bring my brand of photojournalism to the tequila brand.
What’s your most memorable image from this series?
I had to shoot an iconic image for the brand and a jimador (agave cutter) cutting the agave was deemed to be the one. Myself and my partner are subsequently very friendly with many of the workers and Felix, the professional jimador, became our go-to man that we could call on to cut the plant whenever lighting conditions became perfect. As it was the rainy season with not many breaks we waited days for that ‘golden light’ opportunity. So my favourite image is that of Felix The Jimador standing ‘heroically’ facing the warm golden evening sun while dark thunder clouds threatened overhead.
We only had a short time to speed across town to his home and take him back to the field of agave and minutes to photograph and film him in that 7pm perfect light for the iconic Hiatus brand image as the rain clouds raced to cover the sun. That light never repeated itself in our time there. There is nothing more satisfying than grabbing an image that you would never expect to achieve. I know that is the goal of all photographers working in available light.
Talk to us about the project's location. Where was it shot? What were your first impressions?
The distillery is located a kilometre outside the bustling tequila town of Tequila in Jalisco State, Mexico under the shadow of the Volcán de Tequila, the volcano that produced its rich soil perfect for the growth of the blue agave plant. The fields of blue agave surround the town of Tequila and roll outwards many kilometres brushing up to Guadalajara southwards, the deep canyons to the east and into the state of Nayarit to the north.
I immediately felt comfortable in the town of cobbled streets with its energetic plaza and where life is lived on the streets. The town is a ‘pueblo magico’ in that it offer visitors a "magical" experience – by reason of their natural beauty, cultural richness, traditions, folklore, historical relevance, cuisine, art crafts and great hospitality. It is also a Unesco World Heritage site and everywhere one can smell on the breeze a hint of sweet fermenting tequila from the many factories nearby. That deep smell is enduringly evocative. The distillery where I was located is the distillery of the brand La Cofradía, and is one of the few remaining unmechanised tequila factories in town where the ovens are filled by hand and the tequila bolas or piñas are cooked and mashed for their juice with a traditional spiral masher (as opposed to grinding down by millstone). The discarded ’mash’ is added back to fertilise the fields of agave. We spent many hours documenting work in the noisy factory and under the strong sun in the surrounding blue agave fields.
We had time to hike the surrounding country, the deep canyon with it’s cascadas (waterfalls), the volcano and, of course, the streets of Tequila always hold surprises.
You’re a world traveler. What’s your favorite location and why?
I love big cities and photographing people and so Hong Kong is one of my favourite cities. I enjoy the shoulder to shoulder crowds, the steep cobbled alleyways sometimes dark but never forbidding, the smells - food and incense and grime: the steam from woks and boiling cauldrons of water; the rumbling trams, the crammed markets, the exotic fresh seafood stands; the colourful neon and sulphurous strip lights; the aged and sturdy Star ferry to Kowloon and the vertiginous buildings. It is a city with the ultimate in organised chaos and high rise living.
When looking down from an elevated hotel or apartment into the neon lit glow in the narrow streets far below my imagination goes wild with the possibility of intrigue, conspiracy and machinations and also the expectation of tasty street food.
However Mexico City comes close in my most favourite cities, again, because of it being a megalopolis busting with people, overflowing with history and life and worship. I am a photographer primarily of people and those two cities are where the most interesting people live their lives and I love to wander the streets at any time of day or night and not feel threatened.
Rachel Ruiz-Oakley is the Managing Editor of Slide Night.