I came to photography late in life, and the first piece of advice I got was to make sure the sun was always behind me to illuminate people’s faces. Twenty years later, I still can’t bring myself to follow that advice. When the sun is out, I naturally turn toward it and often end up with backlit photos, which I like. And when it’s overcast, I still manage to face toward the light source—in this case, the sky—so that my figures always appear slightly mysterious.
I came to photography through necessity, and 20 years later I find myself enjoying it a great deal. When Palais des Thés was new, I would travel through Asia without a camera. I came back from my trips with an eyeful of gorgeous landscapes, but not a single image to share with my employees or my customers. Back then, I believed you had to choose between contemplating a scene and photographing it. Now I realise that’s not the case at all. Today, I take the time to contemplate a scene and choose the best angle, and then I linger, motionless, while waiting for just the right light.
Sharing. What is better in life than to share? My job as a tea researcher is all about sharing, creating a link between the farmer who makes the tea and the enthusiasts who drink it. Passing on knowledge as it’s acquired. Sharing with one’s team, inviting them to visit the tea fields and farms, involving them in unique occasions, memorable time spent with villagers who are so kind and hospitable, so immensely generous.
Here, in Ilam valley in Nepal, I’m visiting the plantations of La Mandala, Pathivara, Tinjure, Shangri-la, Arya Tara and Panitar in the company of Carole, Fabienne, Oxana, Sofia, David, Léo and Mathias.
Who do you admire the most, Sylvie Lavabre, a French journalist, asked me. I admire people who don’t give up, I admire adventurers and artists. I also admire tolerance and non-violence. I admire people who don’t compromise their values, who pursue a goal other than earning more money, or of gaining more power. I admire altruists, people who are happy when others are happy. I admire the highest achievers, the champions, the finest artisans, everyone who tries their hardest. I admire those who fail and pick themselves up and find the strength to try again. I admire people who devote a part or all of their life to bringing up others, raising children, educating them, teaching them. And I admire people who find happiness in what they have.
Before starting to work with tea, I dreamed of being a journalist. I liked the idea of finding out about people, asking them questions, understanding what they do, getting them to explain things that are sometimes complicated, and trying to make them comprehensible. I liked the idea of being an investigator, of gathering information, of putting my interviewee at ease and having an interesting conversation. I wanted to do a job that took me all over the world and let me meet people from all backgrounds and cultures, men and women who speak a different language, who have a different history from mine. I wanted to receive their message and transmit it. In the end, I created this role of tea researcher, which didn’t exist before. I could have stayed behind my counter in my tea shop, which I enjoyed, talking to customers, listening to them, helping them. But I wanted to do more, to investigate, to find out where the tea leaves come from. First I learned to taste, to recognise flavours and aromas; then I learned other languages. I was thirsty for knowledge, I wanted to discover an unexplored world, that of tea. So I packed my bags and I went to meet farmers, growers, traders, pickers and planters. I entered that world a little more with every trip. I took my time. I set out to meet the people who live in the mountains where tea is grown. I found them in the fields, in the village square, in front of the factory. I sat down with them, I rested. I listened, then listened some more. I recorded everything. And that is how, 32 years later, everything I found so rewarding and enjoyable in the job of a journalist, I find now, in my work as a tea researcher.
A farmer who grows tea might have to deal with various threats to his crop: insects (spiders, mosquitoes, etc.) that damage leaves, caterpillars which like to eat young plants, fungi that grow along the trunks of the bushes. But there are solutions to these problems that don’t involve pesticides. One is to encourage the presence of birds and other predators by growing hedges near the tea plants. Another important factor is altitude – pests are much less of a problem at low temperatures. Nature must be respected, and tea should be planted in a suitable environment. In the same way that we don’t build a house in a bog, tea should not be planted in an environment that is too humid, at low altitude, on flat, undrained land that is intensively farmed and stripped of all other trees and plants. In those circumstances, it is likely not to be organic. It makes sense when you think about it.
When I’m in Japan, I like to visit the gardens whenever I get a chance. They are incredibly beautiful. Peaceful, silent places where invisible gardeners with a keen eye for perfection trim every little shoot with scissors. They sculpt living things to create an incredible spectacle of a landscape, in which a simple mound symbolises Mount Fuji.
I come here often with a book, interspersing reading with gazing at the view. It’s pretty much my idea of heaven.
We know that social media algorithms are programmed to put you in contact with similarly-minded people to make you believe that everyone shares the same views as you, and at the start of this new year, I’m making a resolution to spend less time on social networks, smart phones and tablets, because that’s not the real world. I wish you all more time spent meeting real people. For your delight. I wish you a real year!
What if we tried to think about our children? We all have immense power every time we spend our money. The power to make the world better. Spending money means encouraging people. Encouraging a producer, encouraging a distribution system. Encouraging good practice, encouraging healthy, unprocessed products, fairly traded, respecting people and the planet. We have the power to encourage artisans, co-operatives, farmers, town-centre shopkeepers, local producers. Nobody forces us to shop in big supermarkets, nobody forces us to push around trolleys loaded with industrially-produced foods, wrapped in plastic, containing mystery ingredients in addition to the sugar, preservatives and palm oil. We can consume better, and less. We can consume healthily. We can favour good producers.
And when we look at the labels, we might be surprised to see that the best is not always the most expensive (with tea, for example, a box of tea is often more expensive per kilo than a good quality loose-leaf tea sold by a specialist retailer). So what are we waiting for?
We all like different kinds of holidays. I like to take a step back – or up. This might mean hiking to reach a mountain peak or walking up a hill, then sitting down and enjoying the view for hours. It can also mean reading, which is another way of “getting away” and taking a step back from everyday life. Or, I like to sit by the sea, cup of tea in hand, and look out across the water. It feels good.