Rfotofolio is pleased to share the work of Judith Cooper Haden whose beautiful work shows us another part of the world we share.
Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
Probably the most important and far-reaching decision I ever made was to join the Peace Corps (El Salvador) after barely finishing my junior year at the University of Washington in Seattle. At twenty-one, I lived in a rural village of five hundred houses, with the poorest of the poor . . . . and became fluent in Spanish and rural Latin America. Later, I quickly completed my degree in Spanish and Latin American studies which then led to my future photographic specialty, part cultural anthropological/documentary photography, and part quiet activist for ‘impoverished’ indigenous people, working within local non-profits.
How did you get started photography?
I worked for eight independent small businesses as receptionist/bookkeeper/secretary right after getting married, and one business in particular caught my eye: a busy, creative commercial photographer. I spent a lot of time helping in the darkroom, and setting up the studio, I was hooked. I studied at the Coupeville Arts Center, took many classes and eventually set up my own darkroom in Seattle, Washington.
Which photographers and other artists’ work do you admire?
I’m intrigued by the thought processes behind Maggie Taylor and Julie Blackmon’s remarkable imagery, and I am in complete awe of Sebastiaõ Salgado’s heart, mind, discipline, and vision. I was speechless for several hours after viewing the recent documentary on his life. I think Alex Web and David Alan Harvey have done terrific work in Latin America. I took a class with Imogen Cunningham at the end of her life and was moved by her persistence and artistry. I also admire the work of Phil Borges, Judy Dater, and Michael Kenna.
If you could spend a day with any other photographer living or from the past who would it be?
Sebastiaõ Salgado, no doubt about it.
Would you share with us an image that has taught you something.
This image is of Francisca with the son who did not have to go to el Norte to work in the fields or restaurants in California due to the environmental devastation in the Mixteca. The region lost 250,000 men, ages 18-45, due to such emigration. She hasn’t seen her absent son in years. He crossed illegally and can’t keep paying thousands of dollars to come and go. She does not have enough money to buy a cell phone, much less with international calling, there is no computer, and she can’t read or write . . . and so, communication with him is nearly nil. We had just spoken of this when I took this picture. She misses him terribly. I started to think about all the hundreds of thousands of other mothers that were left behind in Mexico who miss their children; who know nothing of their lives, who have no access to communications. As the mother of two sons, I commiserated. But, and here’s the good thing about the internet I posted a short video on YouTube, of Francisca in her kitchen and amazingly her son and daughter-in-law in Los Angeles randomly saw it and her, and posted their thanks! They were so thrilled. As was I. Lots of things in all of this to think about.
What is the inspiration for your work?
While living and working with people on the edge, both while in my 20’s and more recently with non-profits in Peru, Oaxaca, Ethiopia, Kenya, and Guatemala, I became awestruck by the combination of resiliency and courage, pride and practicality, and the creative problem solving and ingenuity that these people possess. And wisdom. We, in our present abundant North American lifestyle, have exchanged many of those qualities for technical savvy, and shopping and consuming . . . . witness Black Friday or Cyber Monday. We are comparatively “soft” meaning that machines now do the healthy hard work in the home and in industrial kitchens, and so many have opted for a more sedentary second-hand lifestyle while eating packaged, unhealthy food, and experiencing life vicariously in front of the TV on or Facebook. Interestingly, there is very little need for therapists in the area in which we worked. And little obesity in the countryside.
Tell us about your involvement with Milpa: From Seed to Salsa – Ancient Ingredients for a Sustainable Future .
A mutual Peace Corps volunteer friend introduced me to Phil Dahl-Bredine who, with his wife Kathy, has lived and worked in economically devastated Mixteca Alta in Oaxaca, Mexico for 14 years as self-motived community development volunteers. I asked Phil if there was something my camera and I could do to help with in his village, possibly working with CEDICAM, the agricultural non-profit he is involved with and which became the subject, really, of the book. We conceived the idea for MILPA: From Seed to Salsa/Ancient Ingredients for a Sustainable Future in 45-minutes over a cup of hot chocolate while sitting on the Zocalo in Oaxaca. We wanted a multi-faceted, subtle and interesting look at the tough topics of rural poverty and food supply issues in southern Mexico; the value of heritage seeds and intercropping a dozen crops (the milpa garden, also known as the Three Sisters) in this, the birthplace of corn; and at our planet’s huge food scarcity issues. It took the four of us (with CEDICAM director Jesús Leon Santos and Chef Susana Trilling) nearly five years volunteering during our spare time to coordinate all of this!
What do you hope people will take from your images?
I hope people will look into the eyes of these glorious women in their amazing kitchens and see their strength and their pride. I hope they see the contentment in the eyes of the men. I hope to somehow personalize the concept of poverty, or maybe to break through people’s resistance to it, and to also make it obvious that their lives have an immense richness from which we can learn so much. The average annual income here is about $550 U.S. a year. Usually books about the poor show abject misery; we present another view, another option. We show the participation in village life and farming that holds them together. Of course it’s not all a bed of roses, but their happiness quotient far exceeds ours here at home. Besides a food politics book, Milpa is also a cookbook about what “poor” people eat through Mesoamerica!
What challenges do you face as an artist?
Self promotion is my downfall. I’m too close to my work! I can’t distance myself from it and be objective. And I think my biggest challenge is that I enjoy photographing away from home, with ‘new eyes,’ which can be expensive. I feel such comfort in the indigenous regions of Latin America. Computers have made some aspects of photography easy from wherever you are luckily.
Is there one thing that you would like to tell people about your creative process?
Looking back, I realize the more comfortable I am with myself, the easier it is to now get in close to people with my camera, and I have switched from a zoom lens, shooting from afar, to shooting up close with a wide-angle or 85 mm lens to get the intimate environmental shot I am looking for. Due to the repetition of shooting thousands of images, I’m able to now shoot quickly and more accurately – ‘ to get in and get out’ – so as to not fatigue my subjects. I used to be known for saturated color travel images (Oaxaca: The Spirit of Mexico, Artisan, NY) but I’m now loving the deeper meanings possible in black-and-white, or in my case, brown-toned documentary imagery.
What is next?
I’m looking for a new project, something with ‘teeth’, something that expands upon the understanding of the human condition outside of our comfort zone here in the United States. A project on the ‘disappearing grandmothers’ is wafting in and out of my consciousness. I just spent three weeks in Oaxaca presenting our book there, and it was during the Día de los Muertos celebration when the streets are filled with music and parades, with parish church gatherings, and especially with the sharing of food and fiesta. Joy, oddly, was everywhere during the celebration of the dead, and it was palpable. My first thought when I got back home was of how quiet, sad, and isolated our lives are now in the United States.
Thank you Judith sharing your work and words with us.
To learn more about the book MILPA: From Seed to Salsa/Ancient Ingredients for a Sustainable Future please visit by clicking the title.
To learn more about Judith Haden please visit her site at, Judith Haden Photographer.