A New Perspective: Interview with Photographer Mónica R. Goya

Left: Photo by Mónica R. Goya for The New York Times | Right: Photo by Mónica R. Goya

 

The beauty of talking to a travel photographer and writer is that it stays with you, it broadens your mind, and even better than a good trip taken long ago, it’s an experience you can always come back to, not for daydreaming, but for something much more important, for fueling your sense of curiosity and your desire to see and feel and ask questions, and for a better understanding of the world, by having the respite to have a closer look at it and at our place in it in a time when travelling far and away is best to be kept at bay.

Mónica R. Goya‘s photographic stories have that spontaneity, the result of capturing whatever it was that surprised her, catching it as it was, whatever it was that caught her eye, that first impression, without any tricks. But they also seem to bring the depth of having established a close relationship to a place and/or to its people. That may many times be a brief acquaintance, which is why it reveals an even more valuable quality, a profound humanity. Mónica’s photographs, even her food photography, never seem detached from its contexts of time, place and humanity. There always seems to be an exchanges of senses and experiences going on in her photographs. And for the viewer, the photograph becomes a chance to engage in the discussion. Travel is about more than personal satisfaction, it is about shared enrichment. More than a photographer or journalist, she is attentive to people, their surroundings, their culture, their food, their customs, their history, she is attentive to life.

Originally from Spain, Mónica R. Goya is an independent freelance journalist and photographer based in London. Her work focuses primarily on the fields of farming, food, sustainability, wine growers and travel, in close connection to bringing awareness to environmental issues. Her keen interest in agriculture and food justice have been funneling her long-term journalistic projects which explore the culture of working the land and the intersection of human rights, food politics and sustainability.

In our interview, I am talking with Mónica about travelling alone, about sustainable farming, about the place she would choose for a simpler way of life, and where she would take us on a food journey.
 

Photo by Mónica R. Goya

 
 

”I find it easier to connect with locals when
I am travelling on my own. Furthermore,
when travelling alone there is more time for
observation, there is space for spontaneity.”

 
 
If you could gather all your friends you haven’t properly met in the last year, which place would you choose?

I’d be so thrilled if that was a real possibility (I am in lockdown London) that I probably wouldn’t worry too much about where, but I’d focus on the mere getting together. How magical that would be if only it was safe to do so. Having said that, even if we weren’t in lockdown, I’d probably choose a garden, somewhere outdoors.

The times we are living have opened our eyes to the beauty in our own backyard, as they say. You have lived in different parts of Europe. Where do you feel at home?

It’s a fascinating question for which I could give you many different answers! I think if you are content and feel welcomed in a place, it’s not difficult to feel at home anywhere after some time. At a different level, some people feel a special connection and attachment to places which are significant because of their ancestry, not necessarily a house, but maybe somewhere outdoors which is meaningful for some reason, and I am one of them.
 

Photos by Mónica R. Goya

 
Do people make the place?

Absolutely! Furthermore, it’s also brilliant that we can keep in touch so easily with friends and family that live far away, especially in these times of social isolation, lockdowns, etc.

How about travelling with the right people? Or do you prefer travelling alone? I have always been intrigued by something Wim Wenders wrote in one of his books, and I am bringing it up because it also touches the subject of photography. He said that “there’s a distinct kind of satisfaction that you get from looking and travelling alone, and it’s connected with this relation of solitude to photography. […] If you’re not alone you take different photos. I rarely feel the urge to take pictures if I’m not on my own.”

It depends on the reason for travelling. If I am travelling on a photo assignment, I have to agree with what Mr. Wenders said, it’s always more productive for me to travel alone. Mostly because photography is all about the light and sometimes you find yourself at pains to make non-photographers understand why you need to wake up before dawn, or why you need to go back again to a certain place at a different time of the day so that you get better light, for example. Also, I find it easier to connect with locals when I am travelling on my own. Furthermore, when travelling alone there is more time for observation, there is space for spontaneity, more flexibility to change plans if needed… Solitude allows for a unique dialogue with a place that sometimes can be translated visually into different layers in what you capture.
 
 

”To make individuals carry the weight of ‘saving the planet’
on their shoulders is the wrong approach, it is a global
problem that should be sorted collectively.”

 
 
So is it take or make a photo?

It’s a very interesting question and we could have an endless debate about this. Personally, I am not that bothered about definitions, take or make, I think it depends on the situation. I am aware many professional photographers prefer to say make a photo. To me, take a photo feels more spontaneous, quicker, whereas making a photo seems to imply that you have taken the time and given it some thought. I do agree with that famous quote attributed to Ansel Adams: “You don’t make a photograph just with a camera. You bring to the act of photography all the pictures you have seen, the books you have read, the music you have heard, the people you have loved.”

We have all more or less taken travel for granted. How do you think travel will change from now on?

I can’t really tell, who knows, but I do hope we all become more aware of the impact that travelling has, not only the environmental impact of going from place A to place B, but also the added pressure on natural resources that tourism represents, especially in places with fragile ecosystems. Maybe this is an oxymoron, but my hope is that in the near future affordable travel becomes more sustainable and responsible and more supportive of the local economies. This forced pause we are currently immersed in could be a golden opportunity to rethink and to right some wrongs. I hope humanity finds a way to make sustainability “the new normal” (not only in travel, but in general), accessible for the many, and not only for the few.
 

Photo by Mónica R. Goya

 
Your projects explore the culture of working the land and the intersection of human rights, food politics and sustainability. Has this crisis made people start to see more clearly the complexity of the food system and its relationship to sustainability and economics and health? Because I think this is a good chance for us to think about what sustainability means, because we have to think about how accessible it is to everyone and that being sustainable doesn’t resume to buying the fair trade bar of chocolate.

I feel more and more of us are opening our eyes to painful realities, including the way in which many crops are grown, with total disregard for the environment both humans and life on earth depend on. It’s really a very complex issue and the more I read and research about it, the more I realise it is simply impossible to detach sustainability from all the other aspects that are intertwined with it. On one hand, who gets to lead a “sustainable” life today, travelling sustainably, eating sustainably, etc? How catastrophic it is that only the privileged can afford to be sustainable? How tragic it is that the number of hungry people in the world is growing? According to FAO, 1 in 9 people on this planet suffer hunger and according to WHO data, almost 3 million die each year as a consequence of being overweight or obese. On the other hand, what is sustainable? Sometimes doing the right thing might be difficult even for people who make the effort to analyse thoroughly what they eat. A good example could be greenhouse crops like tomatoes. You go to the supermarket in London, you buy local British tomatoes to avoid food miles, thinking that in terms of sustainability, buying local is the best thing you can do. However, if those British tomatoes were grown using heated glass in the UK, emissions of CO2 (according to an interview with Guy Singh-Watson, a British farmer and founder of Riverford) are around 2.5kg per kg, compared to 0.24kg for trucking tomatoes from Spain.

Regarding your examples, of course it’s always best to buy fair-trade or taking your own reusable cup, every little helps. Nevertheless, there are so many other things to take into account in sustainability, from water footprint to deforestation, that it’s just overwhelming really, and many people have enough going on in their lives just trying to stay afloat. That’s why I think that to make individuals carry the weight of “saving the planet” on their shoulders is the wrong approach, it is a global problem that should be sorted collectively, that narrative of connecting it to individual attitudes alone won’t solve it, governments should step in and address it too.

Yes, there is a clash between what you as an individual can do and the complex situation as a whole. And this crisis has forced people to deal with limitations and realizing that doing good for the environment many times came from a privileged place. There definitely must be a policy angle to it. But do you think it is likely to happen soon?

I hope so. I think that we have reasons to be optimistic because the younger generations are very aware of environmental issues and keep strongly advocating for a change, so I’d like to think that it will happen, eventually.
 

Harvest at Suertes del Marqués vineyard, Tenerife, Canary Islands. Photo by Mónica R. Goya

Left: Winegrowers tending the vines at Suertes del Marqués vineyard, Tenerife, Canary Islands
Right: Envínate’s vineyard on Tenerife. Some winemakers use the traditional rope system which is very sustainable,
as they make the ropes from local banana tree leaves. Photo by Mónica R. Goya

Núria of Clos Lentiscus winery with one of her wines at her family’s estate in Catalonia.
Photo by Mónica R. Goya for Pipette magazine.

 
Is the food media ready to cover labour related issues that are so clearly connected to food, to stop talking about the chef and start at the root of the food chain, at the farmer, grower or migrant worker? And it’s not just about restaurants, but about supermarkets, too, to understanding how many people are essential to getting products to the supermarket.

I guess it depends on who the audience of those food publications is and how much editors want to push for a change, how much they’d like to give more visibility to those who feed us every day. Mainstream food media might not be there yet, but thanks to digital publishing, there are high-quality newsletters covering the issue. Also, independent magazines such as Whetstone, a personal favourite, are working hard to bring much-needed diversity to the food media table.
 
 

”Food there is understood as a whole, not the mere
act of cooking or eating, but the whole process,
from growing crops, to the ritual of communal
eating which seems to reinforce social bonds.”

 
 
You have written a piece for Whetstone magazine, Free Spirit, Free Wines, about the wine of the Canary Islands, where Victoria Torres Pecis produces wines that reflect the land and local traditions. Could our post-pandemic world be a world in which small communities are finally thriving again, in which wine producers, for example, will have more freedom of retaining a personality of their own?

I am very intrigued to see what happens next. We humans have multiple urgent fronts to address at the moment, just for the sake of our own survival. I am no expert, but here in Europe it’s difficult to see how small farming communities can thrive if the Political Agricultural Policy (PAC) continues to base its subsidies system in quantity: the more land a farmer owns, the more subsidy he or she receives, instead of prioritising vital issues like sustainability or conservation… Currently around 80% of CAP subsidies go to just 20% of largest farms. The CAP reform has been postponed until early 2023, and there is hope since the European Commission’s proposals for the future of the CAP include issues such environmental care, climate change action or preserving landscapes and biodiversity among others, however, basic payments will continue to be based on the farm’s size in hectares.
 

Victoria Torres sharing one of her wines in her 19th century cellar in La Palma, Canary Islands.
Photo by Mónica R. Goya for Whetstone magazine

 
I personally know so many people who have relocated to the countryside, to more remote places, who have experienced a new-found appreciation for a simpler way of life. Do you think it’s a welcomed, much-needed, long-term change worldwide or is it again a matter of privilege only reserved to the few?

I wish everyone could choose where to live, but unfortunately the reality isn’t that simple. The globalised world we live in seems to be designed for cities to continue to grow, and so I guess that to go against the current, you need to have not only aplomb but also the resources to navigate it. More often than not, it seems to be entrepreneurs or high-earners on qualified jobs the ones who have it easier to choose where to live, countryside or cities, because their employers are happy to discuss remote working. Urbanites working in low paying jobs that require a physical presence don’t really get to choose to move to the countryside because that would mean to lose their jobs. The latter are also spending a significant part of their daily lives commuting, doomed to live in cities that are becoming increasingly unaffordable, while average wages are stagnant. A simpler way of life sounds idyllic, I have to admit I fantasise about it all the time, however, for us to have the option to choose, we might need to rethink first our approach to what work means in the 21st century.

Is there any particular place you have in mind if you were to choose a simpler way of life?

Yes, there are a few… But if I had to choose just one, it’d probably be northern Spain, what is often called Green Spain. It’s a territory with strong regional identities and the landscapes are stunning, for an outdoorsy person it’s heaven. You have mountains like Picos de Europa National Park, a beautiful coastline with some of the best seafood on earth, idyllic islands like Cíes, brilliant food beyond the many Michelin starred restaurants of San Sebastián, lovely people… As you might have noticed, I am not very impartial on this one…
 

Photo by Mónica R. Goya for The New York Times

 

If you had to choose one book about travel and food that can help you escape, which one would you choose?

DISHDAA´W “La palabra se entreteje en la comida infinita” (editor’s note: the book is unfortunately not currently available in online shops) which tells the story of the incredible Abigail Mendoza Ruiz, a Zapotec woman who lives in Oaxaca, Mexico. The book unveils the way of life of her community and how she learnt to cook at a very young age, while providing an insider’s view of everyday life in Teotitlán del Valle, her village. I am not sure that one is available in English, so if you don’t mind, I am going to share two if that’s ok?

That would be great. Please do.

I have also enjoyed massively Tasting Georgia, written by Carla Capalbo. She is a brilliant travel and food writer and the book takes you through a gastronomic journey across the country, it’s a joy.

What about a favourite food film? Is there a movie that has made you appreciate the power or tradition of food in a way you never had before?

It’s always difficult to choose, but now Honeyland comes to mind, it has made a big impression on me. It’s a documentary about a wild beekeeper who uses ancient methods for harvesting wild honey in an unspoilt area in Macedonia. She harvests the traditional way, sustainably. If I remember well, when harvesting, she said something along the lines “half for them, half for me”, meaning that she always left enough food for the bees. Everything changes when new neighbours settled in the abandoned village where she lives with her elderly mother. The documentary really conveys a powerful ecological message and valuable life lessons.

And if you yourself were to take us on a food journey, which country or region would you choose (new from what you have already covered)?

I’d love to visit Mexico’s Pacific Coast. The country is incredibly diverse and rich and its gastronomy is truly unique, permeating every aspect of life. Having visited other areas of the country, it feels like food there is understood as a whole, not the mere act of cooking or eating, but the whole process, from growing crops, to preserving ancient traditions and techniques passed down through generations, or the ritual of communal eating which seems to reinforce social bonds. Plus, the country is the birthplace of so many foods such as corn, pumpkins, cacao, chili peppers, tomatoes, avocados or vanilla among many others.

What do you always take home from your travels?

In my experience, each travel is different, but now that I haven’t been able to travel for a while because of the pandemic, I can see that what I miss the most about travelling is interacting with people and learning about their lives. I think travelling is a fantastic vehicle to gain a better understanding of the world. Doing your research and reading books about a place is a wonderful starting point, but I feel nothing can replace those enlightening conversations with locals for they provide unique layers of meaning in your understanding of a culture or a place.
 

Photo by Mónica R. Goya

 
 

Website: monicargoya.com | Instagram: @monicargoya

 

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