Brilliant colors leap out of Joe Coca’s photos, and the enlarged prints lined up on long tables in the Pioneer Room at Trinidad State Junior College create an arresting panorama. One wants to step closer to get a better look, or better yet, one feels compelled to do so.
Coca, a local guy brought up in Weston, left the area to travel and photograph the world. He’s now back home in Las Animas County and was sharing his experiences as part of TSJC’s “Food for Thought” lunch hour series. An approachable man with an easy smile, Coca began the presentation with a slide show then jumped right into telling stories.
His photos are themed around people who work with traditional textiles, such as dyeing, weaving and spinning. He spoke of the hard lives people have in places he’s visited, including Peru, Laos and Morocco. But he said he was generally welcomed upon arrival. “They know we’re coming, I go with a handler.” Coca has worked with a textile company for 40 years taking photos, and said he was only thrown out of one place, Chiapas, Mexico. “Mexico is the only place where they feel like you’re exploiting them. In some instances it’s true. The photos end up in a book.” But the subjects are also paid, and in at least one case, the exposure gained through Coca’s photographs led to sales well beyond the local market.
Coca doesn’t carry much equipment on the trips, though he sometimes uses external lights. “Mostly it’s available light,” he said. And while some of the small towns and villages Coca visited have no electricity or running water, the locals have other ways of keeping comfortable. Coca said he often needed the chief’s approval before getting to work. This could entail drinking “shots with the village chiefs, sometimes at 9 a.m.” On another trip, they “mixed up a concoction and 20 minutes later I was sitting under a tree hallucinating,” he recalled with a laugh.
By telling the stories behind the photos, Coca offered enriching insight into the subjects who opened their lives to his camera. His latest photographs are featured in a coffee table-style book called The Human Thread published by Thrums Books. Coca’s website is JoeCocaPhotography.com.