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Christopher Payne/Esto for The New York Times Magazine

Work / Publication

Christopher Payne shoots Colombian sweets factory for The New York Times Magazine

In October, The New York Times Magazine published its annual food issue, titled Candy Makes the World Go Round. Taking a global approach to the study of sweets, the cover featured a lollipop made by photographer Massimo Gammacurta. “[He] used a silicon mould to make a lollipop that looks like the earth and then photographed it, capturing its beautiful, sticky imperfections and bubbles,” Gail Bichler, the magazine’s design director, writes in the issue’s Behind the Cover feature.

The features, photography, illustrations and typography are evocative of the multi-faceted response so many of us have to the offer of sugary confections. The issue is imbued with nostalgia for the childhood memory of “forbidden fruit”; the sugar rush, often closely followed by the sensation of a syrupy gloss coating the inside of your mouth – experiencing tooth decay in real time before the energy crash.

The custom type, drawn by art director Matt Willey with highlight illustrations by Luke Lucas, looks jewel-like, glassy and sticky – the letterforms caught somewhere between a boiled sweet and a gummy. “I drew the stencil typeface for the issue and then gave the letters to Luke,” Matt tells It’s Nice That. “I asked him to add highlights in order to make the type look more dimensional… and ‘sticky’. He tried a bunch of different sorts of highlights.”

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Luke Lucas for The New York Times Magazine

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Matt Willey for The New York Times Magazine

The same focus on texture, form and colour comes through in the feature Sugar Works, an essay on the sweet factory Colombina in La Paila, Colombia. Written by Ingrid Rojas Contreras, with photographs by Christopher Payne, it tells the story of “the nation’s beloved candy company” and its star product, the Bon Bon Bums: “Lollipops with a gum centre made in tropical flavours commonly found in the country”, according to Ingrid Rojas Contreras’ piece.

The idea of featuring a sweet factory, and having Christopher Payne shoot it, came to The New York Times Magazine’s director of photography Kathy Ryan and art director Matt Willey “as soon as [we] knew we were producing a special issue all on candy”, says Christine Walsh, associate photo editor at the magazine. “We’ve worked with Chris in the past and thought this subject would be of great interest to him. He has a great eye [for] factories and finds really colourful graphic moments, especially where people intersect with automation.”

Christopher had previously photographed the General Pencil Company, one of America’s last pencil factories, a personal project which then ran in the magazine. For that project, he visited the factory dozens of times over a period of years, capturing every phase of the manufacturing process. “Physically, the Colombina factory was the opposite of the pencil factory: large, modern, and meticulously clean, as food processing plants have to be,” says Christopher. “There were also hundreds of employees, instead of a few dozen, covered from head-to-toe in fitted white uniforms, which made for compelling pictures. Because Colombina and its candy are so integral to Colombian popular culture, the workers exuded a sense a pride, optimism, and communal spirit that I typically don’t see in manufacturing. From an operational standpoint, the two factories were quite similar: raw materials entered one end and left the other as finished goods, ready for store shelves. And who doesn’t love pencils and candy? Both are extremely photogenic, colourful, and evocative of childhood.”

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Christopher Payne/Esto for The New York Times Magazine

Before landing on Colombina – the mecca of Bon Bon Bums – as the star factory, Christine Walsh had been working with writer and researcher Elise Craig, searching for the perfect spot, “one that would be producing many different types of candy to give us the most visual variety possible”, Christine says.

It was Elise who found Colombina, and after contacting the company requesting snapshots of the factory she and Christine “were over the moon”. As Christine puts it, “It was a perfect fit – the older machinery had a lot of character, and it wasn’t all automated, many of the actions were done by hand. Chris [Payne] loved the rows of vats in a variety of colours, the fact that the space is clean and bright, and that the worker’s wore Willy Wonka-esque uniforms.”

Christopher had access to the factory for four days, spending the first day scoping out the space and the varieties of sweets: “He filed scouting shots to us and the possibilities were overwhelming! Kathy and I weighed in on what we thought he should spend his time on, though different candies were being made every day,” says Christine.

“There were so many interesting things happening that it was overwhelming; good pictures seemed to beckon everywhere,” says Christopher. “To filter out the visual chaos, I looked for scenes unique to candy-making, which were colourful and geometrically ordered in a way that would make for a strong composition. Then I added dramatic lighting to darken the background and focus in on the action.”

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Christopher Payne/Esto for The New York Times Magazine

Christopher’s photo essay was commissioned first, and once Colombina had confirmed access, the magazine’s story editor, Claire Gutierrez, assigned the story to be written by Ingrid Rojas Contreras. “She grew up in Colombia and was familiar with Colombina – she had an emotional connection to the subject,” Christine says.

There’s an interesting interplay between Ingrid’s writing and Christopher’s photographs, a mix of familiarity and the shock of the new. While Ingrid’s story has a good dose of nostalgia, sharing the rose tint of some of Colombina’s sweets, Christopher’s photographs have something of the unmuddied gleam of a child’s eyes seeing a bounty of sweets for the first time – harking back, perhaps, to Ingrid’s early memories of Colombina.

In both the print and online editions of the magazine, Christopher’s photographs appear at a scale that drops you right into the sweet-making process; as a sort of Borrower, navigating a glossy, lurid landscape, dusted with sherbet and rolling barrels of goo. “For the print edition, we decided to go for broke, running the photographs as large as we could for visual impact,” says Christine. “We knew we could always add more for the online version” (which also included videos and a Spanish translation of Ingrid’s essay).

“Ingrid’s essay imbued my photos with cultural significance and personal meaning,” says Chritopher. “Her childhood recollections were exactly what I hoped for, echoing sentiments voiced by a Colombian friend that had helped sway us to select Colombina from a long list of candy factories around the world. When I asked my friend if he had heard of Colombina, he replied immediately: ‘That candy was my childhood!’”

The photo essay documenting Colombina – like Christopher’s photographs of the pencil factory – acts as a conduit for his concerns about the devaluation of, and detachment from, manual labour, as well as a celebration of the work of the sweet factory. “I’m deeply concerned about the loss of manufacturing and craftsmanship in the American workplace and the devaluation of manual labour in our culture,” he says. “In this era of service jobs and office work, we have little connection to the products we use or the people who make them.

“With my photographs, I try to bridge this gap and celebrate the essential things we take for granted. I also pay tribute to the workers, who are a mix of young and old, skilled and unskilled, recent immigrants and veteran employees, some of whom have spent their entire lives in a single factory. Recently, there’s been talk in the US about the adverse effects of immigration, but from what I’ve seen, if it wasn’t for immigrants willing to take these low-paying jobs, many American factories would be out of business.”

Sugar Works is a testament to the relationship between memory and taste, and the ways personal experience can cross over with larger, increasingly pertinent themes of corporate culture, automation, workers’ rights and the nature of life in America as an immigrant. In the opening paragraph, Ingrid writes of how, although she’s able to “find food portals” to her life in Colombia on bodega shelves, “the one food item” she cannot find in San Francisco is “the candy of [her] childhood”. A familiar flavour – the crunch of a sugary globe – can be what settles anxiety, or places you more clearly in your surroundings, creating a through-line between where you are and where made you.

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Christopher Payne/Esto for The New York Times Magazine

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Christopher Payne/Esto for The New York Times Magazine

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Matt Willey for The New York Times Magazine