🔎 In Focus: Interview with photographer Michael Flores

And, some other things I'm trying out for December

🔎 In Focus: Interview with photographer Michael Flores

December: Following the footsteps of year-end reviews like Spotify Wrapped—where December seems to be some sort of purgatory month of "do whatever"— I am testing new features in tanJennts. Formatting, sections, and cadence may change. Free subscribers will still receive at least two posts, and paid subscribers will still have at least four posts overall. If you enjoy any of the content this month, I would appreciate feedback!

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Photo credit: Joel Smedley

🔎 In Focus: Interview with Michael Flores

In the adolescent days of Instagram—when you could finally upload higher resolution photos but before the company started investing in creators—it was a good time for photographers to be noticed. The coffee world was still small there, and cafes needed to be convinced to be on yet another social network. Michael Flores (@mikflores) was one of the first coffee photographers that I noticed on the app and the subject of today’s In Focus interview.

Enough years have passed where I am not sure when we became Instagram mutuals. It was also the first time in a while “So this can turn into a therapy session,” he joked. In actuality, it’s not uncommon for me to hear that, though I’m not sure if that’s just me or “normal” for those who conduct interviews.

Michael’s day job is a cybersecurity engineer. He’s best described as a photographer and is hesitant at being called any kind of influencer (more on that later). One of the things I admire most about his skills is the ability to make something so common like coffee, be the subject of an interesting photo. I don’t know about you, but even as a photographer, I get bored by constantly photographing the same subject. For Michael, though, it’s a challenge he embraces. He says, “I like challenging myself, so I wanted to keep exploring different ways to shoot something very basic in a sense, like a cup of coffee.”

On an aside, there’s a joke in marketing where you know someone’s a good marketer when they can make something as mundane as, say, a bidet, be interesting (see Tushy’s marketing, I’m in awe). Anyway, coffee is not mundane, but I hope you get the gist.

His passion for coffee photography began as a way to escape his day job. “I had really technical and stressful jobs back then that I needed to escape and slow down, like immerse myself in this one subject of coffee and photography,” he says. “Be a little more creative and loose in that way, compared to how most of my days would go.” For a bit, he’s also worked as a photographer and as a weekend barista at a local shop. Over the course of the hour, we talked about his creative inspiration, his opinion on the influencer scene, and his cultural identity.

In Focus is a series of interviews with creatives who are in the coffee industry or adjacent to it.

Jenn: Do you have a dream to go into photography again?
: No, not really. I always struggled with monetizing your hobbies. Every now and then, I’ll pick up a job. Most of the time, anything that I post, it’s probably in a frenzy. I get the spark. I plan it out in my head. I go do it, I shoot it, I edit it, and then it's done. And if at any time I lose steam, or I'm like, this isn't working out, then it just, it dies. I don't have any long-term projects or ideas that I'm working on. A lot of my feed on Instagram—which is the only public place where I share photos—a lot of those just come from very, very short bursts of creative energy. I don't have a backlog or scheduled posts. If I posted it, I probably took that picture 10 minutes before.

I was about to ask how long that process was.
So for coffee, obviously, it's as long as it takes to make the coffee. And then, I'll sit down with my coffee and edit as I drink it. That's one thing I've tried to constrain myself with, and at least photography on Instagram, because it's just Instagram to me. I don't want it to be more than what you see.

Substack is not letting me embed reels, so here’s the preview and direct link.

About the video

Lately video work is new to me, so I'm learning a lot of things. there's usually something for me to challenge myself or to say, I wonder if I could do this? I wonder, what if I try some really cool lighting? And that's what led to the last video that I posted. That was really just me focusing on lighting and color grading. That one stemmed from the whole idea where sometimes, I have my coffee and then I just need another one. With the lever and the shot, you have to replace your cup with whatever waste cup and let the lever fully depressurize. So I was like, okay, what if I just take my empty cup that I was drinking and then use that to replace it? To take the espresso to keep having another drink coming. That's the idea that was in my head. And then it turned into, okay, what if I can light it and try cool lighting, and audio, and all this, and set it up…and the whole kitchen had headlights and stuff everywhere eventually. An hour later, I had a video and I was like, cool, cool. I could do it.

Do you have a hot take on the coffee influencer scene?
I anticipated this question. All I do is hot takes, it shouldn’t be too hard. What I see in coffee and influencers is whatever's popular, whatever the algorithm decides to make popular, it's not even their decision. What we're trying to learn is not really coffee, like how to make better coffee or to improve coffee or better coffee. But it seems the end goal in all this is just trying to make the best coffee-making experience. What you end up making doesn't matter. As long as you had a really beautiful pour over setup and a nice kettle and a grinder that just worked perfectly and a really aesthetic looking brew bar. As long as all that pleased you, then it doesn't matter if the coffee was a grocery store no-name brand old beans or whatever. You don't have to drink it. No one cares about that.

There's a lot more to that. I mean, I'm not against having good gear. There's so much more to coffee than having a fancy pour over at home. There's more you can use your platform for than just gear and reviews. There's so many things that you can focus on and highlight and help educate people about.

Well, this question might be related to that. What is one thing that stresses you out about the coffee industry as someone who's not in it but observes a lot of it?
Experts in coffee being a little too forceful and authoritative with whatever they're trying to teach. What stresses me out is that the really popular people aren’t—and I could be really wrong—but like just aren't doing things as well as I think they can be doing it. Why can't you just be more open or consider the impacts you have are huge?

So would you agree that if you have the platform, then you should have the responsibility to, let's see, to be more than superficial?
I think so. I think that would be ideal if you have that platform and to be open to criticism and feedback and dissension. You should be ready to take responsibility on things and maybe even be really open to change in discussion and be open to people holding you accountable.

Do you see yourself going into coffee if you're offered the opportunity?
Maybe partnering to do something coffee related with someone. It's still a draw for me to try to do something impactful. My job is great and I assume that I'm helping all of our customers but I like being closer to the impact. I think that that want is still going to be there and I could see coffee playing a role in that sometime in the future.

So when you said partnering up, did you mean cafe or just in general, something coffee-related?
Something coffee related. I wish I could take weekends and start a little pop-up. I can't because I don't have any money. That's the one thing that I've always struggled with—which is, it’s really hard to give up something very stable. Growing up, it wasn't and that's why I probably still hold on. I would pick the more stable job even though it's probably not as fun or exciting to me. Cause it just feels like something really good that I never got to see in my own life growing up with my family. So if I can somehow do both, that would be great. That's what I keep trying to do; keep trying to fund my hobby of photography and keep that other part of me alive while at the same time, having a nice, stable job and trying to just keep my bills paid.

I wish I could be a photographer and I wish I could be a cafe owner. What I enjoyed about photography was the connections you make with the people and really capturing something meaningful. And coffee is doing something meaningful, even if it's a few minutes a day with that one person.

On growing up

At the end of interviews, I like to ask who they think I should interview next. Michael named someone who really embraces his heritage and, in part, made him reflect on how he should, too. Growing up, his dad demonstrated—through actions, not words—that you didn’t want to be associated with Mexicans, so he ended up not learning anything about his culture.

When you’re the third generation, it can be difficult to undo those years of assimilation. Assimilation in itself was and still is, sometimes a necessary part of being “accepted” as American. He reflects, “I'm not ashamed to say I'm Mexican. The hard part is I'm not Mexican, though. Like I'm not Mexican enough: I don't speak Spanish. I barely speak it even well or correctly. And I didn't grow up with any of the traditions. I never had any of the culture that I can relate to. But I would love to.”

He grew up in and is back living in San Antonio, Texas. About the city, Michael says that it’s “unique in that a lot of the people here, we were in Texas before Texas was Texas. There's a lot of history here, and I’m just trying to learn what I can about my history.”

I hope you enjoyed this interview as much as I did! If you enjoyed reading this, then I recommend that you give him a follow on Instagram at @mikflores and read the other In Focus interviews that have already been published.

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📝 Notes from Jenn:

I took my first flight in three years yesterday and am now working from my childhood bedroom desk this week. It feels very weird.

🔏 Last week, paid subscribers received a BTS of a recently published article. It was also accidentally sent to free subscribers as a preview (sorry!). I didn’t realize putting in a paywall also meant it auto-checked the “send to free subscribers as preview” box, and my finger tapped the publish button way too quickly for me to catch it.

Behind the scenes of writing about Vietnamese-owned coffee businesses
I go into an anxiety loop for every article I write. More accurately, it’s a sine-looking graph. Last week, I covered my writing process for reported and researched pieces. The process is much shorter when it’s an essay and/or requires no interviews. The intensity of anxiety varies between articles, but it is never absent.

Current project: Last year, I did a year-end review that was more thorough than any I’ve done before. I didn’t even finish the entire thing. This year, I’m aiming to do the same review but at least get most of it completed. I’m following this annual review outline. The Google Doc linked in the article no longer works, so I made my own template (public link) based on last year’s review.

👀 interesting reads

My boyfriend, a writer, broke up with me because I’m a writer [The Guardian]: I’ve always had a set rule to never date within the industry I’m in (coffee) because I didn’t have the patience to manage a fragile ego. I don’t have the patience to do it outside the industry, either, but that at least is a less direct comparison.

The ability to bend an inch at a time while seeming to stand up straight is a useful and gendered skill

We All Scream for Asian American Ice Cream [TASTE]: I’m all for more flavors of ice cream!

A wave of AAPI-led businesses are putting flavors like carrot halwa and toasted rice into pints.

Back to the ‘90s [SAVEUR]: Food nostalgia! A large set of articles all around the theme of 90s food and memories.

You’re in a good mood today—Elton John’s new earworm is bopping in your headphones, you’re seeing Hocus Pocus tonight at the movies, and friends are coming over later for antipasti and focaccia, the “it” bread that’s on every menu these days.
artful leaf outlines on left, "plant update" immediately to the right
A portion of my mom’s plant collection. For living in an area that has gray skies for a good portion of the year, I’m impressed by what she can grow.