How Hemp Took Over a Photographer's Journey Through Europe

Maren Krings's debut book, H Is for Hemp is a firsthand account of the world’s applications of the plant. The German environmental photographer was living out of her car in the late 2010s, trying to reduce her ecological footprint, when she began a four-year mission toward canna-consciousness.

Adjusting to life on the road was no easy journey until she found her calling, however.

Living a minimalistic lifestyle, Krings would use a single bottle of water to accommodate a full-body shower, keeping herself hydrated with whatever remained. But going as much as five weeks without washing clothes caused her to realize that synthetic materials start to stink quickly. Wool became her go-to material in the winter and hemp in the summer, as she found both were able to withstand longer periods of use.

She cut meat and dairy from her diet, and became more in tune with the world around her, including sudden shifts in the climate.

“When you spend a lot of time outdoors, it’s inevitable that you see these changes happening,” Krings says. “You suddenly have hailstorms in the middle of summer when they shouldn’t be happening, or really heavy snowfalls at a time of year when it had never occurred before.”

An experienced photographer, she stumbled across an Italian hemp farmer a few months into her earthly journey. “It sounded too good to be true,” recalls Krings, who had doubts as the man described the plant’s versatility.

The farmer invited Krings to see it for herself, and she accepted the offer. While visiting the farm, he explained the history of hemp, and how humans have used it to construct paper, textiles and food, as well as hempcrete, a concrete-like building material for homes.

“I am an environmentally conscious person, always have been, so why the hell had I never heard about [hemp] before?” Krings remembers thinking at the time.

Taking advantage of her time on the road, Krings launched into an extensive investigation to find where and how hemp is being used today. Starting in Italy, she then ventured to 26 countries, including Russia and Turkey, and spoke with over eighty hemp-industry experts.

One of the newly published author's takeaways: Different cultures have chosen their own ways of incorporating hemp.

China, for example, didn't ban industrial hemp for decades like the United States did, and has a highly developed hemp textile industry. Central Europe tends to incorporate hemp into the building process, as she witnessed on the Italian farm.

Krings had photographed over 200 hemp-related projects across the world by 2019 while keeping a personal diary. She spent the next two years in “book prison," blocking out any unrelated projects as she assembled all of her photographs and diary entries into a book.

When it came time to print, Krings partnered with a small German paper manufacturer, Hahnemühle, to produce a paper made of 60 percent hemp and 40 percent recycled cotton from the textile industry. She held one of the 700 limited-edition copies in her hands for the first time in March, and presented her story to fellow hemp lovers a week later in Colorado at the NoCo Hemp Expo, one of North America's largest hemp-industry conventions.

“Oftentimes we want to refer to what's done in other countries in order to accelerate the progress in our own country, but we don't have access to it, because we're missing these personal links. We don't have any connections or network, so it's hard to really grasp these stories from different geographies," she says. “I’m really hoping to inspire people and open their minds to the possibilities there are, and I do hope that industrial hemp will be a part of the possibilities that they will consider."