I am a firm believer in having goals and dreams and constantly working to improve your situation and once achieved taking full advantage because often that chance is fleeting. I recently have had one of my favorite photographic experiences when I used a slow period in New York to take a trip to Alaska in order to document something that few people know much about and that I did when first starting out as a photographer. As anyone who is even a casual fan of photography knows the list of equipment necessary to make someone’s vision become a reality can sometimes be as long as the zeros included in the price. In order to get around that little inconvenience I went fishing in Alaska for 3 consecutive summers. It’s not the more famous and dangerous crab fishing many now know of through television shows and movies but it is a three month sentence in a 50ft cell that floats and rolls and smells a lot like diesel and the ocean mixed in with some jellyfish and salmon. It was the financial catalyst into the career I now enjoy with Reuters and it has been a goal of mine for years to fully document the men (and very few women) who go to sea every summer for a three month commitment that I both miss and never want to experience again.
First I want to thank Chief Photographer of North America, Gary Hershorn, for allowing me to work on this story because I can now safely say that I have crossed a lifetime goal off the list.
It wasn’t easy, the planning started months before the trip with the research and planning necessary in handing Gary an itinerary that would both meet reasonable time constraints and take maximum advantage of my time in America’s northern frontier. Luckily I had kept in touch with my old skipper and after a call to his wife (he was out in the Bearing Sea fishing for herring) I had the permission I needed to begin locking down the logistics. I also realized that other than adding to the global food story a photo essay on some fishermen in the middle of nowhere probably wouldn’t be enough to sell the trip. I racked my brain and came up with a couple other additions that I felt would make a nice total package. I decided to add the Valdez Marine Terminal and Trans Alaskan Pipeline to the list and a quick collection of glacial melt and any wildlife I managed to come across in the process. Putting these together and coming up with a rough plan I was able to have a cohesive idea that I pitched to Gary. Luckily for me he said it sounded good and with a couple of tweaks regarding the time spent on assignment the plan was given the green light and I hit the internet to make the required reservations and plans as giddy as a schoolchild.
Now it was time to plan for how I was going to photograph the different portions of the trip. Having been on a fishing boat before I knew there was one shot that I have always wanted and I began contacting friends to track down an underwater housing for my camera and a dry-suit to take photographs of the fish as they swam in the net before being hauled on board. It was a photograph that came to me almost as soon as I started thinking about the trip and I had to have it. I scrapped the idea of using scuba apparatus to go under the boat and shoot straight up for both reasons of water temperature, training necessary, and equipment needed but I knew that with only a dry suit, some flippers, and an underwater housing I could actually pull off a 50/50 shot. A friend had the underwater housing that I could use and I managed to find a company in Seattle to rent me the dry suit. I was set!
After a wonderful trip to visit my girlfriend in Seattle the bittersweet day of departure finally came and I was off. Contacting the boat via their satellite phone I found out that they were far south of where I had anticipated making it impossible for me to hitch a ride on the tendering vessels that most fishing boats deliver fish to for the trip to Kodiak for processing. My boat, the Renaissance, was fishing near the southern cannery, Alitak, and the only way there was by plane. I had to look up one of several companies that run tiny plane services around the island of Kodiak for the various canneries, native villages, and tiny enclaves throughout the island. I was prepared for a small plane but something always makes you chuckle when you walk out and the pilot says “you want to sit up front with me?”
A thirty minute trip later I found myself in a place called Akhiok which is a minute native village on the southern tip of Kodiak only a short skiff ride to the Alitak cannery which was my destination and rendezvous point for me and the fishing boat F/V Renaissance. I arrived in the morning allowing for some time at the cannery and thankfully the man in charge, a gentleman by the name Woody, is a photography fan and was more than willing to take me on the grand tour. It was a photographic dream, repeating lines filled with headless fish, massive machinery, and hard working employees oblivious to my presence made for an awesome day of documenting the process that the different species of salmon go through before they make it to a dinner plate. Before I knew it 10 hours had sped by and my old friend Jared was walking up to help me carry my equipment to the Renaissance for 3 days of work on-board.
Day 1: Mostly throwing up due to sea sickness. Luckily I was able to photograph in the beautiful early morning light and off and on throughout the day but overall it was spent regretting being on the ocean again and trying to keep the contents of my stomach intact. Sea-sickness was always a demon I had to conquer while working on these boats and I sure haven’t missed it, luckily after a day or two it usually goes away.
Day 2: Good day. Beautiful light and slightly calmer seas, I manage to keep 2 meals down which is a massive improvement over day 1, the light was beautiful and I made some of my favorite photographs this day using the light that is present at 4am in Alaska.
Day 3: Great day, although it is overcast I begin experimenting with an off-camera flash and a slow shutter speed and achieve the elusive ‘feel’ of fishing that I had been searching for. I also work on making audio recordings which goes great for most of the day until I realize my mic is no longer conveying audio to my recorder. A quick investigation reveals that the copper wires in the connecting cord between the two has corroded. Luckily a fishing boat is a mini hardware store and I am able to solder the pieces back together to get it working again, awesome!
Day 4: Unanticipated to even have but I use this day and it’s calmness to climb into my dry suit and hop into the water for two separate ‘sets.’ I would have done more but the shark caught and rolled out of the second net full of fish and the fact that my dry suit is only a “mostly dry” suit keeps me from jumping in more. I also have to clean and pack up all the equipment I have splayed around the boat and wrap up some photographs and audio that I felt I hadn’t quite nailed yet. Overall I am pretty happy with what I got and excited to show everyone what this story wound up looking like. It is an amazing feeling of accomplishment to know you have documented a little seen human experience to the best of your abilities. It only takes a 26 hour ride on one of the crab fishing boats that are used to pick up fish from the salmon fishing vessels to get back to Kodiak but the experience leaves me feeling rejuvenated and refreshed in a way I haven’t felt in quite a while. Now it’s off to the oil terminal and to see what’s left of some glaciers before heading back to New York and seeing what everyone does at the Olympics. Sometimes working is the best thing for you and in the case of having, and getting the chance to achieve a major photographic goal that is most definitely the case.
View a slideshow here.