In the twenty years that commercial photographer Wilson Baker has fly-fished the flats of Cape Romain National Wildlife Refuge near his home in Mt. Pleasant, SC, he’s gotten to know the people who make a living there: Fishermen, shrimpers, clammers, and oyster diggers, who either sell their wares independently or to wholesalers. “They’re always out in all kinds of weather,” he says. “I’ve talked to them and bought seafood from them.” And recently, he started photographing them.
Why? Because, the 60-year old Baker says, this regional culture seems to be in danger of disappearing. “The areas they work in are being encroached upon by development, and also it’s getting harder to make a living,” he adds. “Fuel for boats has gone up, the prices of seafood have gone down with competition from outside the country.”
In coastal fishing towns such as nearby McClellanville, the younger generation is turning to new ways of making a living. “It’s a shame,” Baker says, “so I wanted to try to capture this lifestyle before it disappears.”
And so began his documentary project, “Watermen,” in 2007. Since then, he’s photographed a broad spectrum of the colorful individuals who make up the seafood industry along the coast north of Charleston. “I started asking fishermen and clammers at boat landings if I might go along with them,” he says. “Or I’d go to a seafood company and ask, ‘I’m looking to photograph an interesting character in the crabbing business. You know of anyone?’”
And he ended up with a lot of interesting characters, from sunset to sundown, on shrimping boats or in 20-foot flat-bottomed skiffs headed into the tracts of marshland that seafood companies lease and then hire out to local fishermen.
He’s followed them into the mud to shoot—sometimes even lying in it, to get a shot like the one at far left. He’s also photographed onshore in crab processing plants, and once shot a professional fish monger: “I saw him clean and bag 56 pounds of fillets in about 15 minutes,” Baker says. “Now that’s a hard way to make a living.”
Baker considers his work even more relevant now, considering the plight of fishermen further south over the summer: “It’s hard enough to make a living as it is,” he says. “We’re luckier up here. They’re talking about drilling off the coast here and a lot of people are adamantly against it.”
But he’s also enjoyed learning more about the local culture he’s lived alongside for so long. “It’s a different way of life,” he says. “The work is hard, but they enjoy it. They enjoy being out in nature.”
See more of Wilson Baker’s photography at www.iwilsonbaker.com.