Photography book celebrates the Bay
Special from the Bargaineer
— Last month, Annapolis-based photographer Jay Fleming released his new book, “Working the Water,” a compilation of three years’ worth of photography focused on the Chesapeake Bay, the waterman culture, and Maryland’s seafood industry.
Last Thursday, Fleming visited the Havre de Grace Maritime Museum to give a presentation on his project and promote his book to a room full of watermen and seafood enthusiasts.
His journey of chronicling the Chesapeake spanned nearly the entire bay area, from the Susquehanna River region near Havre de Grace all the way down to the mouth of the bay in Virginia. His project took him into every corner of the bay.
“What really inspired me to start the book was working with Art Daniels,” Fleming said.
Daniels, at the time Fleming met him, was a 93-yearold skipjack captain. “I was inspired to compile the photos into a visual narrative of the Chesapeake Bay.”
The project, he said, wasn’t necessarily a new endeavor that hadn’t been done before. Acknowledging this, Fleming sought unique perspectives to capture one-of-a-kind shots.
Fleming immersed himself in the subject to create stunning photographs — many of his photographs were taken from in the water or underwater. In one photo, he poses in a fishing net — covered with freshly caught fish.
“Another important aspect of my book is showing what the seafood looks like in its natural habitat,” Fleming said, showing underwater photographs of crabs hiding in aquatic grasses and catfish in the Potomac River.
For his book, Fleming captured over 300,000 photographs. There were days he’d take thousands of shots, and not get any keepers, and there were days he’d shoot a hundred, and get several keepers.
Realizing that the Chesapeake Bay is always in the news for the wrong reasons, Fleming aimed for a positive portrayal of the bay and the seafood industry. His goal, he said, was to tell the story of watermen, crab pickers and the seafood itself.
“There’s a lot of bad publicity out there about the Chesapeake Bay, but a lot of it is still vibrant and full of life,” he said.
Possibly due to the negative image of the seafood industry, many watermen were skeptical and reluctant to let Fleming on their boats, he said.
“At first, they didn’t see
HAVRE DE GRACE
what benefit it would be,” Fleming said, explaining that watermen felt “apprehensive.”
Sometimes, he didn’t bring much luck to the watermen. Other times, he was good luck.
“There were a lot days I was bad luck for the watermen, but this is one of the days I was good luck,” he said, showing a large haul of fish. “It’s nice to see the bay in abundance.”
The crew caught over 30,000 pounds worth of croaker.
He soon became friends with many of the watermen he crossed paths with.
“Eventually, they comed me into world,” Fleming said.
Fleming’s book is divided into four chapters — one for each season.
Displaying a photograph of watermen out on a boat — with ice on the water and snow in their beards — Fleming explains that, “for the watermen, they have to go out and work to support themselves and their family.”
“The goal of these photos is to show how hard it is,” he said.
The seafood industry isn’t just hard work for the fishers and crabbers. It’s tough, dirty work for crab pickers and oyster shuckers, too.
Fleming spent a lot of time in crab picking houses — “where meat is picked by hand” — on the Eastern Shore, primarily in Dorchester County. Machines, he said, aren’t as effective or efficient as handpicking. Not many crab picking houses are left, and the ones that remain are all on the Eastern Shore, he said.
Businesses rely on migrant workers, oftentimes from Central and South America, he explained.
“Not many young Americans grow up to be crab pickers,” he said.
That statement underscores a broader, more significant phenomena witnessed by Fleming. weltheir
Crabbing and fishing are trades that often stay within a family. Many modern fishers and crabbers are fourth and fifth generation watermen.
“It’s really neat to see this generational aspect,” he said, sharing a photograph with three generations of watermen.
But more and more, younger generations are abandoning the trade, and older generations are dying out. Five people photographed by Fleming passed away during the three-year process of creating the book.
It’s kind of sad to see that children don’t take it up,” he said. “But it’s daunting for a young kid to get into.”
Between the early morning hours, physical labor and expensive costs, many children are deterred from the career. Crab pots can cost as much as $50 each. Building a boat is extremely costly and time consuming. One boat documented by Fleming took two years to construct.
“But the business is still lucrative for some,” Fleming explained. “This year was a phenomenal crabbing year, I’ve heard from watermen. It’s good to hear it’s still lucrative for some.”
The globalization of the seafood industry has been a blessing for some watermen.
Not only did Fleming explore the more mainstream fisheries, like crabs and oysters, he also explored the turtle fishery and the eel fishery. He said that Maryland is home to around 20 to 30 turtle fishers.
“The globalization of the seafood industry has opened doors for turtles to be shipped to places where they are consumed more,” like Asia or New Orleans, Fleming explained.
He added that, “If anybody’s ever had eel, it’s actually really good meat.”
Speaking on the bay’s declining crab populations and poor health, Fleming said “it’s an incredibly hard problem that’s difficult to solve.”
He explained that the vast majority of watermen acknowledge what they need to do to sustain the bay. Though, there is tension between watermen and regulators, who set limits on when they can fish and how much they can keep.
“A lot of waterman understand that regulations are in place” to make it sustainable, Fleming said. “Eighty-five to 90 (percent) follow the rules, but 10 percent don’t.”
The Chesapeake Bay’s water quality did nothing but increase during the three-year project, Fleming said.
Fleming’s hopeful for the bay’s future, and he hopes that more people help the cause.
“I hope that my images can serve as motivation for people to want to save the bay,” he said.
As for future projects, Fleming said he’s considering a project in the Northern Atlantic — from New Jersey to Maine — and in the southern Atlantic Ocean — from Virginia Beach down to Florida.
Fleming’s website can be found at jayflemingphotography.com. His book, as well as calendars and individual prints, can be purchased there.
Fleming poses in a net with a freshly caught haul of fish.
Crabbing and fishing is demanding work, and demonstrating that was a focus for Fleming.