Notes From the Field: Mark J. Davis 2010 Photocrati Fund Winner

Mark J. Davis, the 2010 Photocrati Fund Fellow, recently completed his project in Southern Chile. We are honored to share his insight and his work here.

About Mark’s Project

A 2006 study by an international group of ecologists and economists projected the collapse of the world’s fishing stocks by the year 2048—due mainly to overfishing. While consumers will be the last to feel the effects –there are tens of millions of people worldwide who live in small fishing communities that depend on the sea for subsistence who are already reaping the consequences.

This project documents life in one such community in Southern Chile where due to a lack of other opportunities, small-scale fishing operations are the main source of income. Recent increases in large-scale commercial fishing enterprises that use controversial fishing practices have led to both the depletion of the fishing stock and the destruction of much marine habitat. Mark hopes that this project highlights the disparity between the lives of the small-scale fishermen and those who operate large-scale fishing operations.

Carlos Valladares, left, pushes his boat out to sea with the help of his father, Osvaldo, far right, and other fishermen.

4:27 a.m. My internal clock kicks in a couple minutes before the alarm. Unfamiliar black room, but the smell of saltwater reminds me where I am. I flip on the bare orange bulb that hangs head high. Clothes laid out like the first day of grade school, backpack ready to go. 4:31. Out the door.

I walk briskly through the darkness. Dogs lie asleep in a row, protecting their empty-cobble-stone-street territory. They bark awake as a blob of a shadow approaches. I bend to pick up an imaginary rock and they scatter without further confrontation. I pull a piece of dry bread from my backpack and start chewing. It’s a chore. I have no desire to eat, but I need something in my stomach for the anti-nausea pills. 150 milligrams, a chug of water, and the hope that I may forestall the impending seasickness. Cheers to that.

I am alone when I arrive. It strikes me as more night than morning, but to the east the sky is just beginning its transition from black to blue. A small white dot appears in the distance. Then another. And another. Bobbing up and down in a line, three fishermen with their headlamps trot down the trail. “Gringo!” one of the white dots amicably calls out. The men head directly to their shared shanty and emerge in suits of impermeable rubber. There is a sense of anticipation and things proceed quickly. A log-skid trail is laid in front of “Yenny,” our 18-foot wooden boat that carries the namesake of a fisherman’s inamorata. We scoot the boat to the shoreline and wait for the sea to swell. It comes and we push off into infinite darkness.

The ocean is beautiful and luminescent at dawn. The fishermen’s gaze scans the horizon in silence, searching for the empty Coca-Cola-bottle buoys of the drift net set the day before. We snake back and forth, distant landmarks apparently guiding our way. Another small boat of fishermen passes 25 yards away, their instructions inaudible but their pointing unmistakable. We obediently make a 90-degree turn and head closer to shore. “There,” two of the men call out, arms extended in unison.

Just then my degeneration into seasickness commences. It always begins the same: I fix my mind upon the deep ocean swells and attempt to comprehend them. They are fascinating. I contemplate their nature, whether they move laterally or vertically, or both. They begin to lure me in. I feel my jaw clench and my stomach tighten. My eyelids droop and I know I have erred once again in my curiosity. I drunkenly lift my camera to my face in a last-ditch effort to abolish my musing. The rectangular black box of the viewfinder severs the instability of my surroundings, I feel myself relax, and though I’m fully aware of the absolute psychological nature of my remedy, this rectangular black box has become my placebo.

The three fishermen begin to pull in their long gillnet, and I immediately discover there are surprisingly few angles on the far end of an 18-foot boat. But as the vessel slowly rotates clockwise in circles, I am granted every possible lighting scenario. I soon find I am partial to the backlit version, so each time we come back around I fire off a burst of images. The camera remains pressed to my face, staving off nausea, as the fishermen continue to pull up an empty net. I am sure they are wondering why I am taking so many pictures of nothing. They joke among themselves that I should wait until they pull up a giant conger eel—then, they say, I will have my photograph. But as time passes and more of the vacant net is pulled into the boat, comments become less frequent. Silence eventually settles, and the disappointed pair of circling seagulls moves on. In the end there is nothing to show for the day’s work—nothing but a small, four-inch-long white squid. One of the fishermen pulls its tangled tentacles from the net and places it on the bench, inches from my lens. It’s a gesture made only half in jest, and I feel the tension of the fishermen looking upon me. I know the next move is mine, my finger resting upon an overused shutter release button, and for an instant I contemplate making a frame. But I don’t. Instead I pull the camera from my face. I look up. The fishermen have solemnly turned away.

Heading back to shore I try to convince myself that it doesn’t mean anything. Certainly an issue as complex as the depletion of the world’s fishing stocks cannot be reduced to a single embarkation out to sea, I tell myself. But is it really so complex? The sea, the great symbol of limitless abundance, has been placed opposite man’s seemingly limitless greed, and where there was once bounty there is now scarcity. The consequences of such pleonexia are being reaped by countless communities of small-scale commercial fishermen worldwide. Their existence is threatened by an aggressive fleet of massive industrial trawlers that leave nothing but a wasteful wake of byproduct in their path. These profit-seeking industrialized vessels take in the majority of the world’s annual catch despite representing a fraction of the world’s fishing crafts.  With nearly 80 percent of the planet’s fishing stocks fully exploited, overexploited, depleted or collapsed, the state of our oceans has become alarmingly dismal; scientists have projected a global collapse of fishing stocks by the year 2048. If nothing more, I conclude, the morning’s affair is undeniably symbolic.

As we approach the coastline the rising sun reverses its trajectory and sinks behind the increasingly imposing hills. A lingering seasickness follows me ashore and the lifeless shadow that blankets the land leaves me shivering. I head out to the peninsula’s furthest point, half-hoping to come upon the day’s second sunrise, and sit, head on knees, pondering whether or not these men and countless others are destined to suffer a slowly depreciating livelihood, fishing for leftovers.

A version of this Fishing For Leftovers photo essay is also published at

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. I really envy of their work, and can so close to nature original life. To catch fish, barbecue, epilogue mountain, boating, is my favorite

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