Jay Fleming splits his time between land and sea, but he’s not one of the many local fishermen and watermen who make a living casting or pulling up crab pots. Rather, Fleming is an Annapolis-based photographer who spent two years behind the lens capturing life on the Chesapeake Bay—the sometimes grueling, sometimes rewarding, always unpredictable livelihoods of those who supply seafood to D.C. area restaurants.
Fleming’s shots fill his new book, Working The Water, and are currently on display at the Annapolis Collection Gallery and the Annapolis Maritime Museum. We sat down with him for a Q&A, in which he reveals the concept for his next book, that fact that there’s a market for snapping turtles, and more.
Laura Hayes: I think we’ve reached a point where diners, and definitely chefs, are interested in learning about where their food comes from. You’re helping to tell that story with your photos. Why is it important for people to see what life is like out on the water, especially as D.C. is seeing a boom in seafood restaurants (The Salt Line, Siren, and Fish by José Andrés)?
Jay Fleming: The photography that I’ve done for Working The Water bridges the gap between the watermen who are out harvesting crabs, fish, and oysters and the consumer. It shows the consumer where it’s coming from, who’s harvesting it, and how it’s processed. The story I wanted to tell is about the authentic Chesapeake, these old-fashioned places on the Eastern Shore where people are still making a living shucking or picking. A lot of people can’t comprehend trying to make a living that way and don’t really understand it.
LH: Do you hope your photos will inspire someone to become a fisherman or waterman? You’ve called it a diminishing industry.
JF: I would hope it would encourage people, younger people, to pursue a career on the water. The book illustrates how hard the work is. People are out in inclement weather in the winter. A lot of people don’t understand they have to be out there every day. I don’t know if the book would inspire people to get involved with the industry, but it shows how beautiful it can be sometimes when the sun’s coming up behind the Bay Bridge.
The watermen really love working on the water because they don’t have a set schedule. They can work as hard as they want, and be their own bosses. That being said, it’s a tough way to make a living. They’re dependent upon factors out of their control that affect their income such as how many days you can get out, regulations, and the abundance of what you’re harvesting fluctuates every year.
LH: Take crabs, for example. We published a story about how 2017 was predicted to be a banner year for blue crabs, but now I’m hearing that’s not the case.
JF: I don’t know specific numbers, but the winter dredge survey predicted a good year. Now there’s talk of mature female numbers being low, which would have a big impact on future generations of crabs. A lot of them [crabbers] are upset because they’re going to cut the season short. I’m not going to knock on the science, but it is just a prediction.
LH: You’ve done some work about sustainability and invasive species in the past. Did your passion for conservation and the environment color your photography for Working The Water?
JF: I try to focus on showing stuff that’s sustainable, but the book really showed all of the fisheries in the bay. Some are sustainable, some are not. The reason why I included everything is because I wanted to show a true depiction of the seafood industry. I tried to remain objective, which was pretty hard—there are a lot of controversial things going on in the bay. Environmental groups are lobbying against the seafood industry, but you also have these people who have been making a living on the bay for generations.
LH: Did you learn anything about the life of watermen and fishermen that surprised you?
JF: I thought people who worked on the water did one or two different things. But they do whatever it takes—ten different things throughout the year to make a living. For instance, there’s a chapter in my book about turtle potting of snapping turtles. Those guys I photographed participate in eight different fisheries throughout the year.
LH: People are eating snapping turtles?
JF: There’s a big market for them. There’s a turtle processing facility in Millington, Maryland. It’s the only one on the East Coast. A lot of them are shipped to Asia live. The processed meat from them also goes primarily to the South, places like New Orleans, where turtle soup is a popular dish. At the Tidewater Inn in Easton, Maryland they serve turtle soup. It used to be popular in this area.
LH: What would you say is the Chesapeake Bay shot you’re most proud of, maybe the one that was the hardest to capture?
JF: It’s a photograph of the last house on Holland Island. It was an island in the middle of the bay that used to have 70 homes in the late 1800s. It was a great place to be a waterman. But Holland Island eventually became uninhabitable because of high tides and bad hurricanes in the 1930s. Homes moved off island. People moved off. In 2010, I went out there to shoot pictures on a camping trip and got a photo of the last house six months before it fell into the water. I didn’t understand how meaningful that image was, but it turned into an iconic image for me because it said so much about the bay, the environment, and how things used to be. That picture inspired me to keep exploring.
LH: Now that “Working The Water” is published, what’s your next major project?
JF: Next I’ll be documenting life on Smith Island and Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. Both were in my book Working The Water in a chapter called “Island Life.” I want to elaborate on that, show what life is like for people on these islands, show the religion, what it’s like in the homes, what the women on the islands do, the food, the wildlife, the infrastructure.
Island Life, that’s what I want the book to be called. They’re the only two islands in the Chesapeake not accessible by bridge. Everything is carried over by boat. There are a lot of really great people out there, the nicest people you’ll ever meet. I love being out there and from a historical perspective. It’s important to document them because the islands are under a lot of pressure physically from environment. The bay is encroaching on them, just like on Holland Island. Even before the islands themselves go, the culture is fading away. There are not a lot of young people continuing the way of life their parents or grandparents had. It’s a hard place to make a living for anybody.
(Interview edited for length)