Splendid Ocean Views
The life of fishermen and women is not for the faint of heart. Documenting that life for all to see and appreciate is not much easier. David Hills has been doing just that for over a decade, capturing all that encompasses the domain of working on the open ocean. The seemingly endless amount of work, the exhaustion after a long day, the joy and the heartache; Hills sheds light on a world so foreign yet so vital to us all.
Hills has been a professional photographer for 20 years, specializing in the very controllable arena of corporate and editorial portraits, advertising campaigns and annual reports. “Guys in suits,” David chuckles. “Projects where I can control the people, the light and the background.” If he’s not calling the shots, then it’s an art director or other advertising executive that’s running the shoot. Either way, the entire scene can be deftly managed and finessed to create the best possible look on film…something that’s impossible to do aboard a working commercial fishing vessel. “The only constant is that you’re aboard a boat,” David says and adds with a laugh, “hopefully it stays that way!”
The Maryland resident has been coming to Cape Cod regularly through the years and nearly became a wash-a-shore resident of Orleans this summer, the deal falling through before papers could be passed. It was during these trips that David began to gain an interest in the fishing fleet as it returned with their daily catch. “My only experience was standing on the fish pier in Chatham,” he recalls.
Eleven years ago Hills decided to further foster this interest by signing on for a trip on a boat working the Gulf of Alaska. Since then, he has been documenting the lives of commercial fishermen from ports all around the country, including Cape Cod, where he returns every year for at least a few trips. Whether it’s a long day trip out of Chatham, a three or four day excursion aboard a dragger or a two-week voyage in Alaska, Hills has to first talk his way on board. Many times not everyone knows that a guest will be among them.
“I’ll be talking to the captain and he’ll agree to it, but the crew doesn’t know that I’ll be coming along for the trip,” Hills states. That can make for some pretty uncomfortable moments as the crew sizes up their guest. “Sure, sometimes they’ll try and test the boundaries, but they all settle in after a while,” Hills states. There was a captain who took years to warm to the idea, and now the two are good friends.
One fisherman who tested the waters with David was John Kelley, the very epitome of a commercial fisherman, his cigarette firmly planted within a sneer under his bushy salt-and-pepper goatee as weathered as his knit cap. Kelley eventually warmed to the idea of a photographer on board the vessel to the point where he grabbed the wing he had just sliced off a skate and wrapped it around his neck, posing ever so briefly. “It happened in a split second,” Hills remembers, snapping the picture that has gone on to earn Kelley a certain amount of fame. The Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance has used the shot for its annual report, and Focus Gallery on Main Street in Chatham has been selling prints of the image. Now people are recognizing Kelley on the street.
When asked how he is able to be in position to get those incredible pictures, Hills’ experience comes through, “Fishing has a certain repetition to it.” The setting of nets or lines and the hauling of the catch is repeated over and over. “I get a sense of the rhythm of the boat,” Hills explains. “I try to anticipate what the light will do.”
As the skill of attaining the perfect shot has grown, so too has the understanding of the modern commercial fisherman. “I went into this with the stereotypical assumptions that all trawlers destroyed the environment and all long liners killed birds,” Hills recalls. “And that’s just not true.”
Hills is at his most passionate when describing his subjects. “They’re just great people who are extremely intelligent.” he says. In regard to dealing with the ever-present and ever-changing sets of fishery management regulations, Hills affirms, “They have to have the patience of Job, and despite all of it they persevere!”
This journey to document the realm of the commercial fisher has been self-funded until recently. Hills has completed contract work for the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance and recently worked on a project for the Nature Conservancy in Southern California. It’s a mission that will endure and we will continue to appreciate his beautiful work (as seen within these pages). It will also continue to further our appreciation of those who strive to provide for us our sustenance…in stunning fashion.