We interviewed the 2012 Travel Photographer of the Year about this project that celebrates women in the fishing industry.

The 2012 Travel Photographer of the Year, Craig Easton, has completed a magnificent, seven-year project, which has resulted in a series of exhibitions and a very beautiful portfolio publication, presented in large format to showcase the images he captured with his 10 x 8 camera, and available from Ten O’Clock books.

The work examines and celebrates the historical and contemporary importance of women to the fishing industry. Following the route of the traditional herring fleet from Shetland to Great Yarmouth, the project combines large format portraits and landscapes with extraordinary anecdotes to weave a narrative of a unique history of British working women. We asked Craig to tell us more…

What inspired the project?

I’ve worked extensively around the British coast going back 25 years or more, and in fact have had the honour to win two TPOTY awards with work shot on the coast – the overall prize in 2012 which included a portfolio made in Skye and the Outer Hebrides and the 2017 land and sea award for work made on The Wirral peninsula. So I was familiar with the communities around the coast and I worked in and around fishing throughout that time.

I was aware of story of the ‘herring girls’ from pictures and postcards showing women up to their elbows in fish, gutting and packing into thousands of barrels on the quayside. And I was aware of the paintings of people like Winslow Homer who lived for a time in the artists colony around Cullercoats near Newcastle and John McGhie in Fife – both of them, with others, had made paintings of fisherwomen. So I was thinking about this work and the representation of women in fishing and just got to thinking ‘who is doing that work now?’ And of course the answer is women, but nowadays of course they are no longer plying their trade outdoors on the quaysides or in herring yards, but behind closed doors in fish processing houses and factories all up and down the coast.

How long did it take you to get all the material needed for the book?

The project has evolved over seven years. I first started making the portraits of the contemporary fish workers in 2013, just knocking on doors of fish factories and smokehouses and small family firms in Aberdeenshire and then slowly the idea evolved into what it became: a three part exploration and celebration of the contemporary and traditional importance of women to the fishing industry.

The key for me was to connect the contemporary experience to the great tradition of mothers and daughters ‘going to the gutting’ and I wanted to put the spotlight back on the women themselves. In the early years of photography Hill & Adamson made portraits of Fisherwomen in Newhaven near Edinburgh in 1843 and these are widely considered to be the first social documentary photographs ever made anywhere in the world (there is a supplement that comes with the portfolio that examines the shared history between photography and fisherwomen). And then of course the Homer paintings in the north east. In each case the subject of the photograph or painting was the fisherwoman herself – they were not incidental to the images, they were the central character.

I wanted to show modern fisherwomen in the same light, to celebrate and honour the extraordinary hard work and the essential contribution they make to the industry – something that is too easily forgotten when we think of fisher ’men’, those heroic characters going out on the trawlers to bring in the catch. And it seemed to me that for the best part of 100 years the focus had been on the men and there are countless photography books and photoessays about fishermen.

Did you follow the old herring fleet route in one trip or over a number of trips?

The idea to follow the traditional route of the herring fleet came to me a little later on, in 2015 or 2016. This is how projects evolve. I’d made the initial portraits, not just in Aberdeenshire, but in Fife and East Anglia too. But I was looking for a way to bring the project together in a cohesive way. It was then that I started making the large format black and white landscapes and the portraits of the former herring girls to create this three part project. So over the seven years the work involved numerous trips back and forth along the route. I’d spend a week in Shetland then a few days in Newcastle, or a week in Hull, then back up to Orkney – as with all personal projects it had to fit in around other work and as my research and connections grew, I’d go back to places again and again to meet different people, or to work in different weather for the landscapes.

More than a photographic portfolio, the book also features personal testimonies from the subjects – it must have been fascinating for you to hear their stories?

Not only fascinating but a joy and a privilege. I have such great memories of afternoons spent with some of the former fisher lassies – now in their 80s and 90s – listening to them tell tales of their youth and seeing their faces light up as if they were still sixteen and heading off on the journey south for their six month trips. The women used to work in crews of three: two gutters and one packer, and in Whalsay in Shetland I met a number of crews who were still best friends seventy years after they first went off together as young women. So I made audio recordings too and it’s an honour to hear these stories, but I also see it as a responsibility. It’s a cliche of course to think of documentary photography as a ‘first draft of history’, but I do see what we do as important in that respect – we are documenting the world and it is important that this stuff is recorded – some of the stories I recorded will be gone forever if somebody doesn’t take the trouble to remember and write them down.

Did you get a sense of how their working lives have changed / are changing?

There is an obvious sense of the working lives having changed from the way it was when the gutting was all done by hand and packed into barrels, nowadays it all happens in super clean factory environments and when I show some of the older women the pictures of the contemporary processors they fall about laughing at the health and safety wear. Of course in the smaller family firms and smokehouses it hasn’t changed much at all and certainly the raucous banter and humour that fisherwomen were famous for is still there.It’s funny looking at some of my pictures to think that, but for the rubber boots and plastic aprons, some of them could be straight out of the Hill&Adamson pictures of the early 1840s – nothing’s changed and the character is still evident in the faces.

The photographs have been on exhibition – where were they exhibited, and will there be any more exhibitions?

They were first shown in spring 2019 at The Montrose Museum and Art Gallery in Angus in Scotland. From there there was a big show at The Maritime Museum in Hull last summer and autumn. This year’s shows of course have all been postponed due to the pandemic, but the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth are showing the work from March 2021, with exhibitions in Cromer, Newcastle, The Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther, Shetland and St. Andrews to come. Of course all this is being rescheduled now, but the work looks like it will be touring for the next couple of years – there is a show in the US pencilled in for 2021 too.

Do you have any other projects in the pipeline at present?

Yes, I’m one of those photographers that always has three or four projects on the go all at the same time – they are usually inter-related in some way and are usually at different stages of development. A lot of my work is researched based and I try to dig deep into stories – it not just about the pictures, it’s about using photography to investigate, learn about and document aspects of society that fascinate, inspire or incense me! I’ve a show in Blackburn Museum that opens on 30th September that is very different to FISHERWOMEN and looks at issues around social deprivation, housing, unemployment, immigration, representation as well as the impacts and legacy of contemporary and colonial foreign policy. So yes, always new things in the pipeline and never enough time to do them all… 

FISHERWOMEN is published by Ten O’Clock Books. There are two editions:

The Portfolio Edition – A limited edition of 500, each individually signed and numbered by the artist. Each copy comes with Fisherwomen & Photography, a specially commissioned A5 four page insert written by Rachel Nordstrum, Photographic Collections Manager at the University of St Andrews (£23). More info and to order…

The Artists Edition – Strictly limited to 50 editions, this twenty-four page portfolio comes in a bespoke embossed hard case along with with an original 12″ × 16″ print of The hands that gut the herring and a signed & numbered certificate of authenticity (£180). More info and to order…

View more of Craig’s beautiful work here.