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An interview with Corey Arnold can be difficult to arrange if you get there in the wrong month, when he is far away in the North. No mail service, no computers, and he only answers the telephone some of the time: «I’m on the boat: if I don’t answer, keep trying».
Fisherman, photographer, a firm believer in “environmental” fishing, living like a hermit surrounded only by nature, Corey Arnold, a California native, has travelled from Alaska’s Bering Sea to Poland, from Norway to the villages of the Arctic, fishing and photographing the tough, lonely lives of the men who spend months away from home in pursuit of crabs and salmon. His life-long project Fish Work is a splendid document in images of a profession that has not really changed much over the centuries: despite the advent of the food industry and the new technologies, it is still an eternal struggle between man and nature. When Corey Arnold “comes back to civilisation” he lives in Portland with his cat, trying to keep his garden in order and working on his exhibitions and books. The second one, Fishing with My Dad. 1978 - 1995, has just been published.
Fishing is above all a family matter for him: «As soon as I learned to walk my father took me fishing with him every weekend, taking photos of me with the fish,» he says. «When I was 11 he bought me a little Pentax camera, and a few years later I went to Alaska for the first time with him. It was an incredible experience, and after studying photography at college, I went back on my own to find a job on a fishing boat. I had read that you could make a lot of money. That’s how I started doing these two jobs.»
Photography is for Corey above all a link with civilisation, with friends who can’t understand the concept of spending months alone with the storms and the fishing nets. He photographed life on board the boats for them: «They knew nothing about how people live on the boats, about the fishing in the freezing cold». In all his photos of fishermen sleeping next to enormous fish or sitting on mountains of crabs, man is always there, very small, in his orange mac and rubber boots, surrounded by the magnificent, ferocious world of nature. Livid skies, white billows and ships encrusted in ice. «There’s something romantic about fishing,» Corey explains, «especially in Alaska, where you feel like you’re part of a unique, mysterious world far removed from society and the internet. The trip from Seattle to the fishing grounds takes eight days: you never see land, often you don’t even see another boat. You don’t know how the weather will change from one moment to the next, how many fish you will catch, or whether they’ll be any good. At certain latitudes the fishermen still face the same challenges as they did hundreds of years ago. It’s tough, very tough, but you feel good when it’s over.»
His is the work of a historian, a witness to a long-lost world: «On those ships in Alaska there’s an amazing working class. My work documents the changes in it and keeps the memory of it alive,» he explains. The profession is changing, threatened by pollution and overfishing. But despite the environmental risks and the boom in fish consumption, the photographer/fisherman is optimistic: «People are increasingly aware of the importance of eating sustainably caught fish. And Alaska sets a good example in this.» After years of intensive fishing, now «the laws are very strict: of course commercial fishing is relatively young in North America, and Alaska is a huge territory with very few people in it. In Europe the rules are very different in different countries, and the sea has been exploited for centuries.» But Corey is still a fisherman first of all: «You can even fish for whales, provided you do it sustainably, without putting the species at risk». After years of fishing for prawns, he’s switched to salmon. Two different lifestyles: «Fishing for prawns means working under the worst conditions in the world, with 7-10 men in the same boat, in the middle of winter, amidst waves up to ten metres high. Just two men fish for salmon in small boats, in remote places in summertime, with the engine turned off. Like hermits in the wilderness.»
Two years ago Corey bought a boat and fishing permits for Alaska, and in his months “into the wild” he lives with other fishing men, living on grilled salmon like the native peoples of Alaska. Around him, only bears and desolate landscapes. The same ones as he saw visiting the villages of the native peoples of the Great North, or documenting fishing practices in the European Union, from Greece to Spain and France, for the American NGO Pew Charitable Trust. Upcoming projects? «Going out on a Norwegian whaler: young people don’t eat whale any more, but it's still a tradition, and this is what I’m interested in. And then the Mediterranean islands, such as Sardinia».