I first came across the work of Greek photographer Stratis Vogiatzis a few years ago when I heard about the publication of his book Inner World. A long-term photographer, he captures something wondrous and inexplicable in the worlds he explores. Equally, his descriptions of his projects cast poetic shadows alongside his photographs. After three years and more than seven countries into fishermen, I talked with Stratis about the project, where it came from and where it has taken him.
When did you start the project? Stratis Vogiatzis: I started this project three years ago and it is still in progress. I started taking pictures of my small island in Greece, Chios, and then I continued to document the life of the fishermen in the whole region of the Mediterranean Sea and in more than seven countries. I don't know when I will finish. I think deep inside me I don't want this project to end because I don't want to lose all the magic that is present when I am inside a fishing boat in the middle of the sea. And I don't want to stop eating fresh fish.
Why were you drawn to the subject of fishermen? Stratis Vogiatzis: I was born and raised on an island and I spent all my childhood close to the sea. The sea is very important for my balance. When I am away from the sea for a long time I don't feel okay. When I was doing a project about this island, I photographed fishermen as well. Someone asked me why I was travelling with them and I answered that I was doing a project about the island. He answered, why don't you make a project about fishermen as well. I thought that it was a great idea. Doing a project that has to do with the sea? Fantastic!!
How has the project changed over the years? What was the original focus of the project, what is it now? Stratis Vogiatzis: At the beginning, it was more of a reportage. I wanted to document the various forms of fishing and document the life of the fishermen in a more journalistic way. Over time, this changed because I changed as a photographer. At the beginning, photography for me was about the image. Now it is about the experience. It is not about a good or a bad image. It is about taking a true or a false image. Although it sounds heavy to say that photographs - in order to have value for me - must be the document of a religious experience. The fishermen project evolved into a very personal project and all the images that have descriptive value have no importance for me now. In a way, through the world of the fishermen I speak about my longings, my fears, my need to communicate with others.
How much time do you usually spend with the fishermen on their boats? Stratis Vogiatzis: It depends. The longest I stayed in a boat was one week. But it’s not only in the boats. I also spent a lot of time with them in the ports. The thing is that I wanted to spend more time with them. I have worked on this project for three years, but not with the intensity that I desired.
In your description of the project, you talk about the energy of the sea. How do you think if affects your photography? Stratis Vogiatzis: Many times I felt a drama was taking place in front of my eyes, a drama that shows the desperate, primeval need of the people to tame nature, to overcome their weakness against the power of the sea and demand that she obeys their will. It is my strong belief that 'the people of the sea', as Proust called them, are the gatekeepers of a world totally unfamiliar to us. Being with them is a unique experience, to see how they deal with the wind and waves, the methods and the sea paths they follow when they hunt the fish and the incredible stories they share. It always comes as a great pleasure to observe the very special relation they share with the sea and its secrets. The connection that these people have with the sea is something that we cannot understand. They know the sea like we know a certain neighborhood in the city we live and, at the same time, the sea remains the biggest mystery for them. Although they know her mood, the winds, the currents, nevertheless they will always be foreigners invading an alien space.
What is it like to photograph in such a small space with lots of people and without much privacy? Stratis Vogiatzis: What strikes me is the simplicity of their life inside the boat. The word personal space doesn't exist in their vocabulary; they share a small space inside the cabin that is transformed into a small world in which they laugh, fight, communicate, spend time together. They eat upon a newspaper and when they finish eating, they gather the newspaper and put another one where they drink tea or coffee. When they are exhausted, they simply lean on each other or they find a small corner where they can rest. They are is no complexity in the life of the fishermen, neither I think the hypocrisy of pretending to be something different than they really are. What overwhelmed me the most was the authenticity of their lives and the fact that they are keeping the same simple, 'insignificant' way of life. The limitation of the space they share is exchanged by the infinity of the ocean and the harsh conditions of their work are exchanged by the freedom the share being in the middle of the ocean. Every fisherman is a traveller and every fishing day is a journey for them.
Has your experience photographing the fisherman made you reflect on your profession as a photographer? Are there any parallels? Stratis Vogiatzis: I’ve never seen photography as a profession. I still don’t know how to act as a professional. I wished I knew, but I don’t. On the other hand, I consider myself very lucky that I can do what I love in photography and still pay the bills. I don’t think that the fishermen project made me a good professional, rather the opposite. At the same time though, I found a space inside me, a connection with the photography that I want to preserve intact.
All photos used with permission from the photographer. To read more about the project, click here.