For Douarnenez, France-based social documentary photographer Jean-Marie Heidinger, working for GEO France was the realization of a childhood dream.
Brittany, France’s largest peninsula, is located on the northwestern Atlantic coast, directly east of the United States. Because of its proximity to the sea, fishing in Brittany has long occupied a significant role in the local economy and history. Three years ago when a consortium of wild octopi mysteriously began to propagate along the coastline at an exponential level, what began as an unchecked threat to the local sea life and the fishing industry, has quickly become a significant economic moment for the local fishermen, as well as a cultural and social phenomenon. GEO France took note.
The editorial board wanted someone who was comfortable photographing at sea, which can be a difficult environment to work in. French magazines usually commission local photographers who know their region well.
I had recently put together a portfolio focused on Brittany that featured my latest work with local fishers and farmers. Around the same time, the magazine was putting together their story on the octopus invasion of the Breton coast. The director of photography, Valerio Vincenzo, liked my portfolio and said my work would be a good fit. The Art Director agreed. So it looks like I sent my portfolio to the right place at the right time!
Once awarded the project, there were several pre-planning conversations with GEO’s photo department, as well as the journalist assigned to the story, to learn more about the subject, the angle, and what kind of images the magazine was after.
The goal was to document the proliferation of this species along Brittany’s coasts and the fishing techniques used to harvest it. GEO is a prestigious magazine with exacting standards, and photography is given pride of place.
The photoshoots took place in early winter 2022, a cold time of year on the water, yet the temperatures did little to deter Jean-Marie’s motivation.
I went to sea twice, once in November and once in December with the fishermen, who head out daily with their skipper. I also made several trips to the wholesale fish market in Concarneau, where the boats unload their catch.
Because “on location” here largely meant “at sea,” the timing of each photoshoot was key.
Storms are common in winter and the swells can be intense. So I had to find the right moment, between two storms, if I wanted to accompany the fishermen when the sea was more or less calm. At sea, things can quickly turn dangerous if you’re not careful.
With an active fishing boat for a location, due to its size and for the safety of all those onboard, Jean-Marie had to work the shoots solo.
It’s impossible to bring an assistant along on a small boat like this one. The fishermen have to work. They are focused on fishing. As for me, I had to remain concentrated on them, on their gestures, and on the movement of the boat, so that I didn’t interfere with their work. I also had to be careful to avoid putting myself or anyone else in danger. In these situations, you have to be responsive and clear-headed, while remaining attentive to the kind of images you need to capture.
In terms of relating to the human subjects, here Jean-Marie was not working with traditional photo industry “talent,” but the talented practitioners of the local fishing industry.
Generally speaking, people are pleased when you show an interest in their work. If you ask questions and spend time with them, they usually end up accepting you. In this case, the fishermen had to work fast, so they quickly forgot I was there and it was easier to do my job.
GEO’s approach for the editorial was to be twofold: the primary angle was to understand the sudden meteoric growth of this native species.
Scientists are still trying to understand why the octopus population has exploded in the waters off the coast of Brittany in the last three years. The species doesn’t really have any predators, so it is devouring shellfish and crustaceans unchecked.
The secondary angle concerned the economic opportunity the “invasion” afforded the fishermen.
Paradoxically, the octopi represent a real boon for local fishers: they are an abundant, easy-to-catch resource that is found close to the coast and is sold at a fixed price.
But exactly how does one catch an octopus? Jean-Marie’s assignment provided him with an inside perspective on this humane process.
The Breton fishermen I followed use Moroccan techniques involving long cables attached to a dozen or so pots. One of the octopus’s defense strategies is to hide in holes, so naturally they seek shelter in the pots. Once they do, the fishermen just have to pull the cables up to collect their live catch.
Prior to the last three years, octopi were not abundant in French waters, and therefore not readily served in French restaurants. Local chefs have also needed to respond to the population boom.
Octopus is not a major staple of French cuisine. In fact, most of the catch is sold to southern European countries like Spain and Italy, where octopus is very popular. But an increasing number of French chefs are serving it. Perhaps that’s a first step towards more widespread consumption here in France.
In terms of surprises, for Jean-Marie it wasn’t the storms or shooting at sea that was the biggest challenge of the shoot, but rather the regularity in the day-to-day of the fishing process.
The fishermen repeat the same actions all day long, so the most difficult task was producing a variety of different images to give the magazine editors a range of options for the layouts.
Here’s a parting note from Jean-Marie,
It’s always fascinating to be able to embark on this kind of vessel. I feel incredibly lucky when I get to watch the sunrise off the coast of Concarneau. My work enables me to capture the region I live in, and to share the work of the women and men who define it. And that’s something I’m very proud of.
See more of Jean-Marie’s work on his website.
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