Most people, when hearing the name ‘Sri Lanka’, picture beautiful beaches, elephants and tea plantations. Not me though. When I hear ‘Sri Lanka’ the first image that comes to mind is the iconic Steve McCurry’s photograph of Stilt fishermen sitting on
poles in the middle of a stormy sea. Think hard, You know that picture!
I’m not ashamed to say it, that picture is a big part of what made me want to go to Sri Lanka in the first place. Stilt fishing is a vanishing craft. I am drawn to old practices and traditions, to dying cultures that will soon be lost and I feel an urge to go see them with my own eyes before they disappear forever.
In January I finally made it to Sri Lanka. I was on assignment and toured around the central part of the country at first but once I was done with the job I headed south. I was dying to go take portraits of the fisherman, I had dreamt about it for such a long time…but I was in for a rude awakening.
This is how it all went down…
It’s February 13th and it’s a beautiful day in Colombo, I just dropped my passport off a the Indian embassy to get my visa (which won’t be ready until next week), I’m finished with my gig and today I am headed south. Only a short-not too unpleasant-4 hour train ride in the 37 degrees heat stands between me and those stilt fishermen!
I get to Unawantuna drenched in sweat, it’s still a few hours before sunset so i drop my bags off at the hotel and rush out the get a tuk tuk. It’s hot. Excruciatingly hot today. Sweat runs down my forehead non stop, and as usual i forgot my water in my room, I’m already dehydrated and my head is pounding.
While we ride towards Waligama—the beach where, according to trip advisor, most the stilt fishermen work—I noticed there’s a shit-ton of empty poles in the water all along the coast. I don’t think much of it. I prepare my camera and put in my 85mm.
‘Man I’m going to take some great portraits today!’ is the only thing going through my head.
The driver slows down, he tells me we have arrived and stops on the side of the road. I pay him and he takes off.
I have my camera on my arm, I’m excited to be here, I’m ready! I walk towards the sea. I see poles in the water but no one is standing on them.
I walk further and I see a group of men hanging out by the shore, minding their own business. One of them sees me and instantly yells something at his pals. There’s a nano second of mayhem. They drop whatever they were doing, grab a stick and start running into the water.
…I’m very very confused.
They climb up the empty poles, sit on the top and with the most shameless nonchalance pull out their sticks and act like they were there fishing all along…
…’WHAT. THE. FUCK.?’ Are the only 3 words my brain can process at the moment.
‘What….what….WHAT???’ Are the following 3.
I don’t understand what’s going on but when a man approaches me and asks me for money everything becomes crystal clear.
…’Motherfucker… It’s all fake! ‘
The gentlemen standing in front on me wants 800 Rupies from me to take a picture “Because it’s sunset time, best hour!” he kindlyexplains that “That’s the most expensive time-slot of the day. Usually it’s only 200!”
I look at the man, then look at the men posing and pretending to fish on the poles, then look back at the man’s face and he must sense some deep despair in the look of horror I give him because he suddenly smiles at me and says “ok, ok, i see your big camera, you are no tourist, you are photographer, I can do special price for you!”
The guy tries to tell me how cool it would be to get a picture of myself on one of those poles like all the tourist do but I’m not even there. I’m spiraling into a deep dark hole of depression.
[Do you remember when you understood Santa wasn’t real? That’s how I felt! Something fell apart on that road in Waligama, and some of the pieces are still missing today!]
I snap out of loathing-land and look back at the man who has now his hand out waiting for me to put money in it. I don’t say anything, I’m lost in my thoughts…
I’m sure when McCurry took the pic in 1995 this was still a used practice in Sri Lanka. But now it’s beyond evident that it’s all long gone and the only thing left is bullshit. A lie. And yet another tourist trap.
…’So what do I do? Do I say fuck it, act like I didn’t notice anything wrong and take the shot anyway because I know it will get a me a ton of likes on instagram and it will make my portfolio cooler?’ —my insides cringe a little—’Or do I do the right thing, don’t take the shot and don’t contribute to spread around a fake idea of the practices of this country?’
Up until that very moment I wanted ‘the shot’, I wanted it badly, but it was all bullshit now. Those men hanging on those poles ain’t fishermen, they were actors/models posing for me.
It’s a huge slap in the face to realize that something you thought about for so long as absolute truth turns out to be a big fat lie. With my portraiture work I want to portray cultures for what they are. As a photographer and a student of the world I feel a responsibility to be truthful, or at least to tell the truth I see. (i’m not a journalist, I have a point of view on almost everything I photograph and write about!).
I look at the man one more time, “So, do you want the picture Miss?” he asks.
…’No man. I don’t!’
I turned around and I walk away feeling a sense of defeat that goes far beyond not getting ‘the shot’.
I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t take the fucking shot. It felt pointless.
I didn’t want to be complice in an act of fakery. I didn’t want another person to come here and feel the way I was feeling right now.
Sometimes is just best to walk away from a bad deal and start walking towards truth!