With petromax at sea

I've developed a bit of an obsession photographing scenes lit by "petromax" lamps, I believe they are actually kerosine powered. The fishermen light these just before they go out to sea in the evening.

I’ve spent the last three weeks in the small town of San Joaquin on Panay island in the Philippines. Due to my “activities” – the constant waking up in the morning and the fact that swimming in the middle of the sea, while going out with the fishermen can be rather physically demanding (for someone who’s not in the best shape) I’ve been too fatigued to write anything substantial during this time.

I am still a little short on time and energy to write much. I will say that this is by far my favorite place in the Philippines, from what I have seen  here. It seems that everyday there is something new to shoot, the surroundings are beautiful and I’ve managed to find great accommodation (for such a small place) and an even better restaurant. The food I’ve been having is the best I’ve had since leaving Manila. If you ever happen to be in these parts go over to Mica’s (Mai-cas) Restaurant, ask for Gretchann. Say that you heard about her from me and she might just whip you up some great Thai curry, a chocolate brownie or some local specialty.

Ok, so let me get to the images. They’re a quick overview of what I’ve seen here. It appears that my mobile connection is automatically compressing all the images I upload, so please forgive the crappy quality. Click on the image to see it larger (and slightly better quality).

I've gone out with the fishermen to sea a few times. On this day they were installing a new "Payaw/Balsa" which is basically a bamboo raft with a really long rope at the bottom and a rock that anchors the raft at the bottom of that rope. Along the rope are palm leaves, which attract fish, who sometimes even build nests there.

Sometimes the sea gets pretty rough. Well, rough for me, I don't think it was rough for these guys, who in my opinion are pretty heroic characters. They're fearless, strong, good swimmers and divers and a lot of them are good shots with the spear-gun.

The fishermen also double as "Payaw maintenance staff". They dive to inspect whether there are any tears in the rope or if the leaves need changing. This fellow's name is Joseph, he can dive pretty deep, sometimes he'd shoot fish down there too. The total depth in those parts of the sea is a few hundred meters.

This is from another trip, but thought I'd include it here too.

This is a fish that Joseph speared. These folks were kind enough to give it to me at the end of the trip :)

Everyday life at Joseph's house. Fish is always on the menu.

Tex is another fisherman with whom I went out to sea. I really wanted to photograph those home-made diving goggles in a more controlled environment, so I went to his house and we did it there.

I photographed inside a few houses and everywhere I went TV watching was children's favorite activity. They do play outside too, but they love their TV here.

The people in Barangay (basically this equates to a village) Bay Bay, the place where I've been shooting, really know their boats.

A pretty typical scene at the village, people hang around the beach (since their houses are right on it) chat, laugh.

People love dry fish here. They marinate it in beer and (maybe) a bit of rhum. I gotta say; "It is tasty!"

When the fishermen are not out at sea, they're playing cards and drinking. I guess in many ways it's a pretty cool life. Simple, but fun, at least until bigger companies and commercial fishing boats fish out all the fish from the sea.

Quite regularly the people at Barangay Bay Bay go net-fishing off shore. Someone sees a school of fish splashing around in the water, calls in a boat, which spreads the net around that fish and then two groups of people reel that net in from different sides of the beach. This technique is called "sahid" locally.

Usually the catch from the "sahid" net fishing is pulled in by late afternoon. A lot of commotion ensues. It's hard to get to the "action" with all the people wanting some fish. I wanted to communicate that and shot this image from above.

Sometimes the fish is pulled in after sun sets. I anticipated that people would use the "petromax" lamp and they did. That's the "petromax" in the back, providing that warm light and there is light from someone's LED torch where the fish is. No need for my own lighting. :)

Another "petromax" illuminated shot. As I said, I developed a bit of an obsession for these. Here the women are sorting out the catch. It appears that everyone involved in the net-fishing gets a share for free, while those that aren't, buy it.

Every now and then I got a really nice sky at twilight and got to shoot stuff like this.

Children burning rubbish on the beach. There's no effective waste management in most of the villages around the Philippines, so this is the best way. At least it's not thrown into water, which is a common "solution" in other places.

As I mentioned, the fishermen go out to see at night and when they do, they use the kerosene powered "petromax" lamps. The men usually go in couples, here two friends are lighting up and getting ready to spend most of the night at sea.

Once out at sea the men actually look for the fish. Some fish are attracted sound and the men stomp their feet and hit objects like the empty plastic bottle here, against the boat.

Some of the smaller fish are caught with a net off of the boat. The fishermen just kind of scoop them up.

A couple of weeks into my stay, bigger boats appeared in the waters of Barangay Ba-Bay. This meant that "aloy" season had begun. I am still not exactly sure of what fish the "aloy" are, but I've been told a few times that they are baby tuna. The big boats do their job at night, while they are "parked" the local kids use them and the sea as a playground.

The children play around the boats until the sun sets. Once it does, it's time to go out to sea.

I thought, "Wouldn't it be awesome to get onto one of those big boats and see how they do their stuff, to join them for the night?" And so, one evening I asked one of the crew of a boat called "Catherine" if I could come along. The response was favorable and within 5 minutes I was onboard. That's what I love about my work, it gives me a chance to have so many different experiences. For one night I got to be part of the crew. The boat photographer of sorts. :)

The "aloy" are attracted to light and so small boats with those "petromax" lamps scan the sea a few hundred meters off shore and once they see a large school of the baby tuna, they stop and make a signal to the big boat, which comes with it's big net and spreads it around the small boat and the "aloy". This is what the fish look like underwater from inside the net. Shooting underwater in the dark is a nightmare. It's simply impossible to focus and of course it's real dark, so you gotta put up the ISO and reduce the shutter speed. This image was made on ISO 6400 at 1/40s.

Before the big boat casts the net a person referred to as "the swimmer" or a few of them jump into the sea and swim to the small boat with the "petromax" lamps. The "swimmer's" job is to assess the amount of fish in a particular spot. If they estimate that there are less than five boxes, the large boat doesn't cast the net, this amount will not justify the expenses on diesel and man-power. I have to say, it's a little bit freaky jumping into the "dark unknown", but it is exhilarating at the same time. As long as there ain't anything else that's dangerous within that net, all's well. I had to really trust those "swimmers".

On a slightly different topic, I can reveal the details of my new eBook. It has been rescheduled for a release around March 22 (stay tuned for details). The eBook will be called “Captivating Color” A Guide to Dramatic Color Photography. The title is pretty self explanatory, but just to expand a little, it will be an eBook about using color creatively, telling stories and conveying moods and emotions through it. I know that a lot of people take color for granted and only consider it after the image has been shot. Hopefully this eBook will change that for some. It will be available through Digital Photography School, later this month.

That’s all from me for now. I think my time in San Joaquin is coming to an end, but there are still a couple of things I want to shoot here, so let’s see. I’ve learned that it makes a lot of sense to stay at a place where you are productive for as long as need be, so if the need is there, I’ll stay.

P.S. If you want to stay updated with what I am doing on a more regular basis, check out my Facebook page, it has become the place where you can find out about the most recent happenings in my photography and travels.

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25 thoughts on “Fishermen of San Joaquin

  1. Great set, Mitch!!

  2. Ryan Jordan

    Nice Pics..

  3. These photographs are stunning. I especially like the one with the child’s face right off to the side, and of the men playing cards. I really have begun to look forward to your stories and photography. great job on the underwater shots. I love the captions underneath your photographs, gives a good understanding of what’s going on.

  4. Thanks folks.

    Mica: Thanks. I am glad you keep coming back. I like to share the photos and stories and it’s always great to know that there are some who are coming here regularly and enjoying. :)

  5. Tom

    I was born in the Philippines, but my family moved here to the US when I was younger. I now live here in Baltimore (always be the sea) and work as fireman. I love looking at these pictures because they remind me of my childhood. I have to say that the work these men do to feed their families is pretty heroic. I’d rather run into a burning building any day than jump into dark water full of fish that attracts larger preditors. They can have that. Anyway, good job.

  6. Roberto Gomez

    Love this series of pics Mitch, really like the underwater stuff. When your back in sydney we’ll need to meet up and get you to take some pictures of my brother and i out in the surf at Maroubra :-)

  7. Tom: Glad you glad that I can take you back to the past a little. Hmm, I think I prefer the sea over fire, but yeh, as I also mentioned these guys are pretty heroic. They are TOUGH!

    Rob: Haha. Let’s see. You might have to spear something from that surfboard to make your surfing photo-worthy for me. :)

  8. Good series Mitch,

    gives a quit comprehensive picture of their daily life; work, play, home, kids, food…

    • Thanks little buddy. :) That was the idea, I wanted to create a “comprehensive picture”. I think I got most aspects I can think of, so I am almost ready to move on.

  9. if you could bottle your talent, i’d buy a couple of litres – until technology makes that possible I’ll have to make do with your eBooks :) I’ve got them all and I particularly enjoyed seeing the light. It changed the way I think of light, both artificial and natural and made me want to go out there photographing people… (no lens questions this time)

    • Haha, thanks for such compliments. :) That should be a marketing moto – buy some talent in the form of an eBook. :)

  10. Hey Mitchell,

    Just finished the reading. Very nice to get a good grasp of the kind of life in this remote part of the planet. I watched on sunday the first episode of BBC Human Planet, the theme being about peoples living in and from the sea. This photos are a detailed description of what I saw on tv.

    Thx for sharing and send more and more =)

  11. Mitchell;

    you bring sanity and fresh air to my office every time you post something. I & my wife love traveling and in 2009 we did a quick “around the world” in 4 months. I dragged my camera gear around and got a few amazing shots. But seeing yours made me realize what it is that I am after and what I want to achieve. I love the light, color and composition. Awesomeness.

    Could you be so kind and also throw a small note here and there what you used for some of the shots – like seeing some shot on the open sea (did you have your camera in a housing or were you plain risking it?).

    Love your shots!

    Jan

  12. Love this! The photos and the story is very very lovely, can’t wait for more :)

  13. Thanks again folks.

    Jan: I try to use the housing most of the time, but sometimes I do “risk it”. You generally get great images with it onland, but it is much heavier out of water and makes it much harder to maneuver oneself.

    The first few shots around the water, down to the one of the guy taking the fish of the spear were shot with the housing on. Everything else near the water – without. In the image of the boat at twilight and the head popping out of the water, I was about chest deep in water, really risking it, but it was very calm, (no waves) so no big deal.

    • Thank you very much Mitchell. Exactly what I wanted to hear. I once walked out on low tide in Cook Islands and got some nice shots but holding camera gear worth €5000 made it a nerve racking experience.

      Still – amazing shots! I love what you do!

  14. BRIAN BLAS

    I sent you an email in yahoo.
    I am hoping I could join your photography exploits while you are here in the Philippines.
    I am amazed on your excellent travel photography skills and I am hoping you could take a budding travel photographer like me under your wings even for a short while…
    Oppurtunities like these comes rarely and I would really like to learn from you sir…the Indonesia trip are way too expensive for me

  15. Great group of images and story, excellent work!

  16. excalibur seterra

    Yo mitch,

    very nice pictures and really awesome! im sorry i wasnt able to spend much time going out with you and tyler, i do hope you had a great time here in our town, we wish you all the best in your career man and keep up d good work, we will be using d pictures for our crm program if its ok with you. halong part, god bless!

    P.s. cud u be my official photographer someday when i get married? hehe

    • Hey X! As Tyler might have told you, I am still in San Joaquin. :) So you still got time to get married and for me to photograph your wedding. :)

  17. Hi Mitchell,
    Looks like I’m going to be following in your footsteps a bit. I’m heading to Iloilo city for the festival and will have about 2.5 weeks to travel and shoot. I was wanting to shoot fishermen too, which is how I found this post. I will go and check out San Joaquin at some point. Where did you stay?

    Just bought an underwater housing, the same one that Jacob Maentz uses.Can’t wait to try it out.

  18. After I initially commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I get 4 emails with the identical comment. Is there any means you can take away me from that service? Thanks!

  19. My coder is trying to convince me to move to .net from PHP. I have always disliked the idea because of the costs. But he’s tryiong none the less. I’ve been using Movable-type on various websites for about a year and am worried about switching to another platform. I have heard fantastic things about blogengine.net. Is there a way I can transfer all my wordpress posts into it? Any kind of help would be really appreciated!

  20. good post

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