Photographer Corey Arnold is based in Portland, Oregon – but every couple of months, he is drawn to the high seas. Actually, he works as a tough fisherman off the shores of Alaska or on the icy waters of the Barents Sea. What started as a summer job grew into a habit in love and hate… How adventurous! Quartered on board in Alaska, he lets PingMag make a close call with the wild. Hello little sea creatures!
Written by Verena
First, of all possible jobs, how did you end up having a summer job on a fisherman’s boat? What was the thrill, or was it something like “The Old Man and the Sea…?”
It all started with my personality as a kid: I was crazy about exploring, travelling, and hanging out with animals. Well, killing and dissecting animals like birds, rabbits, squirrels, lizards, and especially sea creatures. I wanted to know how everything in the world looked on the inside and out, I was a curious and brutal little feller. Meanwhile my dad was a sport fishing addict. We would go fishing in the waters off of California nearly every weekend and I’d be surfing during the days in between. So in a way, I grew up on the sea.
After my first year of college in 1995, I drove to Alaska in search of a summer job. I’d always heard about the opportunities for fast money in the Alaskan fishing industry, so I set out to find out for myself. It wasn’t as if I went there just for the money, but the idea of making good money and doing something I love sounded too good to be true… And I quickly landed a job as a salmon fisherman: I think I made about $1,500 in six weeks. In retrospect, it wasn’t much money but I was getting paid for the biggest adventure of my life!
And why are you still so drawn to it for all these years?
I came back every summer for five years to salmon fish while I was going to college. Afterwards, I took a few years off to work as a photo assistant in San Francisco. It was quite brutal to get started there with little cash, so I decided to take off again for Alaska. This time, I set out for a riskier job that was more lucrative, and at the same time, something that I’d like to work on as a photography project. Then in 2002, I began working in the Bering Sea aboard the crab fishing boat “Rollo.”
It took a lot of time to gain the respect of the other fisherman and work my way into the position I have now.
Meaning when you came there for the first time, I guess the fishermen didn’t understand why you would want to do the job. How was your relationship in the beginning?
I’m assuming that you think fisherman are made of a certain mould and that I wouldn’t fit in because I’m kind of an arty photographer person – but there is a surprisingly diverse group of people on fishing boats: I found a very creative, smart, like-minded Norwegian skipper and we connected instantly. Though there were problems with some of the other crew members. One guy was just a hater in general, and another disliked me because he thought I was getting paid too much for my experience level… But the new guy always has to deal with a certain amount of abuse in this career. If you don’t toughen up real quick, you won’t make it.
How do they regard you now?
Luckily, the foul member of the crew was let go after a couple of years. It came down to a either I go or he goes situation. Now I work with three middle-aged guys and one smart young dude. I’m a little different since I’m not really up on the Nascar and Football gossip, but I get a lot of head nods from people here because of my photos and stories written in National Fisherman Magazine and Alaska Fisherman’s Journal. People know that that’s my thing, and they respect that.
… getting to close could be dangerous… In the Bering Sea. © Corey Arnold
For sure. We’d like to get back to your habit of going there every year. Is it becoming some kind of addiction to go back into this wilderness…?
The hard physical work? The freedom of being in the midst of the ocean? I only planned to crab fish for two years, but now I’m beginning my sixth! It’s certainly an addiction. It’s a love/hate relationship…
Tell us more, please…
To be on the water in hurricane force winds and witness forty foot breaking seas first hand from a small boat is a life changing experience. The cold, the long hours and backbreaking work will bring you to your knees begging for mercy, but overall, it’s not a negative experience… unless you sink. I like to think of this job not as a gruelling and painful and dangerous existence, but more of an education. There is this feeling of accomplishment after surviving every 20-hour work day in huge seas. It’s made me a stronger, more confident person back home. There is a certain level of invincibility among crab fisherman and you’ll see that first hand at local bar fights. Also, being a harvester of wild sustainable food feels important. That’s certainly more necessary to human existence than a job as a video game designer. Not that I have anything against them – I’m just not a fan of sitting in front of a screen of any kind.
And yet, isn’t there something that is holding you back from going there again?
I’m doing this interview from my boat in Alaska right now. And I’m still working as a fisherman, only now the photography has become much bigger. I’m juggling dual careers and intertwining them together. Dutch Harbor, Alaska in a way, feels like home. Here I’m surrounded by friends and like-minded adventurers, good hard working folks – and a fair share of knuckleheads to keep things interesting.
Apart from Alaska, where have you sailed so far?
I’ve been in Alaska three to four months every year, altogether fishing for six years now and, on top of that, five summers fishing salmon. Besides the Bering Sea, I’ve spent quite a bit of time photographing Norwegian fisherman in the Barents Sea just near the border with Russia.
So you got around quite a bit in the cold sea! What was the most remarkable experience you had doing this job? I mean, apart from making you stronger, did all this change the way you perceive your body?
When I started crab fishing, it was a race to catch all we could in a 4- to 10-day period. My body has survived exhaustion that I never thought possible. We used to average three to five hours of sleep a day and work for nineteen hours or more. There was no excuse to slow down if you had a fever or were seasick, or pulled a muscle in your arm. We would just power through the pain. All that adrenaline makes it hard to wind down at days end and creates some outrageous dreams if you are able to sleep at all.
Oh! What would you do to fall asleep then? We’re curious about what fishermen do in their evenings, like watching movies…?
We watch a lot of movies, or read books. Actually, we watch a lot of sappy romance dramas… Lost in Translation is a boat favourite! Sleep time is precious and I try to jump into the sack as quick as possible. Then I expect to lay awake for fifteen minutes buzzing and replaying the day’s close calls in my mind. Then I count crab to fall asleep.
Sweet! Now, how is it to work with fish?
Mostly I work with crab these days but we do use thousands of pounds of cod and herring for bait. The crab aren’t very fast moving when on land so it’s easy to grab them without getting pinched. I like working with sea creatures dead or alive. It’s nice to be in touch with the natural world.
Well, others would say that and simply pat their pets… How does it feel when you touch them?
I don’t quite know how to answer this question. Fish are gooey and slippery and hard to hold onto. Crabs are spiny, easy to grab and hurt when you stab yourself with a spine – which happens constantly. It doesn’t weird me out or anything…
Workmanlike eviscerating… © Corey Arnold
… in the Finnmark. © Corey Arnold
And what is your greatest fear while being on board, in the midst of the ocean?
My biggest fear is being crushed by a crab pot. It’s far easier to be smashed by a 1,000 pound swinging crab pot then to fall overboard. I’ve had dozens of close calls but avoided serious injury so far. I worry most about the freak accidents that can’t be anticipated, such as a line snapping or mechanical malfunction. The longer I do this job, the less fear I have of accidents. Safety becomes second nature.
Tough work looking so romantic! Around the Finnmark. © Corey Arnold
Were there any difficult situations so far? Such as storms, severe accidents…
Major storms hit us on a weekly basis and we generally fish through the storms because there are just too many of them. The biggest waves I’ve seen were over forty feet, but we are consistently fishing in 20-foot seas and we’re pretty safe on the “Rollo.” I had no major accidents except when I nearly blinded myself by dumping engine degreaser into my eyes. However, some real bad things happen to people every season. Watch Deadliest Catch on Discovery Channel to learn more about that. They love to talk up the high death and injury rate of crab fishing.
Sounds pretty dangerous though… Apart from fishing, what are your next projects?
Next fall, I’ll be having a two-person show with Cody Hudson in Chicago, and perhaps a solo exhibition in Portland, Oregon. Also I’ll be having my debut New York City solo in March 2009 at Sara Tecchia Roma New York I may begin photographing some other fisheries in Alaska as well as whaling in Norway. Someday, i hope to get out on some Russian boats…
Why Russian boats? And how would you deal with the language…?
I got to tour a Russian trawler that was docked in Northern Norway a couple of years ago. The ship was built in 1988, yet the controls and electronics had the rounded style of a 1940′s or 50′s ship. It was covered in rust and filled with thirty rustic men wearing brandless, colourless clothes. The men were very poor and probably spent a good part of their year at sea making the owners rich while they didn’t even have enough money to eat one meal out in Norway! This is a new frontier for me to explore. Russians also have a bad reputation for poaching fish on the high seas… I’d love to get some insight on the inside from that. As far as the language, I supposed I’d have to have a translator along with me – but I like to travel alone. Hmmm, I haven’t started planning yet…
If someone really wants some rough outdoor work, what would be your advice for this kind of job?
Take risks, don’t wait for a job to come your way! Go there and figure out how things work in Alaska. Work for free at first if you have too – whatever it takes to gain the knowledge to move up the ladder. Don’t expect to show up for a couple months, make a grip of cash and go home. It takes many years to get into a full share position where you start making a living. Be patient and stop complaining!
Well said! Thank you, Corey, for giving us insights in the rough and wild outdoor life on sea.