Recently I travelled to Sri Lanka, a picturesque island where Steve McCurry iconized stilt fishing, a style unique to the island. Now with all travel destinations there are certain images that are associated with it’s culture, everyone wants their own version of it and me being just another tourist with a camera, sought out the stilt fishermen of Sri Lanka.
I went to the beaches frequented by the fishermen only to find their abandoned stilts. Disappointed that I had missed their evening shift, I went to one last beach to see if there were any stragglers. Arriving at the beach, as a perfect sunset formed in the background, I was excited to see from the trishaw that I was in, a few still fishing. From the moment the trishaw stopped till I alighted, the image above is the only one I managed. I wondered how within a few minutes of me spotting at least three I had stepped out to the last one moving away from his perch.
I thought, missed it again, until one of the fishermen walked up to me and asked for money. Surprised at why, it then dawned on me that this was how the fishermen made extra money from the hordes of tourists that all wanted a piece of them. I didn’t pay, as that would mean they would get back up on their stilts and pose for me, and I didn’t want that. So I resigned myself to enjoying the sunset on the beach with the friends I was with.
After a while I started noticing throngs of tourists being brought to these beaches, bus by bus, dishing out cash, lining up and clicking away. It was an observation that got me thinking about how photography has changed the lives of these people. These fishermen weren’t fishing, simply waiting for tourists to arrive and that was their primary source of income. An entire profession affected by people on holiday with cameras. I wonder how much they make by the fish they catch as opposed to the tourists that come by.
It’s not news that photography and tourism have always had a curious relationship where people pose in the places where they might be expected to pose. To create a memory of the ideal holiday, focusing more on the representation of the holiday than the experience itself. And I know it might seem like common sense but I hadn’t really thought about the reverse till this fisherman asked me for money to stage an image. How was photography impacting the locals? How were the locals impacting our representation of the destination? Do we take images based on what we see, what we want to see or what is created for us by others?