The fishermen of Weligama, Sri Lanka: the whole story behind Steve McCurry's famous icon

The fishermen of Weligama, Sri Lanka, are the protagonists of a celebrated photograph by Steve McCurry. But what is behind this icon? Let's find out his story.
Fishermen in Weligama, Sri Lanka: the whole story behind Steve McCurry’s famous icon

“Many people ask me about this photograph I took, in Sri Lanka, of fishermen who, early in the morning, go out with these very thin rods to catch small fish. It was an out-of-the-ordinary situation: I was driving along the coast of southern Sri Lanka and had noticed dozens of fishermen sitting on poles, in the middle of the sea. So one morning I decided to take a walk in the ocean, to the point where the water reached my chest, and I spent an hour and a half taking photographs. They would climb up these poles and sit there so as not to scare the fish away-that’s the whole point of the action.” With these words, the great photographer Steve McCurry (Darby, Pennsylvania, 1950) recounted, in an interview with the Phaidon publishing house (and the video of which is available on YouTube), one of his most famous photographs: the one he took in 1995 of Sri Lankan fishermen in Weligama, a town of about seventy thousand people overlooking the Indian Ocean in the south of the country.

The very famous shot has been the focus of countless exhibitions the American photographer has been featured in around the world: most recently, the exhibition Cibo (at the San Domenico Museums in Forlì until January 6, 2020), which investigates the theme of food with eighty shots, in many cases never exhibited before. “It is one of the photographs that make up the section of the exhibition that deals with food production,” Fabio Lazzari, curator of the exhibition, explains. “McCurry has photographed people active in food production all over the world: there are fishermen, farmers, ranchers, there are saffron pickers, rice fields in the Philippines, an orange fruit picker.” And, indeed, the relationship this image has with food is undeniable: for this way of fishing is what, for a long time, provided sustenance for the people of this part of the island. “That of the Weligama fishermen,” Lazzari continues, “is one of McCurry’s most iconic photos, so much so that quite a few people still go to Weligama today precisely to try to remake that photograph, to reproduce it: this, in part, is also a sign of how McCurry has influenced the collective imagination through his photographs.”

McCurry spent almost a day in the company of fishermen in southern Sri Lanka, trying to capture the right light for photography at different times of the day. And because of this, he was able to observe for quite an extended time how they fish. “I was surprised,” he said in the above interview, “at how quickly the fishermen were catching fish and putting them in their bags.” And he had come to a bitter consideration, “Unfortunately, I think this lifestyle of theirs will end soon, because many of these young people find it more lucrative to work in the tourism industry, and this unique way of fishing will sooner or later be lost forever. What’s fascinating about this photograph is that we will always continue to look at it over the years, surprising ourselves with the way these men fish: we will think that this was an iconic situation that we will never see again, and that to preserve this memory, this story of how we were, it is important to document events like this.”

Steve McCurry, Weligama, Sri Lanka, 1995. © Steve McCurry
Steve McCurry, Weligama, Sri Lanka, 1995. © Steve McCurry

The mechanism of this type of fishing is very simple: the fishermen create a kind of cross whose supporting structure is a large vertical wooden pole, three or four meters long, and driven half a meter into the reef that stretches in front of the beach. To the vertical pole, fishermen tie a petta, that is, a horizontal plank, usually made by joining two or more poles and supported by a stake set at an angle, where they sit to fish, at a height of about two meters from the base of the pole: to get there, they arrange along the vertical pole other wooden stakes like pegs. Sitting in this way, with one hand the fishermen hug the pole or cling to it to keep themselves balanced, and with the other they use the pole to fish. Despite appearances, this fishing technique is not ancient: the origins are unclear, but it seems that this way of fishing did not originate until after World War II. Previously, fishermen simply climbed the rocks overlooking the coast (the poor people living in these places did not have the economic means to obtain boats). The invention of pole fishing seems to have been due to problems of overcrowding: there were too many fishermen and too few rocks, so someone, at some point (but we don’t know when), decided to go fishing directly in the sea. Over time, techniques for preparing fishing poles were also refined, requiring skillful craftsmanship, since they must be strong, made of a wood that does not easily deteriorate in contact with water, and the poles must be tied in such a way as to ensure the safety of the fisherman. The same skills are needed to make the pole: in fact, fishermen also make the tool with which they fish themselves. They are made from thin twigs made from local plants, to which the line is attached, ending with a hook that is also homemade: the iron hook is given an oblong shape and worked in such a way that it resembles a worm (the fisherman then literally “dances” it in the water to simulate the behavior of prey: in this way, fishermen save on bait, which they do not need). Fish that are caught include some species of local mackerel and herring, known locally as bolla and koraburuwa.

“The situation was precarious,” McCurry recalled speaking about the photo in an interview for the Museum für Gestaltung in Zurich. “I was in the water, and the waves were threatening to throw me off balance, because I wasn’t sure where they were taking me or what they were going to do to my equipment, I was afraid they would ruin it. But it was very important to focus on the light, because you needed to give the sense of this melancholic atmosphere, under a cloudy sky, with palm trees and rocks in the background.” The result is a photo that has a great impact on those who see it, so much so that, after the Afghan Girl photo, the Weligama fishermen’s photo is perhaps the most famous of those taken by McCurry. “Behind this photo,” wrote critic Roberto Koch, “there may be a reality of poverty and exhaustion, but McCurry, with a triple flip, manages to transform the fishermen on their poles into an incredibly elegant group of dancers. They seem suspended in the air, with their delicate gestures and exotic beauty, and each at a different height, an element that balances the composition. This action, which requires a lot of skill, has been rendered by McCurry in a way that makes it look easy.”

Ritratto di Steve McCurry. Foto di John Ramspott
Portrait by Steve McCurry. Photo by John Ramspott

It has been many years since McCurry photographed the fishermen of Weligama, and since then, their plight has changed a great deal. But back in 1996, FAO published a report in which it pointed out that pole fishing was limited to a small area in Galle district, the capital of Southern Province (Weligama is about fifteen kilometers from Galle). And it was an activity from which they certainly did not earn much money: the FAO report had surveyed about five hundred fishing families, all of whom had very low living standards (not to say that they lived in poverty). In addition, that of the fishermen in southern Sri Lanka is a very tribulated life: work lasts the time of the fishing season (six months, from April to October, and it should also be specified that the pole almost always lasts less, because it is eroded by the water, so a replacement is needed within the season), one gets up very early hoping that the sea conditions will allow fishing, one spends about three hours perched on the pole, and one spends as many hours (or more) trying to sell what one has caught. Not counting the time to make your own tools.

There are very few fishermen left who still do their work in the traditional way. The main reason lies in the fact that little is made from pole fishing: typically, fishermen in southern Sri Lanka earn between 200 and 400 rupees a day (less than two euros). In the country, the minimum wage set by law is 400 rupees per day: consider, however, that according to official data from the Sri Lankan Ministry of Labor, compiled by CEIC (which provides statistics on the world economy and labor) and referring to 2016, a bricklayer earns on average three times as much (about 1,200 rupees per day), a coconut farmer receives 1,558 rupees, and a skilled carpenter 1,894. And the Sri Lankan government estimates that, in the Galle district, a single person needs about 4,800 rupees a month to meet his or her basic needs: thus, many fishermen, especially those with families, live below the poverty line.

Thus, those who still do this work do it either because they have no other means, perhaps because they have not received adequate education or because they simply cannot find other work, or because they want to continue a family tradition (pole fishermen in fact hand down techniques from generation to generation), but to make a living they do something else: for the few who still practice it, in short, pole fishing has become a hobby, just as fishing is in our parts for those who dabble in it. Not only that, Steve McCurry’s photography has helped boost tourism in this area of the country because it is the only place in the world where this type of fishing is practiced. Many tourists therefore go to Weligama and its environs with the specific purpose of photographing the fishermen: it so happens that it has become practically impossible to photograph them without having to acknowledge an offering in return, of a few hundred rupees (for the tourist it is little, since it is the equivalent of one or two euros, but for a fisherman it is an amount that often matches or exceeds his daily earnings). Thus, since for many of the fishermen the “prey” is no longer fish, but tourists, often one does not even bother to fish in earnest. Certainly, if one goes to the Weligama area today and finds a fisherman on a pole asking for a photo offering, it is almost certain that person is simply atourist attraction rather than a real fisherman.

Sri Lankan fishermen who talk about their work often agree with Steve McCurry in saying that their tradition will be lost: besides being a job that gives little to live on (because it is not as if there is much fishing by this method), it is also extremely wearing (you stand for hours in an uncomfortable position, when it is sunny you get burned because there is no shelter, you also have to spend a lot of time in contact with the water especially if there is rough sea). It’s probably only a matter of a few years, and the pole fishermen will be gone, or they will remain only as figureheads for tourists, or at most they will continue to cultivate the tradition as a pastime. Some get indignant when they learn that locals ask for a fee to take the photo, and prefer not to take the shot: “a tourist trap,” many call it. But we like to think that, for the inhabitants of this strip of the southern Sri Lankan coast, it is more a kind of defense strategy. Especially in an area of the Earth where life is much more difficult than elsewhere.

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