On another day of rough weather aboard the No Worries, Woods loaned Stevie Ames the life jacket he wears in this picture, working steadily as water comes pouring over the wheelhouse.
Maybe the photos you see here began for Joel Woods when he first watched a lobsterman coil rope—an action performed so often, for so many years, that it was as natural as breathing. Woods saw the expertise that had been handed down through generations, and the raw beauty of boat, sea, and purpose merged in the act of coiling rope attached to a lobster trap. With a disposable camera, Woods snapped a photo. “I was seeing the fisherman’s world with brand-new eyes,” he says. “Work they have done for years—and they have stopped looking at it.” He saw the colors of fish, how nets dance on water, thousands of sunrises and sunsets, waves rising terrifyingly high 150 miles out to sea. With a camera, he found a way to remember it all.
Or maybe this melding of brutal work with fragile art began long before, when Woods was a teenager, one who knew the inside of detention centers and courtrooms, and the aftermath of bad decisions. What he sought was a life as unpolished as he felt. “Fishing was for me the biggest, baddest, the most hard-core thing I could do. That’s why I was drawn to it. I wanted to prove myself.”
That was over 20 years ago. Woods has since worked out of every major New England fishing port—Gloucester, New Bedford, Portsmouth, Portland—and hauled lobster traps up and down the Maine coast. “I’ve been trawling and gillnetting and scalloping, slime eeling, sea urchining,” he says. “Practically anything you can do in New England, I’ve done it.”
But with his photos, he also was catching moments of startling beauty in a world where storms pummeled seas and boats, and where the men and (few) women who made a living in that world had tough hides and tougher personalities. When he showed the pictures to his fellow fishermen, they too saw the wonder. Today his boatmates will shout, “Joel, look over here!” even as his hands are plunged into trays of fish, covered with slime and blood.
He goes through as many as 10 cameras a year. “The shortest time I had a camera before it was destroyed was one week. If I had a fear of destroying a camera, I wouldn’t get a shot.”
What you see on these pages are images that show not only what Joel Woods has witnessed, but also what he has come to know about himself: that he can be both fisherman and artist. “If it wasn’t for photography,” he says, “I wouldn’t be the human being I am.” —M.A.