RVA photog documents months as Bering Sea fisherman with awe-inspiring results

by | May 16, 2017 | PHOTOGRAPHY

All living things are driven by pleasure. The pursuit of happiness is arguably more primal than one might like to think: food, sex, becoming the alpha of a group (which, by extension, gives you first dibs on more food and sex).

If joie de vivre, a lust for life, are products of the brain stem, what sets humanity apart is our ability to make decisions that postpone gratification.

For 28-year-old Richmond artist Clayton England, the value of pleasure was a heavy question during his time working on a fishing boat in the Bering Sea. After five years spent off the coast of Alaska, England came back to Richmond and shared his experience in his returning artistic debut, a photo series entitled “NEVER AGAIN.”

Before making his way to Dutch Harbor in Unalaska, Alaska, England spent years traveling everywhere from Colombia to Cambodia, doing odd jobs to make money. He made the choice to return to his hometown of Richmond after the election of President Donald Trump, despite having ample opportunity to leave the country. His choice was made in the interest of nurturing his community in the current political climate, and it was influenced by the culture of hedonism he saw in the hazardous, lucrative fishing industry.

“In the fishing boat lifestyle, you make a lot of money and there’s no living cost, so you kind of get to do a hard restart whenever you come back,” England said. “If you don’t like something that’s happening in your life, they’ll fly you back up there to work and then fly you back wherever you want after you’re done. You don’t really have to deal with the long-term consequences of any of your actions.”

Because of the danger of deep sea fishing, there are limited hiring choices for managers. Combine that with the promise of a big paycheck, and it is no wonder that the fishing industry has become a notorious magnet for people evading the law and ex-felons. On top of that, three-month long stints on a tiny boat in the middle of the ocean is a recipe for mental illness that affects many workers, making drug and alcohol abuse a common occurrence among fishing industry workers.

“Our chief engineer was a really nice guy, but definitely had some issues with drinking and amphetamines,” England said. “There were a couple of times when we were dead in the water, it’s dark, there’s no power, and when you’re in that, in 30 to 40-foot seas, 60-mile-per-hour winds, and a blizzard, the money’s not that good. I kind of like living… physically, I think anyone can do it, but it’s the mental aspect.”

The money and simple task work of the mariner lifestyle kept England working, but the trauma of his experience eventually led him to decide that this past year would be his last in Alaska. He took up his camera and documented the remainder of his experience within the average hour and 30 minutes of sunlight per day during the Alaskan winter, snapping candid photos of fish, nets and endless grey oceans.

When he came home to Richmond, he partnered with his friend and owner of Rosewood Clothing Co. Ashley Carruthers to show his photos in the upstairs space at Rosewood during April’s First Friday.

With his experience behind him, England said he was surprised by how cathartic the process of sorting through his photos was.

“A fraction of the population has ever been there or seen that, and I wanted to document it in some way that was physical, that was my first thought,” England said. “[The experience] was interesting, but it’s not something I want to re-live or talk about a whole lot. I noticed that having to stare at these images was oddly therapeutic. I didn’t realize how I felt.”

After seeing the end result of a lifetime of chasing money and fleeing responsibility in many of his fellow mariners, England decided to take a different path.

“It made me realize even more that even though the money is good, I’d much rather be poor and have better mental health and a better quality of life,” England said.

He now plans on staying in Richmond for a while and continuing to take photos, but his main focus is finding work that positively impacts the community.

“My father more or less runs this volunteer project called Project Warm,” England said. “Every tree that’s cut down in the city is split into firewood, and then we get a list from Salvation Army of people who could use firewood because they aren’t financially able to heat their homes… I’m the type of person who doesn’t ease into things, I hit the ground running.”

Intensely motivated, England said that if he can’t find the kind of work he is looking for in an organization, he’ll pursue a DIY endeavor.

“I know how to do a lot of different stuff, it’s just a question of what direction to go in,” England said.

He doesn’t have a photography page or public social media account, but if you want to stalk him, you might find him at Rosewood on First Fridays. Look for the guy with eyes that are (here it comes) ocean blue.

Words by Gabriella Lacombe, photos via the artist

RVA Staff

RVA Staff

Since 2005, the dedicated team at RVA Magazine, known as RVA Staff, has been delivering the cultural news that matters in Richmond, VA. This talented group of professionals is committed to keeping you informed about the events and happenings in the city.

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