Joel Woods

Fisherman // Photographer

My goal is not to make photography a career.

Very simply put, I am a fisherman, a working man who has learned to use a camera to capture the world as he sees it.

I have spent most of my life bobbing around the North Atlantic on massive steel boats, often for weeks on end. And as difficult and harsh as it is working on the sea, day in and day out, year-round, the men you work with can be just as hard.

It is not an environment that cultivates creativity. As a young man, hidden beneath my scowl, my bruised knuckles, my scars and tattoos, lay a powerful propensity toward the gentle and the artistic. But in those early years at sea, I wasn’t in the least bit introspective. And even if I had been, even if I had wanted to create, when you’re 150-odd miles offshore, where 24 hours on deck is not uncommon, having the time to create a ham sandwich is difficult; having the time to create something expressive is nearly impossible.

man in waders holding up torch

I had no idea when I purchased my first 35mm camera that it would be so instrumental—not only in my growth as a man, but in my growth as a human being. It would have been unfathomable for me to grasp at that time how this little machine could teach me patience. How it could teach me compassion. How it could teach me to see beauty in the smallest of things. How it could awaken in me something so powerful, something I didn’t even know existed.

The speed at which I could create something is what made the camera a perfect vehicle for me. When we’re on deck, we are always working. I didn’t have the luxury of taking my time in order to get a shot. Once I saw a shot, I would remember it, but in order to capture it, I had to hone two very important skills.

seabirds fighting in the water

First, I had to learn how to be quick. The moments worth capturing are often only there for a few seconds. I had to stop what I was doing and run into the wheelhouse—sometimes having the time to take off my wet gloves, sometimes not (thus, the often-damaged equipment). I had to grab my camera out of the bag, often spilling its entire contents on the wheelhouse floor. I would then run back out on deck, trying to protect my camera as much as I could from the elements, quickly adjust the settings, focus it, frame the shot, and then capture it. I would then spin around, run back in the wheelhouse (scratching my head as I tried to remember where the heck I’d thrown my lens cover), stow the camera back in the bag, and run back out on deck to promptly get back to work.

Second, I had to learn how to see the future—abstractly, anyway. I had to recognize when something was going to happen before it actually did. Sometimes when I see a shot while working, I know it will be months before the conditions are exactly the same and I get a chance to capture it again.

I think this quickness and haste can be seen in my images. I can see it in the hyper-fast shutter speed that captures all the motion with such clarity—how every drop of seawater is frozen in place. But I can also see it in the flaws—how I didn’t get the chance to adjust the setting quite the way I wanted to. Maybe the image is a little out of focus. Maybe it’s a bit grainy, perhaps not framed well. Sometimes I can’t use the image at all.

Unfortunately, this is a by-product of shooting in such conditions. And I gladly accept all of it. Even if I never had the opportunity to take a single image, I am grateful that I’ve had the chance to see this beauty daily.

For there will come a time when I am too old to spend my days on the water. Instead, I will be sitting quietly, thinking of years past, lucky to have my images to bring me back, recalling each of these days at sea as a gift.

I do not take credit for anything I capture. I am just fortunate to work in such an amazing and beautiful environment. Though she can be quite moody, the sea is an easy subject to photograph.

lobster boat named
man on dingy in harbor at sunrise

Joel Woods lives in the Midcoast region of Maine, and is on the deck of a lobster boat nine months out of the year around Matinicus Island. He spends the remainder of the year fishing out of New Bedford, Massachusetts. He is active in the lawmaking and regulatory process in Maine and is currently fighting for fishermen’s rights. Together with his fellow fishermen, he is an active and proud member of the Maine Lobstering Union, an associate organization of The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW). He is eternally grateful for the sacrifices our servicemen and women have made for all of us. Thus, the lion’s share of income generated from his photographs have gone directly to charity. Pam Payeur of the Wounded Heroes Program of Maine and Mike Jackson of Grundens USA have been particularly supportive in directing some of these proceeds and goods to disabled veterans.