In 1931, during a stay in Normandy, Simone Weil boarded with a family of fishermen, the Lecarpentier, to practice fishing and stay in touch with the reality of manual work. A few years later, in a small town in Portugal, she had her first intense encounter with Christianity while listening to the ancient songs of the fishermen’s wives. Photographing life on the boats of the fishermen of Honfleur and Trouville, I’ve come to understand how fishing, like few other human activities, manages to combine the spiritual and manual aspects of work.
Norman fishermen often spend days at sea. From October to March, they fish for Saint Jacques; from April to September, after a period of maintenance for the boats, they look for fish. Shell fishing is a long process. After the nets are hauled up, the sorting of the shells begins.
The fishermen measure all the shells with a special gauge. The smallest are thrown back into the sea, while the largest are cataloged as royal. Before storing them, the fishermen clean them thoroughly so they can be sold at a higher price. I went out to sea with the fishing boats Le Kiff and L’Eclipse from Trouville, and Perseverance, Morjolene, and Le Petit Maylise from Honfleur.
Usually, a crew consists of three to four people. The captain, who is frequently the owner of the fishing boat, is the oldest and most experienced. There are often also a few very young crew members. Many Senegalese fishermen find work on the boats. . In particular, I spent a lot of time with the crew of the fishing boat le Petit Maylise.
I met Benoit first. It was a Friday morning, a day dedicated to repairing the boat and nets after days at sea. I saw a solitary silhouette from afar, bent over the nets, bathed in the soft light of rare sunny days in Normandy. The scene had something extremely spiritual about it. I introduced myself to Benoit and immediately got a great feeling from him. Then I met the other crew members: the captain, Jean Philippe; Aurielen; and young Mathis and Dylan.
I also spent many days with the crew of Perseverance: Nico, Rudy and Falli. I went out with them during the fishing season and we stayed three days at sea. With us was a young man, Leo, on one of his first embarkations. Leo was not yet 18 years old and was on the boat to complete his internship for school. The owner of le Perseverance is Sebastien.
Sebastien comes from a historical Saiter fishing family; his brothers, Tony and Frank, also have a boat in Trouville, of which they are the captains. During the night, the fishermen take turns resting, but when they arrive at the right spot for fishing, the sound signal wakes up the whole crew, calling them back to work to haul up the nets.
Life on Normandy fishing boats looks like a theater show, the nets and the metal cables forming the backdrop. Every single gesture of the fishermen moves to the rhythm of the wind and has a specific meaning. The strength of their actions creates an ancestral ritual. Sometimes it is a ritual of a hard, tiring, but honest struggle; other times it is a ritual of contemplation that still speaks with respect to nature.
The fishermen’s proud and dedicated eyes scan the horizon and try to detect the signals of the waves that, as oracles, guide their actions. During their days at sea, the fishermen experience extreme solitude. They are surrounded by infinity, but at the same time they experience a close relationship with the other crew members — not just a working relationship but a deep friendship, brotherhood, and collaboration.
The deep abysses preserve treasures and hide tragedies. The sea can give you so much, but also deprive you of everything. I would like to dedicate this project of mine to the memory of Thierry, Akim, and Allan. They are three young fishermen who lost their lives during a shipwreck on the night of February 3rd or 4th, off le Havre.
The fishing on the Normandy coasts has been handed down for centuries, from generation to generation. Today, several factors test the fishermen’s love and obsession for this work: the spread of industrial fishing, the increase of fuel prices, problems related to Brexit, and a project to build wind turbines amidst fishing routes.
All the fishermen told me how difficult it is to continue the business nowadays and that they would not recommend their children take up the job today. Around fishing, there is a community that shares its joys and sorrows, expectations and efforts, farewells and reunions, and above all the same unique experience of spending life at sea, welcoming the sunrise and the falling of the night. I felt this strong sense of belonging and community during the Sailor’s Day festival in Honfleur. It falls on the weekend of Pentecost.
On the first day, all the friends and families of the fishermen join them on their boats in the morning. They eat and drink together in a festive atmosphere. The boats are specially decorated for these days. During the day, the boats go out to sea, for the blessing but above all to lay wreaths and flowers in memory of people lost at sea. This moment is particularly emotional because many fishermen have lost family members at sea.
The second day is dedicated to the parade. The children of fishermen and sailors, together with their parents, parade through the town, carrying model boats on their shoulders. The parade starts from the chapel Notre-Dame de Grâce. Built in the 17th century, this chapel is covered with paintings and models of ships offered as ex-votos by sailors. From the esplanade surrounding the chapel, there is a beautiful view of the Seine estuary, the port of Le Havre, and the Pont de Normandie.
Le Petit Souffle, by Ciro Battiloro, is on view at the festival Planches Contact in Deauville, France, until January 3rd, 2023.