Photographing the Horse Fishermen of Belgium

I have photographed these fishermen two times and I never get tired of what an amazing event this is to witness. All though the tradition has changed over the years today the fishermen use larger nets to drag for the small grey shrimp. Before mules were used for the job but because of the weight of the larger nets the Brabant draft horse is now used because of their tremendous strength and easy going attitudes. They could not have picked a better breed.

I first found out about the horse fishermen when a good friend of ours here in Belgium wanted to know if we would like to come along to an event that was taking place on the beach of Oostduinkerke in Belgium. We had heard about this but never took the time to go as see it for ourselves so we agreed to go along. I brought my camera naturally. 

When we arrived on this relatively nice summer afternoon, the beach was packed and people were gathering all around waiting for the fishermen's arrival to town. As they approached there were about 6 or 7 fishermen and their horses pulling the carts full of nets and baskets. We all had to follow them to the shore as they began tacking up their horses and going into the sea. I recall that they did not go out very far and I also remember I could not get one shot of them without a dozen or so tourists in the photograph. Also after it was all over there were no shrimp in their nets. I found out a few years later that this is just something they do for the town's tourism for people vacationing during the summer months to witness this old tradition. 

Later while I was at photographing the local farmers at their many plowing events with their Brabant draft horses my husband was talking to one of the farmers who personally knew one of the horse fishermen. He gave us his number and said that we should call soon as the best shrimp season starts in February and runs through early May. If we wanted to photograph the real thing we would have to contact them as soon as possible as it was the end of April at that time.

I gave a lot of thought about what equipment I would need as I do on every photo session I do. I knew I would want wide angel shots, but not to wide to distort the horses, and would need some reach if they were out far in the water. I also knew I would need to carry both cameras with me as I ran up and down the shore so I wanted to limit my gear.

Here is a list of what I brought when I photographed them the last two times.

  • Canon 5D Mark III camera (full sensor)
  • Canon 70D camera (cropped sensor)
  • Canon 24-70mm 2.8 lens on the 5D
  • Canon 70-200 2.8 lens (first outing) on the 70D
  • Tamron 150-600  lens (second outing) on the 70D
  • Manfrotto mono pod

The horse fishermen have to know what the tide schedule is as they can only go into the sea 1 1/2 hours before low tide and one 1 1/2 hours after high tide. Otherwise it is to dangerous for the horses in the high water.

When we arrived at the farm I witnessed how they gear up their horses and we followed them for the trek to the shore at early dawn. This takes about a hour for them to reach the beach.  This is a photo taken last year as we followed Dominique the young horsemen with his horse Edward to the shore.

Dominique and Edward heading to the beach.

Dominique and Edward heading to the beach.

 

This year the tide was at a different time and they were leaving at 5:00am to head to the shore. I was giving a photo tour at this time and so we all had to leave by 2:00am if we were to be able to be at their barn by 5:am.  My husband and I went over what was going to happen before we arrived so each person could have an idea how the fishermen work in dragging for shrimp in open waters.  Once they make it to the shore and begin their routine it is up to the photographer to stay out of the way and capture the process. I have come to enjoy shooting scenes that are not staged, set up or posed. I like the realness of life and the challenge of finding the image that tells the story. You have to think on your toes and be ready for changing conditions. This is when it is very helpful to know your gear. There is no camera in the world that is always ready for a change in the scene do to lighting or action. So it is important to know your camera so you can look and be ready when things start to unfold.

 As I watched the beautiful sunrise that was unfolding on the beach I began taking photos of them right away. I can't remember a more beautiful morning. The sun slowly rising and the sky turning from deep blue to brilliant orange. We were the only ones on the beach and it was so incredibly peaceful. Just the sounds of the waves and seagulls and the wide open vastness of water along with the slight smell of salt water truly awakens all your senses. I understand why a fishermen could enjoy such a career.

Sunrise and getting the horses ready  

Sunrise and getting the horses ready

 

 

As they headed out into the sea dragging their nests I took one last image and realized they were going to be heading west and the sun would be behind them. So to get the most of this beautiful morning light I began to run to try and get ahead of them and capture them in the amazing light that was appearing every second. I think I ran for a 1/2 mile before I was ahead of them.

 

As they came in for the first time to unload their nets I grab some more shots. They do this four times. They go out and drag for about a 1/2 mile or more and then come in to empty their nets. So it gives you a chance to photograph them doing this several times. But the sunrise was only going to happen on the first pass and I could see that, so running was my only option.

After running I was able to get this shot sifting for the shrimp 

After running I was able to get this shot sifting for the shrimp 

As they headed back out to sea I watch the others capturing their shots. One was far out on a sandbar with her camera and monopod and another was on the shore, yet another participant seemed to just be watching and not shooting. Not sure if she was taking it all in or overwhelmed at the changing light but either way this is an event that they would probably only witness once in their lifetime so how they handled the opportunity was entirely up to them.

I love nothing more then photographing draft horses and as you can see have made recent changes to my website to become a draft horse photographer. Not sure there is such a job, but none the less I plan on making it one. It is a risky move to niche down to just one type breed of horse but I have found that the more involved I become in the draft horse world the more stories and opportunities I find. I also plan on creating another website for my fine art work. I will announced when it is up in my newsletter. If you want to be notified you can sign up here.

Something I have learned over the years is how I have come to develop my style. Not just in the subject but how I photograph. The longer I do this the more I realize I want the story more than just a beautiful subject. I seldom pose, I just watch and find my opportunities. Every time I try and pose or create an image I feel it has lost the feeling and has no story to tell. That is just what I have learned about myself and the way I photograph. The most important thing you can do in your photography work is find your style. Which to me is a combination of what you love to photograph, how you want to photograph your subject, and how you express that vision in post processing. When I go out with my camera I always have a vision of what I hope to capture but do not rely on that. I shoot what is in front of me. Many times my vision of an image will appear but not always. Most times life gives me amazing gifts just waiting for me to click the shutter. That is why I love photography so much. Life is in control not me. I just have to be ready to tell life's stories visually.

 There are only about 11 horse fishermen in the area of Oostduienkerke but the two men I have photographed are the only ones who actually drag for the shrimp for part of their income the rest just do it for tourism of the town.  I am not sure how much longer this old tradition will stay alive in this actual form but I am glad to have a chance to photograph these amazing draft horses and the men that work with them. The horses are so relaxed and I realized after going into the sea myself how much the waves have so much force and the sand shifts under you feet as you sink slowly into the wet sand. I think for these horses it is such a unnatural thing for them to do, but you can see that they have total trust that their riders will guide them and that is what true horsemanship really is, working with a trusted partner to get the required job done easily without risk to either.

I am not sure it is my age or the lifestyle we live in today but I seem to be witnessing a lot of disappearing traditions and I feel it is up to me and my camera to try and preserve some of them.  I know for sure that the horse fishermen on the shores of the North Sea of Belgium are one of the rarest events I will ever get a chance to photograph and was happy to offer the opportunity to a few others. Here are the rest of the photos I will share just in this blog. 

Heading out into deep waters in early morning light.

Heading out into deep waters in early morning light.

Seagulls love to follow the fishermen.

Seagulls love to follow the fishermen.

The waves crashing comes with the job.

The waves crashing comes with the job.

You need a strong, calm and reliable horse for this job and Brabant draft is the best choice.

You need a strong, calm and reliable horse for this job and Brabant draft is the best choice.

Coming in to unload the catch

Coming in to unload the catch

Watching the nets

Watching the nets

A long way down

A long way down

Carrying the net full of shrimp

Carrying the net full of shrimp

These horses know their job.

These horses know their job.

Throw it back if it's not shrimp

Throw it back if it's not shrimp

I hope you enjoyed the images and I would appreciate if you could share this blog with anyone you may think would be interested. 

If you would like to go a little deeper about the horse fishermen here is a french documentary (with English subtitles) taken several years ago about  what these men do.

https://youtu.be/P1c6L-rI8tY?list=FLFpGu6uqC3LrPbTyMxeWXAA