Gareth Stevens reviews John Cole’s book of photographs:  Generations: Hastings Fishing Families

The great photojournalist Robert Capa once said that “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. Whilst this is an oft-trotted out maxim for documentary photographers, it has clearly been the raison d’etre of the photographer John Cole’s approach over the two-plus decades he has been working alongside the fishing families of Hastings.

Cole has not only striven to get close in terms of physical distance, he has also forged a strong bond with our fishing community, based on mutual respect and trust.

Although Cole has spent many years as a corporate photographer, he is always more at home working as a photojournalist and when he is documenting the daily lives of Hastings’ fishing families as they’ve continued to follow a way of life essentially unchanged over thousands of years.

The book is simply organised around themes such as The Catch or At Sea and his beautiful photographs are interspersed with interviews with a number of people who work in a range of different areas linked to the catching and distribution of fish from the shore-launched fleet on The Stade. These interviews complement Cole’s photographs so superbly. They give us added insight into the risks and deeply held motivations of those who prefer to endure the dangers and hardships of this work, rather than seek out more mundane and comfortable employment.

But it is the photographs themselves which sell this book. Few are posed, most are candid, but all of them not only document the various aspects of the fishing industry in all its gritty reality, but also capture the quiet dignity and indefatigable resilience of their subjects.

Cole’s photographic skills go way beyond the technical. He has the rare ability to combine the portrayal of backbreaking and dangerous work with tenderness and empathy.

Personally, it is the individual portraits that hold my gaze and mark me most deeply. I am reminded of the portraits Richard Avedon took in the American Midwest in the late 60s. Believe me, they are as good. The way he has captured weather-worn faces and the intensity of the eye-to-eye contact the subjects have with us, the viewers, is a hard won skill. Any photographer will tell you that.

At a time when commercial fishing has been shamelessly used as a political football both in the lead up to, and since the Brexit referendum, it is so important for our community here in Hastings to do whatever it can to support what is inarguably the historical heart and soul of the town – its traditional and sustainable fleet of under-ten-metre fishing boats and the people that work on them. 

I salute John Cole for this work. I have always felt strongly that when an artist uses their work to serve their community and to raise our awareness on issues, then that artist’s work is elevated to another level.

Profits from sale of ‘Generations” will be shared with Hastings Fishermen’s Protection Society (HFPS). The book is available to purchase from bookshops and online retailers but can also be purchased directly from the Unicorn Publishing website at a 25% discount.

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