By Gareth Stevens

It is always admirable when a creative person puts their craft at the service of people in the community – when they not only strive for aesthetic excellence, but also try to raise awareness of an issue and to make a difference. This has always drawn me to the work of documentary photographers like John Cole.

John used to think that hard work was spending a long day on corporate shoots photographing people in grey suits, but he says that “Those days ain’t nothing compared to spending twelve hours out on a fishing boat – it’s cold, wet and exhausting.”

Mark and Richard Ball 1991, by John Cole

Initially intending to photograph the larger commercial fishing fleet in Hull, a friend tipped him off about the Hastings fishing fleet, and so it was that he took that fateful first step on what was to become a photographic project that would preoccupy Cole for over two decades. After several initial trips down to The Stade, he fell in love with Hastings and eventually moved down to the town in the late 1990s.

Fascinated by the working practices on Hastings’ traditional, shore-launched fleet of under-ten-metre boats, John has built a deep and reciprocal relationship with the men that risk their lives to fish sustainably in a way that has remained essentially unchanged for millennia. He has gifted prints of his work back to the people who are depicted in them and has made all of his work freely available to Hastings Fishermen’s Protection Society. Over the last twenty years the fishing community’s initial circumspect view of his work has become one of deep trust, as fishermen began to realise that he was genuinely fighting their corner.

For me, the most arresting and compelling images from Cole’s oeuvre are those portraits of individual fishermen. An arduous working life is carved into their faces, and their unflinching stares speak of dignity and fearlessness. There is a stillness and gravitas about these faces which speaks volumes of the elemental trade they are involved in.

Henry Adams 1991, by John Cole

Now is such a vital time to value Hastings’ fishing heritage. Sold down the river by a Brexit deal that did not deliver on promises, we are left in a situation in which larger boats from EU countries are still legally allowed to fish in British waters right up to six miles off our coastline, whilst our fleet can only work up to twelve miles off European countries. It seems that the UK fishing industry was used as a concrete example of issues to do with sovereignty and the alleged crippling red tape of being in the EU. It was cynically used as a way to attract ‘Leave’ voters during the 2016 referendum. However, now fishermen feel betrayed, neglected and are deeply suspicious of Michael Gove’s claim that the “best deal possible” was achieved. 

Cole is in the process of bringing the best of his output together in a book – Generations: Hastings Fishing Families, and to achieve this he needs our support. On the forthcoming book he says “Although I feel it is vitally important that Generations highlights the current struggle of the fishing community, my book is also a celebration of the enduring spirit of Hastings’ fishermen and women, working in centuries old methods of manual labour in an age when so much of our work today is done online in the comfort of our home or office. I’m well aware of how easy it is to romanticise the working lives of the fishermen and I’ve worked hard to portray the gruelling reality of their work with an objective honesty.”

At a time when economic and political forces are pushing our local fishing industry to the brink, it is vitally important to have such a visual record of what is the very heart and soul of our town – and which, God forbid, may become a thing of the past. More than that, John hopes that this book will go some way to keeping the tradition of fishing alive.

John has been deeply moved by the huge support and advice that the Hastings creative community has given him in creating his Kickstarter campaign. In our conversation he reiterates just how much he values this help, and how privileged he feels to live with such a mutually nurturing, creative community. 

To find out more and support this project please follow the link below to John Cole’s Kickstarter campaign which is active until 8th April.

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