Dennis Quigley is a photography intern for Virginia Sea Grant studying photography at Thomas Nelson Community College. Here, he recounts his experience photographing working oystermen.
The sun was still below the horizon as I made my way to the James River Marina. I parked my vehicle and rummaged through a bag full of camera equipment, strategically choosing what gear to take on the upcoming excursion. Ready, it was time to leave dry land and experience firsthand a day in the life of oystermen on the Chesapeake Bay.
As the dark sky faded to a pale blue, the crew loaded their skiff, and I introduced myself to those I hadn’t met. The crew’s hierarchy was immediately obvious. The four men, including a co-captain of sorts and two deckhands, all answered to the captain. With the boat loaded, the engine fired up and we began our journey into the Bay.
We were part of an outgoing string of similar vessels, a large exodus of those who provide local oyster produce. I made small talk with the captain and crew as I began to document their life on the water. I had yet to understand just how tough their job was.
Shouts and friendly waves between all the boats and crews were ensued by snarky comments our own captain made—just loud enough for his crew’s ears. Spirits were high, laughter abounded, the water was smooth—it was a fine day to be an oysterman.
As we approached the floating two-liter soda bottles that mark the locations of oyster reefs, the boat came to a halt. The captain and his mate grabbed their rakes, and took position along the upper edges of the boat. What happens if a swell were to throw them off balance, I thought to myself, but soon realized they were not new to this balancing act. The men drove huge 13-foot oyster rakes into the water as they walked the edges of their vessel like a tightrope. Within a few moments the first few oysters were pulled to the surface, and set on a table. Here, the deck hands knocked off the excess and empty shells, ensuring that only the highest quality oysters would reach their bushels.
With each dip, dig, crunch, and rise, the rakes brought in another batch of fresh oysters. I could only imagine the weight of each catch, observe the skill of each action, and document as many moments as possible with my camera. The team seemed delighted to have me along, to have their working lives revealed. Minutes became hours as we dredged from reef to reef. I thought it a tough job, but a rewarding one. It certainly entailed hard physical labor, but the payoff seemed to justify the energy spent.
Around noon morale began to dwindle as the crew grew tired. After some deliberation they settled on raking in just a few more before returning to shore. The final count for this day was 26 bushels of oysters, a bit below the 36 they usually aimed for at the beginning of the season.
As the vessel turned for home, the day ended as it began: with small talk and high spirits. Although my day with the oystermen would end back in the harbor, theirs would only be approaching its final stretch, as they still had to offload.
As I climbed up to the docks and began thinking about the photos I took that day, the oystermen joined a line of skiffs waiting to deposit their harvest. Their work had allowed me to glean a harvest of my own—a greater understanding of the journey of an oyster, from sea to plate, and increased appreciation for those who work Virginia’s waterfronts.
By Dennis Quigley, Virginia Sea Grant photography intern