As dawn breaks on North Haven, Maine, the low sun floods the small island with orange light. It cloaks the forests of conifers and hardwoods, carves graphic shapes on stone cottages and dances on the restless sea. But while most of the islanders are still sleeping, the day has already begun for the lobstermen. Roughing the brisk wind and biting sea-spray, they are busy hauling traps and examining their yield.
It’s repetitive, backbreaking work but for brother and sister duo Abigail and Zebadiah Campbell, aged 24 and 21, the physical demands of lobstering are outweighed by the gratification of a hefty catch. National Geographic photographer Ronan Donovan spent two days with the pair, documenting the ebb and flow of their daily routine, as predictable as the rhythm of the sea.
“It was fun to dive into a totally different eco-system off the coast that I'm not used to at all,” Donovan tells National Geographic. “And from a visual standpoint, [lobstering] is fairly rich. There is the coastline which is inherently beautiful on its own and then you have the typically very early hours and with that some interesting light, the bright colors of the boats and the movement of the ocean.”
Shooting on a Canon EOS 6D Mark II, Donovan captured the gentle lilts of island life through the eyes of the lobstermen. Once out at sea, the Campbells will spend around five hours moving from buoy to buoy, hauling traps and sizing up the lobster. Those that are too big or too small are thrown back, while the pregnant females are marked with a notch on the second right fin, so they won’t be fished. Donovan, for his part, was grateful for the EOS 6D Mark II's lightweight frame, which eased the long hours spent on the rocking boat.
Though Donovan typically photographs wild animals in remote surroundings, he relished the challenge of tracing the human angle. “For years when I was first learning photography it was more difficult for me to photograph human subjects,” says Donovan. “But one of my mentors, Michael Nichols, told me it's no different; you're looking for the same moments.” Indeed, the Campbells have been working the lobster boats together for so long that intuition is their preferred communication. But just as Donovan will sit for hours waiting for the flick of an elephant’s trunk, so too did he keep watch for the split second exchanges between sister and brother.
These accumulated moments of family tenderness against the backdrop of the rugged Penobscot Bay coastline made for a poetic visual narrative. “While I was out on the water with Zeb and his sister, we waved to their grandfather and then waved to their dad; they all fish out of the same port and all see each other every day;” says Donovan. “I like the idea that everyone is still there.”
That the Campbells – and other adolescents on North Haven – are continuing the family trade proves that some young people still favor small town life over the buzzing metropolis. It seems the salty sea runs through their veins, apparent in their unflinching work ethic and the fish tattoos some have notched on their arms. “It’s pretty tough,” says Donovan. “But there is deep fulfilment because it's empowering being out by yourself on the water or with your sister or brother and making a living that way; it's impressive.”