How to find the Sri Lankan stilt fishermen, and photograph them? / by Robert Moltmaker

– Research before the trip | The quest in Sri Lanka | Discovering the stilt fishermen | Photographing techniques
BY ROBERT MOLTMAKER IN SRI LANKA

Stilt fishermen at the beach of Weligama, Sri Lanka.

Stilt fishermen at the beach of Weligama, Sri Lanka.

Type in Sri Lanka in a search engine. Among the first things you find are iconic images of stilt fishermen. Many photographers have made beautiful pictures of them. As I was about to visit Sri Lanka, I wanted to find and photograph them myself. You never know what new perspective you might discover, right?
As it turned out, I would end up at the right place at the right moment. You might too, with the right preparation. Through my story, I hope to help you prepare your own adventure.

Preparing the quest

Joanne – my girlfriend – and I had booked our trip to Sri Lanka. Obviously, I started looking for inspiring places and people to photograph. It was literally within the minute before I found the images of stilt fishermen.

 


The moment I saw the images of stilt fishermen, I knew my quest had started.

As you may have noticed by visiting my website, people who work in the elements intrigue me. I enjoy being in the elements myself. I search for beautiful, extreme landscapes and enjoy being in them very much. And if I see – local – people working in them, I get curious. So you’ll understand: I simply needed to find the stilt fishermen. No matter what.

First, I needed some leads. So I searched the web further for answers on the whereabouts of these men. A very interesting article on WIRED explained to me the history and background of stilt fishing. A Lonely Planet forum topic gave me more information regarding the whereabouts of the fishermen. A blog by Matthew Williams-Ellis gave me a rather specific location too. Among other things about Sri Lanka, he writes about a beach where he has been and photographed the stilt fishermen: Midigama beach near Weligama.

I also discovered the fishermen might charge you when taking pictures of them, depending on the location. The more touristic the location, the more likely you’ll get charged. Supposedly, a traditional custom has become a tourist attraction. Unfortunate, from the traveller’s perspective. Understandable, from the fisherman’s perspective. They likely have a hard time retrieving income, so I cannot blame them. However, I wasn’t discouraged. I thought, maybe I’ll find the real thing and either way, it is a perfect photographic opportunity.

I got the information I needed and was ready to search for the stilt fishermen. The plan was to search for them on the South coast, and if I wouldn’t bump into them or find some leads before arriving in Weligama or Midigama, really go for it there.

The quest

Weeks later and travelling through Sri Lanka there were a couple of beach towns we visited before arriving in Weligama. Believe me, I had kept an eye on the potential presence of stilt fishermen, but found none. Not a single trace in the form of unaccompanied stilts on beaches either. When asking locals about their whereabouts, they confirmed to travel to the Weligama area. Finally arriving in Weligama, local people said I would find them in the town of Ahangama, further west: even further west than Midigama. Yes, it got confusing. My own online research pointed to Weligama and Midigama, so I decided to discover that area first.

Fresh in Weligama, I was keen on visiting the beach. The question was: which beach to visit? There are different kinds of beach strips around, spread over rather long distances. These are definitely not walking distances with rock formations and private properties in between the beaches.

It was clear we needed a form of private transportation.

 

We checked in at Palm Hill, a B&B with beautiful open-air showers made of nature stone, a colourful large garden and a tiny beach around the corner. It’s the kind of beach that appears in your dreams. Well, not in my dreams, because there were no stilts or fishermen. Nevertheless, we decided to relax on that beach for a bit. But first we needed to arrange our own transportation in order to be flexible later that day.

We searched for a scooter rental in Weligama. After asking around, we ended up at a little grocery shop, run by a family. Even though there wasn’t a single scooter around, it seemed possible to rent a scooter and two helmets for a day. “Wait a couple of minutes”, the friendly shopkeepers asked us. One phone call and five minutes later, an uncle showed up on a scooter.
The man handed over the key and two helmets. We agreed on a price and I prepared to handle some last formalities. They didn’t, however. For them, we finished the deal. Everyone smiled and wished us a great day. “See you tomorrow!”, the uncle said. I was surprised. “Don’t you need anything from me, like a deposit or anything?” Me saying this resulted in even more smiles. “No, we’ll see you tomorrow, yes?“

The sheer trust was unbelievable. For us. Not for them.

We put our helmets on, Joanne jumped behind me, and of we went. After relaxing on the dream beach next to our hostel for a while, it was time to get on the mission.

A lot of beach, where are the stilts?!

We headed towards the big bay on the road eastwards to Mirissa. Driving along the bay we saw many boats but no stilts.

Many fishing boats, but not a single stilt around.

Many fishing boats, but not a single stilt around.

Nevertheless, the view across the bay and its beach were great. Looking out over Taprobane Island we sat down for a moment. Joanne got in the water to play with the waves. I bought a coconut from a vendor and sat down under a tree while enjoying the view and drinking from the coconut.

Looking out over Taprobane Island in Weligama Bay.

Looking out over Taprobane Island in Weligama Bay.

As we had arrived from Mirissa earlier that afternoon, there was no need to travel further east towards Mirissa. Finding the stilt fishermen wasn’t going to happen there.
So we drove to the west-tip of the bay. This turned out to be a little harbour with many boats but no stilts. A good place to visit though, if you’re looking for an authentic local experience. There were fishermen having a hard time trying to push a boat into the water. And while I was there, they asked me for help.

A pile of fishing nets in the harbour of Weligama.

A pile of fishing nets in the harbour of Weligama.

Helping the fishermen push a boat into the water at Weligama harbour.

Helping the fishermen push a boat into the water at Weligama harbour.

The fishermen leaving the harbour of Weligama.

The fishermen leaving the harbour of Weligama.

Boats lined up in the harbour of Weligama.

Boats lined up in the harbour of Weligama.

Getting closer

You know what’s the weird yet funny thing? Wherever I asked, no one was able to give me specific directions as to the whereabouts of the stilt fishermen, ever. Asking the ‘regular’ fishermen about the stilt fishermen, they advised me to drive further west. Not very specific, is it? I had just helped them push their boat, so it’s not as if you would expect them to not give a shit. It’s like all locals were travelling in a strange environment just like me!

We got on the main road driving west, towards Midigama (A2/AB41 – Weligama By Pass Road turning into Matara Road). Planning to drive it yourself? Beware that this is a busy road, drive carefully.
While driving the road, we were looking for side streets leading to the beach. My logic was: just try every side street leading to a beach and one moment I have to find them.
The first road led to a cliff with a small beach below. No stilts. The second road led to an open grassland area at a wide beach. And then – finally – there they were. Stilts.

There were no fishermen sitting on the stilts. Asking a passer-by about the fishermen, I learned they would arrive early in the morning. I was so stoked to come back then! I think it’s the most beautiful moment of the day. It’s the moment everything comes to life. The light for photography during sunrise is great too. If all would go well – I was to photograph the stilt fishermen during sunrise. A photographer cannot wish for anything better.

As he evening was setting in, it was time to get back to the hostel. After all, we had to get up in the middle of the night. It wasn’t as ridiculously early as waking up for Sri Pada earlier this trip – at 1:00 am! – but still early.

The moment of truth

The alarm went off at 4am. Outside it was still dark. Silently, we sneaked outdoors and got on the scooter. I get it, you might think I’m completely crazy, driving a busy road in the middle of the night in a faraway land to find some fishermen. But it’s adventure we wanted, right? This is it.

As twilight set in, we arrived at the beach. It wouldn’t be long now for the sun to rise on the horizon. At the same time, the stars were still visible. Small cloud formations dramatized a colourful sky. I don’t get to see this every day and wanted an image of the palm trees against the night sky with stars.

Palm trees against a night sky during morning twilight at Weligama, Sri Lanka.

Palm trees against a night sky during morning twilight at Weligama, Sri Lanka.

You need a tripod for a shot like this; there is no other way. Your camera cannot move, or your image will be blurred. So I set up my tripod, attached my Fujinon XF 10-24mm f/4.0 R IOS ultra wide lens to capture as much sky as possible. To also get as much light as possible, I set the aperture at the maximum of f4. To increase the sensitivity of the camera, I set the ISO to 1000. Then I exposed for 20 seconds by using my remote control.

Text: Palm trees against a night sky during morning twilight at Weligama, Sri Lanka.

Text: Palm trees against a night sky during morning twilight at Weligama, Sri Lanka.

Even though this view was beautiful, it wasn’t why we were here.

When you arrive on the beach, you have to walk a couple of hundred meters to the left (east) to find the stilts and fishermen. But it was still rather dark, so we couldn’t see anyone yet. After walking a while without seeing anyone, I started to fear the fishermen didn’t show up today.

It occurred to me the ocean was rough this morning. Out there, huge waves were crashing violently on the shore. Didn’t seem like great fishing conditions to me. That feeling of true disappointment started to creep in. And then, I saw some people standing on top of the rock formation on the beach. They were looking at the stilts. Would this be the fishermen?

I really liked the composition with the people on the rocks observing the ocean. They were a bit further away, so I needed to exchange lenses to get a bit more magnification. I might now get a little technical for some, but only for a moment. I attached my Fujinon lens XF 18-55mm f/2.8-4 R LM IOS. Now I needed to make a quick decision. I wanted to get a rather long exposure to get some wave-movement in my image and not ‘freeze’ them. But as I wanted to get closer to the potential fishermen before the sun would rise, I didn’t want to waste too much time by attaching a neutral density (ND) filter on the lens to get a longer exposure. Also, I didn’t need a really long exposure, as I didn’t want to level out the waves completely. After all, I wanted to show the rough ocean too. So I chose to minimise my aperture all the way down to f22, letting a minimum amount of light enter the lens, with the additional advantage of getting a larger depth of field in which all elements in the composition are sharp. I set the ISO back to 200 – the lowest possible on my Fujifilm X-T1 camera for shooting in RAW – to decrease the sensitivity of the sensor and prevent overexposure. While it was still rather dark – during twilight – I got an automatic exposure of a second, just perfect! Here is the result.

People (fishermen?) observing the rough ocean during morning twilight at the beach in Weligama, Sri Lanka.

People (fishermen?) observing the rough ocean during morning twilight at the beach in Weligama, Sri Lanka.

Getting closer to the people on the rocks, I wanted to get a wide-angle beach image with the people being part of the greater scene. It was getting lighter, so I quickly attached my ND filter anyway (Hoya NDX8: 3 stops less light). Now I needed a much longer exposure for an image, over five seconds. See how the waves fade away and the ocean seems much calmer?

A wide angle view across the beach of Weligama, Sri Lanka during morning twilight.

A wide angle view across the beach of Weligama, Sri Lanka during morning twilight.

As I approached further, I got a closer shot too. Although in this image below I exposed for six seconds, the high waves are still visible. It also depends on the moment you take the shot.

A (closer) shot of the people on the rocks on the beach of Weligama, Sri Lanka.

A (closer) shot of the people on the rocks on the beach of Weligama, Sri Lanka.

I liked the results of the images, but I still wasn’t sure if this were fishermen.

Catching my ‘fish’

As I approached the rocks, it became clear. I had found them! I guess you understand I was happy like a child in a candy store.
Behind the rock formation, a handful of men were fishing. Some on their stilts, others while standing on the rocks close to the water surface. Let’s call them rock fishermen. I climbed the big rock and set up my tripod. Although I constantly played around with different exposure times, I continued taking long exposure shots as I loved the effect. The exposures used range from ¼ of a second to 6 seconds.

Stilt fishermen at the beach of Weligama, Sri Lanka.

Stilt fishermen at the beach of Weligama, Sri Lanka.

More men were reaching their stilts as the sun rose. It wasn’t easy for the men to reach their stilts on bare feet on a rocky sea floor in rough waters.

Stilt fishermen at the beach of Weligama, Sri Lanka.

Stilt fishermen at the beach of Weligama, Sri Lanka.

Stilt fishermen at the beach of Weligama, Sri Lanka.

Stilt fishermen at the beach of Weligama, Sri Lanka.

While taking shots, I talked with the other men on the shoreline and rocks. Most of them were fishermen too. They told me the ocean was rough, the waves were high and the fishing conditions far from perfect this day. Because of this, not every man directly climbed its stilt. Many were investigating whether it was worth to start fishing and some did not try their luck at all. Often the men on the stilts had to pull in their legs in order to be stable as the big waves underneath them rushed to the shoreline.

So why do these men fish on stilts? Stilt fishing, or stick fishing as the locals also call it, is a traditional way of fishing for small sized fish that was introduced rather recently, during the Second World War. Thus, although it may look like an ancient tradition, it is actually a practise invented in order to adapt to changing circumstances of food shortage and overcrowded fishing spots in that time (source: WIRED).

One fishermen put a lot of effort climbing in a stilt that was particularly hard to reach. He succeeded, and I was able to create what I came to think is the most beautiful image of this series.

Stilt fishermen at the beach of Weligama, Sri Lanka.

Stilt fishermen at the beach of Weligama, Sri Lanka.

Gimme the money?

I was surprised myself, but there was not one fisherman that asked me for money. I guess it wasn’t a touristic spot. It is an area with a little tourism, but there was not a single other traveller around. Or maybe it was the – very early – time of the day.

The end result

In the beginning of this story I mentioned you never know what new perspective you might discover even though the object has already been photographed often. This adventure is the perfect example. I encountered a unique moment. Not the one in which you’ll see all the stilt fishermen on a row in a rather calm blue ocean. The ocean was rough. Because of it, I was unable to get into the water myself with my equipment for interesting perspectives. But it offered other possibilities, as shown.

Evaluating the images directly after the photography session, quite some images looked as if they were overexposed, although the histogram showed acceptable levels. When – weeks later – looking at the (RAW – not jpeg) images on my laptop back home, I was amazed about how much you can extract from these almost overexposed images. I am happy with the results.
I wanted to capture the rough movements of the ocean and at the same time the serenity this place entails. If I have succeeded, is up to you.

Where is this place?

I can hear those of you who are planning to travel to Sri Lanka asking: where is this place exactly? I’ve thought about whether I should embed the exact location here. It isn’t my intention to contribute spoiling a place like this. But I concluded that it is not me making the spot popular, it’s the iconic stilt fishing itself. And if the local fishermen decide to earn a little extra because their photos are taken, well – good for them!

So here you go.

 

Which of those roads on the map is the one to get to the location, you ask?
My answer is: have a little quest. Rent a scooter. Enjoy the trip!

What other unique professions in fascinating places exist?

Maybe, somewhere in the world, you have visited fascinating places in which you found people with unique professions? Of maybe you’re still dreaming of visiting such a place one day? I’m curious! Let me know. You might inspire me to travel there.
If you have any questions about the technical aspects of this photography story, fire away too. Please leave a comment below and let me know!

 Tags: Sri Lanka | Asia | Ocean | Fishermen | Photography

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