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CARPE LIBRUM: Gwenyfar looks closer at a portrait of American coastal life

Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Tide Runners: Shrimping and Fishing on the Carolinas and Georgia Coast
Tim Barnwell
Numinous Editions, 2019, pgs. 160

First and foremost, Tim Barnwell is an incredibly gifted artist. He has an eye with the camera that seeks out subtlety, undercurrent and subtext in a way that illuminates each picture. His book, “Tide Runners: Shrimping and Fishing on the Carolinas and Georgia Coast,” is a work of fine art, fit to be sold in the Whitney or at the most exclusive art galleries. Barnwell also has chronicled something so vital to American daily life, it’s virtually invisible: the vanishing world of the coastal shrimping industry.

The idea of shrimp and shrimp boats probably never really entered the heads of most people in my generation until the film “Forrest Gump” (and who could forget the seemingly unending uses for shrimp and the creation of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.?) Reality that the world was shifting hit me about 15 years ago, when I was sent to cover the Sneed’s Ferry Shrimp Festival. During an interview, the organizers were adamant, while not all their shrimp came from Sneed’s Ferry, they had at least managed to serve shrimp caught exclusively in the U.S. (in other words, none of their product was coming from Vietnam.)

So the Sneads Ferry Shrimp Festival couldn’t serve local shrimp? It was probably the first time the magnitude of globalism hit me.

Barnwell’s book documents the shrimping industry on the Carolina and Georgia coasts, with oral histories alongside the people pictured. Each photograph is striking and reproduced beautifully; any could be framed for display. However, coupling them with the oral histories captivated me (I am a text-driven person.) Oddly, while reading Barnwell’s book, I was reminded of a moment from Tony Rivenbark’s virtual tour of his home for the Wilson Center’s Ghostlight Series. At one point, he gestures to a small model of a tobacco barn, and comments the reason he could be in Wilmington and enjoy all he has worked for is because of tobacco. His family grew tobacco in Duplin County, and that essentially gave him his start in life.

 

 

Both the photographs and oral histories bear witness to similar truths: Shrimping is what has set up many families and enabled people to buy homes, get educations and build lives. Barnwell notes he sees a lot of similarities between the farmers and shrimpers he has photographed: namely, their hard work, optimism and wealth of skills not taught in schools.

 I know some people will be attracted to these images as a confirmation of their stereotypes—and one of my personal karmic goals in this lifetime is to find acceptance for them or at least tolerance. But, for people who understand that making a living on the water means more than having a perfect sandy beach on a private, exclusive island, these images are joyful. The water is a taxing mistress: Each time you go out, you might not come back. The effort and labor required to harvest, transport and process shrimp is immense. The work depicted is gargantuan—and, frankly, inspiring in a day and age when “Instagram influencer” is considered a real job.

I especially found poignant a portrait of Sally Granet, whose grandfather’s shrimp boat is tattooed on her back. It frames a moment that spans generations. What does that boat really represent? How many dreams were pinned to it? How many hot meals? How much was sacrificed to keep it seaworthy? As the world has changed, and the shrimping industry has shifted increasingly to cheaper farm-raised shrimp from the third world, the impact of those changes on our coastal landscape is unmistakable—though, sometimes you have to pause to feel it.

My favorite images are from the Blessing of the Fleet collections. Barnwell photographed the annual event, which traces back to the Mediterranean and asks divine blessings and protection for the fleet in the coming season, in both Georgia and South Carolina. A big parade, party, festival and flotilla are commonly part of the experience. People dress up and decorate their vessels. Visually, it is fascinating, but it also drives home just how important the fleet is to everyone’s survival.

Yes, Barnwell has beautiful pictures of boats in the water at sunrise that will, indeed, take the reader’s breath away. There are plenty of photographs one can imagine framed in a rich person’s beach house. But don’t be misled: This is a profound piece of photojournalism that captures an essential part of our coastal life. By focusing on both a specific moment in time and the events that brought him and his subjects to that moment, Barnwell has created a piece of art that will resonate for years.

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