Driving through Shell Beach in the bayou area of Louisiana, JT Blatty was looking for a pit stop when she spotted a trailer with a wooden cabin on top, covered with hand-painted signs and knickknacks.
As she slowed down, the cabin’s owner, retired fisherman Al Blappert, yelled and motioned her to come in.
Blappert called his cabin the “Tiltin’ Hilton Crooked Lodge,” and told Blatty that he had lived there since his home was submerged during Hurricane Katrina. He filleted a fish for Blatty, and she has stayed in touch with him over the years.
Since that day, the “Tiltin’ Hilton” was destroyed by Hurricane Isaac in 2012. Blappert was almost killed, he said. But he has no plans to move away from the area.
“Al told me that that during Isaac … when things started getting pretty bad and he thought he wouldn't make it, that if he died he wanted to throw his body back into the bayou to give back to the crabs and shrimp and fish he's eaten all his life,” Blatty said.
Fishing is a family tradition for many in the bayous; some are seventh-generation commercial fishermen. But hurricanes, pollution - most notably the BP oil spill in 2010 - and competition from imports have taken a toll on their livelihood.
On top of that, the basins near Louisiana’s coastal marshlands sit on “sinking land.” Coastal Louisiana has lost approximately 30 square miles of land per year since 1978, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.
But the locals don’t dwell on the decay of the industry. They aren’t encouraging their children to follow in their footsteps, Blatty said, but they don’t plan to leave or stop fishing until they die.
“There's really no other option for them, no room for worrying, because it's all they know and they've invested their lives in it,” she said.
Blatty first visited the area to learn about her grandfather, who lived in New Orleans and spent all his free time sport fishing. She never met him. He disappeared off Shell Beach in the ’70s before she was born, and they found his boat and body in the Yscloskey bayous.
“Have you met my grandfather?” was her pickup line to get to know people when she first arrived in 2010. But Blatty has yet to meet someone who knew him.
“It sounds pretty bad, but the responses were more often than not, ‘A lot of bodies have been found in these bayous,’ ” she said.
Blatty continued to visit and take photos to preserve the fishing culture - the hand-built shrimp trawlers, the lingo, the weeks at a time on the water. But mostly, she said, she wants to capture their hard work and how connected they are to the water.
Blatty recalls spending time with commercial fisherman Rocky Rakoci in a small boat meant to fit only one person. Rakoci cut the motor once he reached the main fishing line, and he pulled the boat along to reach the buoys where catfish lines dangled.
Drifting slowly along the line with the motor off, it was like moving on glass, Blatty said.
“When the catfish breaks the surface, you can really hear everything and feel everything,” she said.
- Lauren Russell, CNN