In September 2016, photojournalist Jason Houston spent nearly a month documenting life in Mercedes, Philippines, and its fishing communities throughout San Miguel Bay. Houston’s photo series is part of an ongoing collaboration with Rare’s global fisheries program, aiming to give more exposure to threatened coastal resources and the people that form their livelihoods around them. His images from Mercedes were featured in a photo essay and fueled stories on the fishing culture on Mercedes’ Caringo Island, engagement between Rare Fellows and area fishing communities, and the conservation ethic and efforts of the Caringo Women’s Group.
Houston spent most of his days in Mercedes with lifelong fisher Rodel Bolaños, each morning climbing aboard his boat and speeding through the bay toward scattered crab traps. With one hand gripping a bamboo outrigger and the other glued to his camera, Houston would often move out of the way of the crew working and hang from the boat’s edge over the spraying saltwater, turning the lens inward to find and revisit the best angles of Bolaños and the other fishers onboard. “My approach is to embed as fully and naturally as possible in the lives of the people who welcome me to photograph,” he says. “I travel light and try to work unobtrusively, which means I also don’t look for any special treatment. Rodel’s small fishing canoe was wet, fishy, and crowded — and where he spends a good part of every day — so I wanted to capture that as authentically as possible.”
Houston lived with Bolaños and his family on Caringo Island for the bulk of his time in the Philippines. He followed the fisher’s catch and sale of crabs and the intricate upkeep that came with it, moved through the morning bustle of the region’s largest fish market, and shared squid soup and ginseng-infused brandy with Caringo locals. “My goal in projects like these is to explore the complex relationships between our natural resources and the people who live most closely to and rely most critically on them,” Houston says. “Ultimately, I’m just trying to better inform our efforts to make these relationships more sustainable.”
Here, Houston shares six outtakes from Mercedes and delivers his perspective on getting each shot, sliding into the routines around him, and as Houston puts it, “making the chaos of daily life into an interesting photograph.” These images help define Houston’s experience documenting lives and livelihoods there — a kind of sacrosanct project for him. “Making telling, compelling photographs is critical for getting people to pay attention and inspiring them to care,” he says.