Behind the Lens

Photojournalist Jason Houston captures the daily rhythm of small-scale fishing in the Philippines

February 21, 2017

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.


When simply documenting someone’s life, the time of day can be a big challenge for making well-lit photographs. Most people do things throughout the day and mostly midday. But Rodel’s day started just before sunrise every day — the perfect time to get that beautiful, dramatic golden side-light.


Pigs have become an important extra source of income and provide some extra food security for the isolated island community of Caringo. One afternoon, Rodel’s father-in-law, Ronilo Aragon, slaughtered one of their pigs for sale to neighbors. Slaughters are always interesting to photograph. On one hand, they’re grizzly and overtly graphic, but they’re also dramatic and interesting with beautiful colors and unusual textures. Here I was, kneeling in blood and mud, trying to find a less gratuitous view that still included the whole scene with the crowd gathered around and all the various simultaneous activities.



When out on assignment, I always carry my camera with me. And sometimes the most unexpected situations (and ones I hardly recognize at the time) make for some of my favorite photographs. This image of kids playing street basketball is one of just six frames I made mostly because the kids wanted me to. When I got back and was editing through the day’s images, I really loved how it characterized the family-friendly feel of Caringo — a reminder to loosen up and open up and treat all the photos I make as though they might be a “cover” shot!


While important for context in understanding Rodel’s life, many of his activities were mundane and not typically photogenic. With this image of Rodel sorting through bycatch looking for baitfish to buy, I tried to pay extra attention to all the various layers and little details (like the boy holding the sea horse!) to make sense of a chaotic scene and make this passing event more interesting to explore visually.



During the few weeks I lived with Rodel in Caringo, we went on several patrols looking for illegal fishing activities (Rodel was deputized to do so). One was an official patrol with agents from the Provincial Anti-Crime Taskforce on the mainland. On the way out of the bay, I was surprised when everyone on the boat starting pulling out guns, including handguns, a large shotgun and this automatic machine gun. I do not speak Tagalog and as was often the case when out on the boats, I wasn’t able to really ask about if they intended to use them! As we approached the first boat, Domingo Villamor leapt to the bow and prepared to board. Not hearing shots or seeing guns being drawn on the fishing boat, I stood up — still nervous — and followed him to make a few photographs.



The Philippines was one of the friendliest places I’ve ever worked. Cameras are often viewed with suspicion, especially when aimed at controversial extractive subjects like fishing. I expected some resistance — or at least dirty looks — when I showed up at the Mercedes Fish Port at 4:30 am to photograph the first deliveries and all the commercial buyers doing their thing. But the Filipinos were nothing but friendly. Happy to let me photograph their morning routines and even talking and joking with me. Free from having to negotiate access, I was able to focus on finding fun compositions like this, where the yellow and blue-green pops of color at the different distances in the frame echo each other.