Just over a year ago, Joshua Corbett, a lifelong Alaskan now based in Anchorage, received a call from Tiina Loite, a former photo editor for the New York Times food section (she’s now on the styles desk). Loite asked Corbett if he was available to shoot a story in Kenai, AK, about dip netting for sockeye salmon in the Kenai River. The sport increasingly serves a diverse group of urban fisherfolk looking to fill their freezers with the pricey fish for free (minus the cost of gas and gear). Sold commercially, the cost of sockeye salmon is out of reach for many locals. Via email, Corbett spoke to PDN about tackling a food-focused story, working in the midday light, and collaborating with the story’s writer.
PDN: How did you get on Loite’s radar for this assignment?
Joshua Corbett: I’d been working with the NY Times for a few years, mostly with the national and travel desks, and Loite, then the photo editor for the food section, contacted me about the story. I wish I could claim credit for the idea, but the pitch came from a great local journalist, Julia O’Malley, and this ended up being my first opportunity to work with her.
PDN: What did the New York Times ask for and how did you deliver that?
JC: The assignment description was pretty minimal, but they set me up with the writer, and we had a 4-hour drive to talk through the story and come up with some ideas as to how to convey the weird vibe of the Kenai river dip-netting scene. It’s this strange mix of outdoorsy river fishing, music festival, and community barbecue. It’s about as far from “A River Runs Through It” type fishing as you could imagine, but incredibly fun, communal, and chock-a-block full of a spectacularly diverse group of Alaskans from all over.
PDN: Was this assignment a stretch or right up your alley?
JC: This was pretty much right up my alley, or at least indicative of one of my favorite type of day assignments – exploring an interesting subculture or group, getting to poke my nose around a place I wouldn’t otherwise be (I hadn’t been dip netting on the Kenai River since I was a kid). This was a bit different for me in that it was a food-focused story, but I felt comfortable approaching it with a classic photojournalist approach given that the story is about people and their relationships to the food.
PDN: Did you encounter any logistical challenges? If so, how did you handle them?
JC: The biggest challenge seems to always be time. We only had a day for the assignment, and with 7-8 hours roundtrip drive time from my home city, it compresses shooting time, and puts the majority of the shoot in the middle of the day, which isn’t ideal for light. Fortunately we had a solid plan as to how to use our time efficiently, and I lucked out with a bit of hazy fog that softened the light and made for some interesting photos.
PDN: How did you approach the fisherfolk? I imagine they were be fixated on the catch.
A couple of things ended up randomly helping on this assignment. First, there were a couple of Filipino families fishing on the beach, and I happen to know a bit of Tagalog from being a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines in my younger days. It’s always fun and helpful to be able to break the ice with someone’s own language, and they were instantly happy to answer questions and let me photograph whatever I’d like. Alaska is a small-ish state population-wise, and I happened to know one of our subjects from some non-profit work that I’d been doing earlier in the year. When we rolled up to his house he gave me a big hug and asked what he could do to help. Just goes to show that cultivating relationships is important, and you never know when they’re going to pay off.
“Free Alaskan Salmon: Just Bring a Net and Expect a Crowd”
Photographs by Joshua Corbett
Text by Julia O’Malley
Assigned by Tiina Loite at the New York Times
Published August 7, 2017
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