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Maggie Shannon’s Photographs From ‘Swamp Yankee’ Take Us Shark Hunting Off Rhode Island

Maggie Shannon‘s photographs from ‘Swamp Yankee’ are, on the surface, a visceral picture of wanton killing, of men – and it is predominantly men – going out hunting sharks for sport. In fact these pictures are part of a documentary series on the Monster Shark Tournament that takes place every year on Rhode Island. And so, by their nature are divisive.

Originally the competition was held at Martha’s Vineyard – where Shannon is from – close to where the film ‘Jaws’ was shot back in 1975. By the mid 1990’s the Monster Shark tournament had grown to become a televised tournament but its very success led it’s own demise. Media coverage led to popular outrage and protest and the competition was relocated to Newport, Rhode Island, in 2014. And it’s there that Shannon went with her camera to join the crew of the Swamp Yankee’ on their mission to catch the prize catch, the biggest shark.

What’s most striking about these photographs is their particular aesthetic. You’d expect alot of blood and guts, repulsive images of death, but instead we are offered a form of portraiture; from the fishermen to the guts of the shark, that are primarily concerned with colour, tone and form. And it’s this deft construction that reveals the artist behind the camera. In Shannon’s images the subject plays a minor role in her vision of the world leaving us to revel in her interpretation of reality. Here’s what she has to say about her project:

For the past two summers, I’ve travelled to Newport, Rhode Island alongside hundreds of east coast fishermen on hiatus from their charter fishing day jobs. This is the site of the Monster Shark Tournament; the first two years the annual event wasn’t held in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts on Martha’s Vineyard. As a kid on Martha’s Vineyard, I always looked forward to the tournament, but a recent town council decision judged the tournament’s drunken revellers and ‘circus’ atmosphere not the right fit for the town any longer. I as well had become more concerned with the nature of the event as I grew older, but was still drawn to it.

For two days, the fishermen formed teams and left before dawn, returning to the weigh-in at 3:30pm to have their daily catches judged. While the other boats waited patiently in line, a tournament staff member attached a rope to each shark’s tail and hoisted it up to a white platform to be weighed. Only the largest fish were presented. Though the site of killing for sport, the Monster Shark Tournament uses International Game Fishing Association (IGFA) regulations to promote ethical and fair angling practices and their stringent rules are designed to ensure that the fishing has a minimal impact on the shark population. Scientists and researches are also on hand to collect samples and the boats’ captains can choose between keeping their catch or donating it to the researchers or local food bank.

The event does seem like a bloody affair, but it’s hard to view the Monster Shark Tournament purely as a ‘massacre’. Seeing a marine biologist hack a shark’s head off from it’s gills down is brutal, but there is also something terrifyingly beautiful about it. Looking at these fish up close shows not only their strength but also their fragility. And especially after meeting the family that has organised the tournament for the last 28 years, I felt even stronger that the event was something more than just a spectacle. Remembering the tie-dyed, Birkenstock-ed protesters of Martha’s Vineyard fighting with the tournament staff make it difficult to document the event as an impartial bystander, but my nostalgia and awe at the beauty of the 400+ pound creatures make it hard to look away. By bringing these epic predators up from the deep, the fishermen are showing us something out of our own world, and that moment should be treasured, if carefully critiqued.

Shannon will be launching her book, ‘Swamp Yankee’, at Printed Matter, Inc, 231 11th Avenue, New York on Thursday 28th July @ 6pm.