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Photographing the Stilt Fishermen of Southern Sri Lanka

Published by Andy from The Travel Hub

Andy is one of the Co-Founders of The Travel Hub. He took a small group of passionate travellers from Dubai on a curated travel experience to Sri Lanka in October 2017. One of their favourite stops was in the coastal city of Galle.

Instagram: @andrewmarty_

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An iconic tourist photograph from Southern Sri Lanka is a traditional stilt fisherman perched on his cross shaped platform, with line in the water. The art of stilt fishing isn't actually as "traditional" as it may seem, with the method only starting during World War II. To catch fish in the shallow reefs close to shore, men would sit on hand made platforms. The image of these fishermen, especially around sunrise and sunset, became a popular and iconic image for visitors to cities like Galle and Tangalle.

In 2004, Sri Lanka was decimated by the tsunami caused by the Indian Ocean Earthquake. There was widespread damage to much of the coastline and a huge loss of life. The impacts of the damage were long lasting and one of the industries that was somewhat permanently affected was the stilt fishing industry. Many fishermen lived right on the coast and were among the tens of thousands of lives lost. In addition, the tsunami destroyed many of the reefs close to shore that provided the fishing grounds accessible to stilt fishermen.  The loss of fishing grounds, coupled with the huge economic impact of the tsunami meant that the remaining stilt fishermen needed to find alternative sources of income. Many relocated inland to the farming and agriculture industries and others joined the crew of small boats that fish further out to sea.

Over time, they found that tourists returning to Southern Sri Lanka were still keen to photograph the stilt fishermen. Some saw this as an opportunity to pose for photographs and receive "tips" from the photographers. It has created a situation where people now question the authenticity of the stilt fishermen, as the majority are in fact not actually fishing.

We visited Galle in October 2017 and were keen to photograph the stilt fishermen early in the morning. We ideally wanted to find some genuine stilt fishermen and asked around to find a location of where they might be. What we were told was that the vast majority of fishermen you will find on the beaches between Unawatuna and Welligama are indeed men who are willing to pose for photographs from tourists and do expect to receive some tip. In some cases they are real fishermen who work on boats or fish further out, but will supplement their income by posing for photographs. Others have simply found they can make more money from tourists than they can from fishing. Either way, if you want the iconic stilt fisherman photograph, it is unlikely to be of a genuine fisherman...............and you will need to pay for it.

All along the stretch from Unawatuna to Welligama there are beaches that will have stilts in the water. If you pull over on the side of the road, there will be local men willing to pose on the stilts for photographs. We stopped at a place called Ahangama beach and very quickly found a local man who was more than happy to pose for as many photos as we wanted. He told us how the industry had been so severely affected by the tsunami in 2004 and that he now derives his income from tourists rather than fishing. In many ways, it is a very sad story, where a natural disaster has had such a long lasting impaction on a local industry.

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Some people feel that taking photographs of these men who are essentially "posing" as stilt fishermen, is fake or not real. However, the money I gave him goes to support an economy that was decimated by a natural disaster and I am aware that I visited Sri Lanka as part of the tourism industry. The price we paid, when converted, was not very much and we spent roughly 40 minutes. I did not feel at anytime like we were being hustled or scammed - rather we had approached him. I have heard people say that these are just "actors", but I see no harm in paying him a small price for his work, compared to the millions paid to other actors around the world. I also don't hide from the fact that the images are not actual stilt fishermen. But there is nothing that isn't genuine about the man in the image. He is 100% local to the area and his life was dramatically affected by a disaster that he had no control over. He is willing to recreate the image of what fishing along this stretch of beach would've been like prior to 2004 and for that I am happy to pay him.

There are still a small number of genuine stilt fishermen along this stretch of coast. They are often further out from shore, so will be more difficult to get good quality photographs. There are also fishermen that perch on small rocks and we did see some of these during our stay.

 
A genuine fisherman fishing from a small rocky island close to shore

A genuine fisherman fishing from a small rocky island close to shore

 

If you want to see the real fishing industry of Galle, visit the local fish markets of a morning or afternoon. The boats will unload their catch and men will call loudly to advertise their prices. We visited one of the fish markets as part of an incredible food experience with Owl and The Pussycat Hotel & Restaurant. Read more about our market tour and cooking class in the review.

It is becoming more difficult these days to find "authentic" experiences that haven't been in some way affected by tourism. Whilst it is still possible to find authentic stilt fishermen, my advice would be to understand that if you want one of those iconic images, you may need to accept it will be from someone posing for the photo. If you are fortunate enough to find a genuine fisherman and you do get great images, it would always be nice to leave him a few dollars as a thank you anyway.

One thing I really enjoyed during my visit to Sri Lanka was the interaction with so many local people. They have a wonderfully warm nature and most were extremely keen to have their photo taken as well as have a chat about their story. As a general rule, I will always ask permission before taking someone's photo and will make a judgement call as to whether the person is in a situation where I feel I should offer some form of reimbursement. 

We traveled to Sri Lanka with flydubai, who have flights direct to Colombo everyday of the week. Follow the link to our review on flydubai and be sure to visit their website to explore a number of inspiring destinations!

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