Magnum photographer and the man behind the iconic green-eyed ‘Afghan girl’ photograph for the National Geographic magazine also shot one of his best in Sri Lanka back in 1995. On his very first day at the beach, Steve McCurry spent nearly an hour-and-a-half submerged waist-deep in water to get the perfect shot. But he returned again and again shooting in various lighting condition and angles till he got what he wanted.
What McCurry captured was a way of life that is fading fast in the face of modern technology and trawlers that have jeopardised the traditional way of life. In one of his interviews, the photographer said we will look back in years to come and be amazed at the method of fishing and how we once were as a planet, adding that it’s very important to document these kinds of events.
While his iconic photo brought to life not only the challenges of stilt fishing in Sri Lanka, the beauty of the act itself became evident through the powerful and vivid photograph. But while a photo can speak a thousand words, there’s nothing better than experiencing it all by yourself at Bentota in Sri Lanka, where it is still practiced till date, although in a much smaller scale. Only a handful of families within the fishermen community still practice stilt fishing.
Stilt fishing is a tradition quite unique to Sri Lanka. It’s a time-consuming practise where fishermen place themselves atop wooden poles usually two metres above the sea. They hold that position holding fish hooks and fishing rods. And while it may look strange, the traditional fishermen go about their jobs like this almost everyday. In this technique, fishmermen avoid using nets as it scares the fish. As an alternative, they use old-fashioned rods with bait. Although it’s a tough process, it never fails to capture the imagination of tourists and passerby. It makes for surreal pictures.
Historians are divided over when this practice began, but some of the earliest records suggest it started during the early 1940s. After the devastating 2004 tsunami, stilt fishing was severely affected as much of coastal Sri Lanka was decimated in its aftermath. But soon enough, there was a sort of a revival in stilt fishing as several photographs circulated all over the world on social media that generated interest among travellers. The only difference today is that some fishermen take up stilt fishing not to do real business but to pose for pictures. So don’t be surprised if a group approaches you, albeit politely, asking you for a tip.
For people who wish to see stilt fishing, we would recommend them to go to Unawatuna, Weligama, Kathaluwa, Koggala ad Kalpitiya. Sure, it won’t look and feel as authentic, but stilt fishing would have disappeared altogether had it not been for tourism.