PHOTOGRAPHER PROJECT: Where Water is Gold – Story and photographs by Carl Johnson

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The Bristol Bay region of Alaska has five major river systems. It is home to the largest wild sockeye salmon runs in the world and 50 percent of the world’s sockeye salmon supply. A massive proposed copper and gold mine development, the Pebble Mine, lies at the headwaters of two of the five rivers. Three years ago, I set out to document the subsistence way of life that has thrived in Bristol Bay for thousands of years and photograph the economic engines of the region—from commercial sockeye salmon and herring fishing to backcountry recreation, such as camping, fishing and bear viewing.

I embarked on this project for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to create a strong visual tool to aid in the fight to prevent this mine from being developed. As a former attorney, I had been involved in legal fights against the mine. When I left my law practice, I wanted to use my photography to continue being involved in the fight. With the help of Amy Gulick, author/photographer of Salmon in the Trees, I decided a book was the way to go. Braided River will release my book, Where Water Is Gold: Life and Livelihood in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, in 2016.

The second reason for this project was to create a comprehensive photo ethnography of the region. Two previous books had touched on the Bristol Bay region, but they focused exclusively on the commercial and subsistence sockeye harvest. I wanted to tell the broader story.

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To date, I have visited nine villages in the region in summer, fall and winter. I have been out with commercial fishermen on their boats during the spring herring and summer sockeye salmon seasons. I have visited people living on homesteads, joined hunters in the fall moose hunt, and spent time with villagers out on the ice as they catch winter whitefish. I have been in the back country exploring guided camping, fishing and bear viewing. I have not captured every image I would have liked, but I believe that with the 27,000-plus images I’ve taken in the field, I have glimpses of every aspect of the region, from its tremendous landscapes and wildlife to its cultures and economy.

Most of the fieldwork was funded through two successful, although moderate, crowd-funding campaigns. Some fieldwork was also funded through stock sales of images captured as part of the project. The next challenging fundraising effort is for the production of the book. What makes it challenging is a sense that a couple of pending political actions—potential action by the EPA under its Clean Water Act authority and a ballot initiative in Alaska—will protect the region from the Pebble Mine. This perception has led individuals and major funding groups to withhold any contributions on Bristol Bay efforts. Unfortunately, this perception is flawed, as the fight to protect Bristol Bay will last for years to come. The challenges in fundraising have pushed production back two years. Anyone who would like to help this book come to fruition sooner can make a donation directly to the publisher’s website at http://www.braidedriver.org/projects/bristolbay.

Carl got his start in photography while serving in the Navy where he volunteered as ship’s photographer for two commands. While he started in a photojournalistic style, he crossed over to nature photography after working for two years as a guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. Carl currently resides with his wife, Michelle, in Anchorage, Alaska.

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