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Fish heads

No traffic jams, no soaps on the TV or visits to the supermarket at the weekend. Just clouds, horizon and water: the fisherman's holy trinity. Surrounded by nature at its wildest. Storms, fog, hurricanes, black frost, northern lights and tidal waves. At the mercy of the sea, the boat, superstition and, in the worst case, the rescue helicopter. Fishermen, torn away from life on shore. A tribe that in the past would answer not to official surnames, but to nicknames. Mestkarre (Dung Cart), Dove Fluppe (Deaf Fluppe), Harry Lap (Harry Rag), Neuze (Nose), Piwie (Peewee), Pis (Piss), Dikke Louis (Fat Louis), Kleine Pieper (Little Spud) and the Nobel Prize winner amongst nicknames: Poept in mien hoed (Poops-in-my-hat).

In 1950, the Belgian fishing fleet consisted of 457 boats; by 1980, it was just 208. Nowadays, there are 115 boats, spread over three fishing ports: Nieuwpoort, Ostend and Zeebrugge.

As a boy living on the coast, Stephan Vanfleteren remembers the comings and goings of ships leaving port along the harbour channel, the quays lined with boats, barrels of fish in the fish market and the fishermen's pubs packed with burly men with tattoos and empty glasses on the bar. Now there are, all told, eight fishing boats in Nieuwpoort and one small remaining fishermen's bar, t'Schipje (The Little Ship). The fishing boats have been replaced by yachts, the fishermen by tourists.Klein Papaatje (Little Daddy), a retired fisherman, who owes his name to having become a father at the age of seventeen, puts it like this: 'A tourist can go and stand with his feet in the water, then turn his back to the sea in the evening and go home, but I can't stand on the beach, the sea calls to me, tugs at my sleeve, not like a mistress, but like an eternal lover.'

Stephan Vanfleteren's text was translated by Laura Watkinson. An extended piece is available featuring interviews with all of the fishermen portrayed.
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