Our initial idea was to make a portrait of New Bedford, on the US eastern seaboard near Boston. It was the capital of whaling until the mid-19th century and is still the biggest port in the USA in terms of the dollar value of the catch, but now it has fallen on hard times. It had an incredibly illustrious past, but today has some of the highest rates of pollution, criminality, marginality, drug addiction and unemployment in the country.
We wanted to make a portrait of the sea and of fishing without ever once seeing the sea or anyone fishing. So, for the first six months we filmed on land, then we went out on a boat, and that encounter with the sea, the deep, was so overwhelming, so powerful, that it made everything we had shot on land feel familiar, pat, recognisable and predictable. So we left the land behind and the whole film happens at sea.
You never see land; you lose your bearings when you’re watching the film, as much as you do when you’re actually out there on the boat itself. You barely know day from night, you don’t really know bow from stern, port from starboard, sea from sky. You’re sort of in the middle of a storm, and we wanted to recreate that feeling of both being lost and being confronted with the elements as we ourselves experienced it.
Fishing, of all human endeavours, is probably the most photographed and filmed. Since the beginnings of photography and cinema, the sea and fishing have always loomed large, but have typically been romanticised and sentimentalised. We didn’t want to do yet another romantic portrait of our relationship with the sea, or a maritime pastoral; we wanted to play to the romance of the sea but also to deal with the horror and abjection of the sea.
It wasn’t an easy film to make. The boats go out for anywhere from ten days to three weeks, and we went out on six of those trips over the course of a year, so we spent something like three months at sea altogether. I had never been seasick before, but I got violently seasick on every trip, simply because of the ergonomics of the boat. We both have delicate backs, and Véréna put her back out so badly she had to be taken to the emergency room.
We’re not professional filmmakers – if anything, we’re recovering anthropologists. It’s just a crew of two. There’s no division of labour. We fumbled through blindly as we always do. We started off filming with good-ish professional HD cameras, but we lost them one by one to the sea, so the only cameras we ended up shooting with were these small digital SLR cameras and tiny HD sports cameras called GoPros.
We shot with the GoPros ourselves and also attached them to the fishermen – their heads or chests or wrists when they were cutting up the fish – and then they just carried on with their work. The first time I saw the images shot from their bodies, I was totally stupefied, dumbfounded and transported by them. You don’t know what you’re really looking at, or who’s shooting it, or how they’re shooting it. You’re on the boat, you’re off the boat, you’re suddenly underwater. It’s crazy and frenetic, and terrifying, and sublime all at the same time.
The GoPros are incredibly cheap extreme-sports cameras. They’re usually used to valourise the exploits of the users in a very macho way – incredible surfers, incredible snowboarders – or they’re used by murderers and criminals to document and valourise their own crimes. But in Leviathan’s case, they do the opposite – they situate the humans who are bearing them in a much more humble relationship with the environment.
I’ve always been drawn to what Bertrand Russell called waste spaces – mountains and seas and environments in which I feel completely irrelevant. It isn’t a deliberate effort to get away from my own ego, it’s more this incredibly powerful, sublime aesthetic experience of being dwarfed by the cosmos and realising you’re nothing more than a bit player in it, this irrelevant little speck that has no significance whatsoever.
At the end of the film, we credit the fish and the crustaceans. It wasn’t to make a categorical assertion of equivalence between the human actors and the marine actors, it was supposed to be disconcerting, to make you think about our relationship with these other species – they, too, are actors; they, too, play a role. We wanted to convey the sense that these beings populate the world, too, and look at the way we’re treating each other.
1966 Born in Liverpool
1988 Gained a BA in philosophy, theology and social anthropology from the University of Cambridge 1992 Gained an MA in visual anthropology from the University of Southern California
1992 Released In and Out of Africa, a film about authenticity and taste in the African art market
2000 Gained a PhD in cultural anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley
2002 Began teaching at Harvard University
2009 Released Sweetgrass, a film about modern-day US sheep herding
2012–present Professor of visual arts and anthropology at Harvard
This story was published in the January 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine