The Lone Oysterman

The wilderness areas of our coastal terrain are spiritual sanctuaries and places of unparalleled beauty that evoke a sense of awe and reverence for our natural world.

Through his photography, Andrew challenges us to take a closer look at the natural world around us with a fresh perspective. We look not as detached observers, but as intimately engaged participants.

To understand the oystermen, Andrew went out with Craig Reaves, owner of the Sea Eagle Market and Vince Chaplain, a Gullah oysterman born and raised on St. Helena Island.

It was 5 a.m. on a Tuesday in mid-January, 30 degrees, still dark outside with a wind chill in the 20s. They climbed aboard the aluminum boat and took off full throttle through the waters of the Broad River wanting to reach the flats by the break of dawn. With waves breaking over the bow, conditions were dangerous that day even for the highly experienced. Both Vince and Craig have been oystering for much of their lives and on this day they knew it might be their last chance to harvest these banks before temperatures dipped further the next day. Oysters exposed to extreme temperatures at low tide will freeze and die.

Arriving at the oyster beds, Craig pulls his boat onto the pluff mud where he and Vince grabbed their white sacks and plowed through frigid waters in search of the razor-sharp shellfish. The tide had just receded enough to expose the oysters, but it takes experienced eyes to know how to chose the clusters that are good. Vince grabbed a cluster, knocking off the smaller oysters so they can stay and continue to grow.

Andrew stayed on the boat to photograph the men as they slogged through thick mud and stood bent over for hours on end, swinging heavy culling hammers needed at times to break the shells from their beds. It’s not unusual for oystermen to fall asleep in their boats before continuing their work once the tide is right.

Andrew’s dramatic use of light captures nature’s own masterpieces, making his photographs powerful tributes to this vanishing way of life. That day on the Broad River gives us a new respect for those who labor each day to bring us the bounty of our marshes, estuaries, and rivers.

South Carolina at one time was home to a thriving, world-famous oyster industry. Prior to World War II, oyster factories lined South Carolina’s coast from Daufuskie Island, Bluffton, and Port Royal, all the way up to Litchfield and Little River. Now it is a culture facing extinction.

Artist Michael Harrell

“Only a few hundred rugged souls make their living gathering oysters in the salt marshes and rivers along the coast. Heading out on cold winter mornings before dawn in crude wooden boats, the oystermen climb out onto the oyster bars and, working quickly, hammer away at the clumps of oysters buried in the mud flats. Leaning down with their distinctive oyster ‘grabbers,’ they fill their bags with oysters hidden away in backwater creeks that most people never see. The result, visually, is an evocative amalgamation of landscape and seascape. The gold marsh grass, the shards of orange-red light that illuminate the edges of the oyster shells, and the blue-greens of the flowing water leave an indelible impression.”

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