Brussels-based photographer Vincen Beeckman takes a close interest in people on the margins of society, the underdogs and the outcasts. In the northern-Portuguese city of Espinho, under the smoke of Porto, he encountered a whole community that has been condemned to a life on the fringe. Beeckman was sitting on a train on the Linha do Norte, which passes through the little town, and stumbled upon Espinho’s fishermen’s quarter, a self-contained area of the city consisting of twenty streets at the most, where the roofs are sometimes still made of corrugated sheeting and the population has had to resort to a largely vegetative existence. Out of the once proud local fishing fleet, only two ships still navigate the currents of the Atlantic. Beeckman immediately felt moved by the quiet drama he witnessed before him. Since then Beeckman has returned to the fishing quarter year after year, for a number of weeks at a time, to photograph a world that is disappearing before his camera lens.
The sea air of Espinho smells not only of fish and sea, but also of saudade, that magical Portuguese word that the Portuguese themselves consider untranslatable, as only they have an emotional antenna tuned to this particular band of emotions: mourning for lost time, longing for things that may never have been, the bitter-sweet pain of past glory and unfulfilled dreams – in short, the whole spectrum of emotions conveyed in the fado, the musical expression of the Portuguese soul, recognised by Unesco a few years ago as part of the Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Espinho was once home to a large fish-canning factory, the de Fábrica Brandão, Gomes & Cª, established in 1894 by two pairs of brothers from the local area who had made bank in Brazil and, once back in their home country, invested in a large factory for canning sardines. The company ran like a well-oiled machine and at its peak in 1910 the factory employed no fewer than 400 people – including children. The workers were mostly farmers of whom only 25 were literate. The fishermen of Espinho had a loyal client in the Brandão & Gomes brothers’ factory.
But in modern times the local fish stocks became depleted by floating factories. The traditional fishermen of Espinho could only watch. The factory on the coast has been closed for decades and the redbrick building now serves as a museum, with sardine cans of all shapes and sizes out on display. When the factory met its demise, the majority of the town’s fishing community went down with it. With the introduction of enormous industrial fishing vessels, coming mainly from neighbouring Spain, there was little left over for the fishermen of Espinho to fish. They still catch their fish using the age-old xávega method (also known as xávena), whereby small wooden ships head out to sea to cast baited nets, the nets later being pulled in from the shore.
The number of Espinho residents still praticing xãvega is in decline, along with the number of fish that can still be caught using this method. This in turn has led to a declining interest in the old craft among young people. The annual sardine festival is increasingly taking on the character of a ritual memorial ceremony. The once proud fishing community of Espinho have mostly been condemned to unemployment and now spend much of their time in the local pubs and taverns. Drink and drugs are taking their toll.
These days, ever fewer fish are being brought in, but an increasing amount of hash and cocaine is finding its way to the shore. The sea is now the domain of smugglers, who, when they spot a ship of the coastguard or navy, hastily dump their wares into the sea in large boxes. In the early hours of the morning, beach combers try to collect any washed-up contraband before the authorities can get to it. To them this has become the sea’s main harvest.
With his photos, Vincen Beeckman pays homage to an era that is coming to an end. Espinho is now known for its golf course, casino and luxury hotels. But however green the golf course may be, however dazzling the tuxedos and evening gowns of the casino’s fashionable clientèle, and however cornucopian the hotel buffets, all this pales in comparison to the humanity in the eyes of the last fishermen of Espinho, preserved for all time in Vincen Beeckman’s exquisite photos.