The Fishmongers

A portrait series featuring the women who carry coastal Ghana’s food supply on their heads.

Published May 6, 2015

During a recent trip to Ghana, Hakai Magazine photographer Ilja Herb of Victoria, British Columbia, visited coastal villages and created the portraits shown here of women shuttling fresh fish to market. Read on for the artist’s statement.

Besides sweat and an appreciation for the thumping reggae and Afrobeat rhythms ubiquitous throughout coastal Ghana, I had little in common with these fishmongers and the amicable masses who crowded around while I photographed this series.

With the invaluable help of Peter (local fixer, translator, and surfer extraordinaire), I searched for portrait subjects to set against colorful backgrounds. Whenever we found a willing participant, we quickly transformed the dusty back alleys of bustling fishing villages into makeshift photo sets, complete with the diffusing scrims and large reflectors needed to sculpt the hard light of equatorial Africa.

Crowds of locals fanned out behind us to watch. Their voices created an intense and raucous shooting environment as they co-directed, laughed at, and distracted anybody who agreed to pose for the portraits you see here. The coastal dialect of Ga is a series of animated bursts, a gentle and sonorous staccato despite its intense delivery. Their voices—molded by years spent competing with the sounds of wind and sea—were loud.

I cannot imagine balancing on my head the everyday items—machetes, desktop computer tower, jugs of water—I saw the Ghanaians carrying on theirs, never mind the massive amounts of tuna, swordfish, or shark. While I realize capturing this otherness—that of people carrying fish on their heads—in photographs could be construed as cheap voyeurism, this was not my intention; the subjects are intriguing and beautiful—regardless of what they carry on their heads.

I admire the women’s elegant strength and sought to create images that reflect this grace. These women allowed me to photograph them almost midstride, as they went about their daily routine of extremely hard physical labor.

The result, I believe, honors these women. As one viewer of my photographs remarked, they “carry much more than just fish on their heads; they carry the entire continent.”

Mena Aba–Dixcove, Ghana

Name unknown–Dixcove, Ghana

Sister Nana–Busua, Ghana

Ruth Quacion–Axim, Ghana

Elizabeth–Dixcove, Ghana

Mina Agyeba–Busua, Ghana

Auntie Nana–Dixcove, Ghana

Adwoa Odoom–Busua, Ghana

Auntie Moses–Busua, Ghana

Helga–Dixcove, Ghana

Sister Esiba–Busua, Ghana

Mame Nyia–Dixcove, Ghana