If you don’t know Jay Fleming already, prepare to have your mind blown. This young photographer from the shores of the Chesapeake Bay has an uncanny ability for capturing wildlife, and watermen, in their most vulnerable, and exposed moments. For Fleming, the word “staged” has no meaning. Meaning is found, instead, in the spontaneity of his subjects, and the painful persistence of this photographer, who seems perpetually poised for the perfect shot.

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While photography may be in his genes (his father is a National Geographic photographer), Fleming made a name for himself early, when in 2001 (at 14 years old) he was unanimously awarded grand prize at the Environmental Protection Agency’s Wildlife of Wetlands photography contest, among stiff competition from professional photographers from all over the country. According to Fleming, “the people in charge of the contest were as surprised about my age, as I was to win the grand prize.” And while it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Fleming since, that early success has proven to be as auspicious for this talented photographer as a red sky at night.

Follow him: @jayflemingphotography

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To start with, what’s your secret? You have an uncanny ability to catch wild animals–often, very elusive ones–in these incredibly personal and candid moments. How?

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Photography is a mix of luck and skill. Being in the right place at the right time takes luck, but getting out all of the time takes skill and dedication. I try to shoot 2-3 days a week, when possible. Often it is hard to make time to shoot, but I make getting out in the field a priority. My days often consist of early morning dawn patrols on and in the water.

The more I get out to shoot pictures, the more I learn.

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Were you always this good with a camera? How’d you end up where you are today?

I got my first camera when I was 13 years old, a 3 megapixel Olympus point and shoot. It was a reward for doing well academically during my freshman year of high school. I quickly learned that the point and shoot was limited and graduated to a old Nikon n90s film camera that was gifted from my father, Kevin Fleming. At the time, my dad had already been a professional photographer for over 25 years. He outfitted me with a handful of lenses to use with the n90s, including a manual focus 300mm f4 that he used while working for National Geographic. The lens had been dropped out of a helicopter and weathered numerous dust storms while he was shooting war and famine in Africa. I quickly learned how to use the ‘new’ camera after tagging along on countless assignments with him during my youth.

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My photography did not fully develop until my senior year at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. With the campus being right on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay, it was a perfect place to do the two things I love most–spending time on the water and shooting pictures. Besides, early morning shoots on the waterfront before class kept me from staying out too late.

When I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in economics and a minor in environmental studies, I was unsure what I wanted to do for a career. I worked a number of technician-type jobs for the National Park Service and the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, but these jobs were just an excuse to work outside. I began bringing my camera along while working and using my photographs to promote the work being done and to educate the public. Photographs taken while working in Yellowstone National Park while gill netting for Lake Trout on Yellowstone Lake were picked up by National Geographic for use in a story about invasive species and their potential impacts to native ecosystems.

After returning home from working with the National Park Service, I started to shoot more in my backyard–the Chesapeake Bay. I had always been familiar with the Chesapeake, growing up in Annapolis, spending a great amount of time fishing, crabbing, and taking overnight kayak trips. Even after spending all of this time on the water, I had never taken the time to learn the interworking of how humans living in the watershed and the environment interact. I quickly became fascinated with the way of life of watermen. After three years of shooting, the idea of documenting all of the different fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay turned into my first book and biggest professional accomplishment: “Working the Water.”

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Tell us more about “Working the Water.” What inspired this book? How long have you been working on it? When can we get our hands on it?

“Working the Water” started in 2013 after taking a trip on the working skipjack, City of Crisfield, with the 93-year-old working waterman, Arthur Daniels. After spending the day with Art, I quickly realized that the Chesapeake Bay seafood industry was changing and needed to be fully documented. The Chesapeake Bay watermen are not an uncommon photography subject, but my approach was to document every fishery in the Chesapeake Bay to create a comprehensive look at the Chesapeake and the people who make a living on the water.

The book is being printed in Italy and will arrive in Maryland by the end of September. Pre-sale copies of the book are currently available online.

What goes into creating these images? Are you thumbing rides on boats? Scuba diving? Do you need to have like $100,000 worth of equipment to get good underwater shots?

Sometimes it takes a crazy idea to get an image–like swimming in a net full of fish. In some cases a great image comes easily. Whatever the situation may be, I have to be opportunistic and always take advantage of a photo opportunity.

My gear consists of Nikon SLR’s, Nikkor lenses, Aquatech underwater-housings, GoPros, studio lights, tripods, dozens of pelican cases, camping gear, an 18-foot skiff, kayaks, and much more. I could safely say that most of what I own is related to shooting pictures.

In a lot of cases, the underwater housings and lens ports are more expensive than the cameras themselves. A full arsenal of camera gear for what I do costs as much as a down payment on a house. Without this gear, I would not be able to do my job.

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Wait–you got into a net full of fish?! What prompted you to do that?

Getting in the pound net full of fish was an idea that came to me after shooting the process of pound netting multiple times. I quickly realized that I wanted to get a different angle on the subject, and there is no better way to photograph fish than by submerging yourself underwater. In a lot of situations, I find myself thinking about different approaches to shooting subjects in order to find the best angle. I regularly shoot underwater, in a kayak, and from airplanes–covering everything above the water and underwater. Getting different shots that captivate viewers is increasingly difficult with so many more photographers taking advantage of affordable high end digital cameras, so in a lot of situations there is no other option than taking the extra step.

Have you ever run into scary situations shooting underwater?

The most nerve-wracking situation I have been in underwater was with a lemon shark in the Bahamas. I was on a solo kayak/camping trip in the Exumas on a remote chain of islands. On the second day of the trip I paddled upon a tightly packed school of 75-100 bonefish, and lemon sharks in the 3-5 foot range hanging around the perimeter of the school. I immediately started catching and releasing bonefish. The fish did not swim far before being noticed by a lemon shark. The lemon charged the fish, and both began swimming towards me.

I immediately threw my rod in the water behind me and took my underwater camera off the back-strap and submerged it right in front of the scene. The lemon shark ate half of the bonefish in less than 15 seconds which was just enough time to take 12 shots. After eating half of the fish, the lemon spooked off.

When I reviewed the shots, it was quickly evident that both the lemon and I had a very good day. I also realized how quickly this situation could have gone bad–I was wading in waist deep water with hungry sharks, miles away from anyone. I don’t know what I would have done had the lemon decided to go after me.

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You’re a waterman through and through, but some of my favorite shots of yours come from Wyoming. Do you ever see yourself branching out onto dry land?

While working in Yellowstone for the Park Service, I was able to live in the park which gave me a unique opportunity as a photographer. Getting access to some of the most remote places in Yellowstone allowed me to go ‘above sea level’ with my photography. Even though I was landlocked in Yellowstone, I was still able to concentrate my work on the aquatic ecology of the park. I think wherever I go, my focus with photography will be the water and how we as humans interact with it–it’s what I am passionate about.

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What is the best part of the kind of photography you do, and the worst?

Photographing people and wildlife on the water gets me out and enables me to discover and learn so much about my subjects. The more I shoot, the more I learn–it is the best kind of hands-on education. I always find that if I have a better understanding of my subject, the photographs that I shoot will be better. My least favorite part about being an outdoor photographer is getting up out of bed well before the crack of dawn to make it to shoots–but it is still better than being in the office.

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Photos by Jay Fleming

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