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The salmon story

From: Creative Inspirations: Natalie Fobes, Photographer

Video: The salmon story

(Music playing.) Natalie Fobes: So this stream reminds me of the first time I saw salmon leap. My father had come out from the Midwest to visit me in Seattle. He wanted to do something very northwestern, and so I took him out to a salmon stream. As we stood there on the banks of the stream, we watched the foam.

The salmon story

(Music playing.) Natalie Fobes: So this stream reminds me of the first time I saw salmon leap. My father had come out from the Midwest to visit me in Seattle. He wanted to do something very northwestern, and so I took him out to a salmon stream. As we stood there on the banks of the stream, we watched the foam.

At first, we didn't see anything. And I thought, "Oh, this is a waste of time," but all of a sudden I saw a fin, and I saw another fin. And all of a sudden, this Salmon jumped from the foam and hung there for what seemed like minutes, suspended in the air, and then slipped back into the foam. And I was just overwhelmed with emotion.

I was happy, and I was sad. I was melancholy. I was in awe. And I turned to my father to see if he had seen the salmon, and his eyes were filled with tears. Now my father was raised on a farm. He was a hunter. He was a fisherman. But there was something about that salmon that had touched him deep in his soul.

From that moment forward, I knew that I wanted to learn more about the mystery of the salmon, and what it is about the salmon that touches us deep inside. So that was the beginning of a ten year project. I didn't think it was going to be ten years, but it ended up being ten years. After that day, I went home, and I wrote a proposal for National Geographic Magazine to see if they could fund me to do this project.

Well, they sent back - Bob Gilka, bless his heart, sent back a very nice letter saying, "Well, thank you Natalie, but no thank you. Who gives a damn about fish anyway?" And at that point, I realized I had written the proposal wrong, that this is not only a story about the salmon, but it was, more importantly, a story about the cultures that depended on the salmon around the Pacific Rim. So I rewrote the proposal, applied for and received an Alicia Patterson Fellowship of $25,000 that allowed me to take a year off of my newspaper job and travel around the Pacific Rim.

So after 14 months of traveling around the Pacific Rim, photographing and writing stories about the salmon, I got back to The Seattle Times. And they asked me to put together a special section for the newspaper from my photographs and my stories. It came out as a twelve-page special section, filled with these stories from Alaska to New Zealand, that I had written and the photographs that went with them. And I was asked if I could submit them for The Pulitzer Prize.

And to my delight, I ended up being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, not in photography, but rather in a writing category. So after the Times story came out, I talked to Tom Kennedy, who was the Director of Photography at that time. He asked me to continue working on the Salmon Project for National Geographic. He gave me a warning that if after six weeks the photographs that I took were not up to the expectations of the National Geographic, that he would have to assign the project to someone else.

Well, I made sure that the photographs were up to the caliber of the National Geographic photographers. After the Geographic story came out, I found a literary agent who started shopping around the book idea that I had dreamed about from the very first day I saw salmon. After a few months she called and said that she'd actually found a publisher for it. And in 1994 this beautiful book called 'Reaching Home, Pacific Salmon, Pacific People' came out.

I wrote extended essays for my photography, but we had two really wonderful, insightful writers write the other chapters of the book, Tom Jay and Brad Matsen. And the synergy between our insight and our skills made this book so special. In fact, today it is still used as almost a primer on the salmon story, because it covers not only the biology of the fish, the cultures of the fish, the people who use the fish, the commercial fishermen, the sports fishermen, but it also deals with the habitat destruction.

It's really satisfying to know that that book is still out there.

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Creative Inspirations: Natalie Fobes, Photographer

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Natalie Fobes
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