ABOUT BRUCE MEISTERMAN
As a photographer, Bruce Meisterman has worked in areas as diverse as fine art and commercial photography, always looking to meld the two. Originally studying to be a painter, Bruce found that he could express himself and his art more effectively with a camera. Starting out as a photo-journalist with a newspaper, he honed his eye, insight, skills, and story-telling abilities from working with the demands of daily deadlines.
The book Arn? Narn. was initially conceived as an examination of a western culture, isolated from the world. Isolated not so much as to having no contact with the outside world, but as to being a destination rather than a place along one’s way. In researching the then-untitled book, Meisterman determined Newfoundland would be the perfect place in which to do this study.
After his first trip up there to photograph, he realized that a core element to his photos was missing, necessitating another trip to Newfoundland the following year. It was then where the story became apparent to him. The title of the book tells it all.
“Arn? Narn.” is the shortest conversation in Newfoundland English. The story behind it is this: two fishing boat captains are in the bay: one departing, the other returning. The departing captain yells out across the bay “Arn?’ The returning captain responds “Narn.” The translation is simple: “Any fish?”; “No fish.” And this book is about a culture, that culture, having supported itself for many years on fishing, finding itself now unable to do. The fish are gone.
While Arn? Narn. is about Newfoundland, the implications are of a much broader scope. The lessons learned here have global ramifications. Meisterman likens it to a canary in a coal mine, but on a planetary scale. When the canary dies, it’s time to get out of the coal mine and avert a human catastrophe. In this instance, the canary (the Newfoundland fishing industry) died, but no one took notice until it was too late. Evidence indicates other such global collapses are inevitable but may be avoidable, but only if action is taken.
Meisterman has been widely published in numerous publications such as: the New York Times, The Sun magazine, Yankee magazine, Country Journal magazine among many others and has been featured in a number of books. He has had numerous exhibitions ranging from galleries to museums. And his work resides in many private collections. Arn? Narn. is Meisterman’s first book.
He has been a guest lecturer at colleges and universities, religious organizations, and trade groups conducting them in a fashion where he also learns from the process as well as those attending. “We are all teachers to each other. How fortunate that I can be the recipient of a whole room full of teachers’ knowledge. They have made me a much better photographer. The one thing I never want to do is stop learning.”
Visit Bruce on the web at www.bmeisterman.com.
Q: Thank you for this interview, Bruce Meisterman. Can you tell us what your latest book, Arn? Narn., is all about?
A: Arn? Narn. Is a photo-documentary about disappearing rural Newfoundland. But more than that, it is a cautionary and true story.
For over 500 years, Newfoundland supported itself on cod fishing. Then in 1992, the Canadian government enacted a 10 year fishing moratorium as the fish stocks had fallen to perilously low levels. Immediately, 40,000 fishermen lost their jobs. In the 10 year period that ensued, 20% of the island’s population left, never to return.
After the 10 year period was up, the government revisited the situation only to find that it was worse than before. The moratorium was made permanent.
Rural Newfoundland is vanishing as we speak because of this.
Q: How did you come up with the idea?
A: Actually, the original idea was to do an exploration of isolation on a western culture. Newfoundland is isolated as only an island can be. It has all the connections to the world the mainland does, but one has to go there intentionally. It is not “on your way” to another destination.
After looking at all my photographs from the first trip, I realized that while indeed they captured the isolation I was seeking, they did not hold together as a book. Consequently, I had to go back the following year.
It was on my second trip that what I had known intellectually, the fish were gone, I learned in my heart of its implications. And that became the book, Arn? Narn.
Q: What kind of research did you do before and during the writing of your book?
A: A lot. Research was so elemental to doing this right. I read a fair amount of Newfoundland fiction (very good by the way) to get a sense of the psyche, listened to even more Newfoundland music (very, very good), and historical books. I read the St. Johns newspaper, The Telegram, online daily to stay up on the current situation. I still read it today.
Q: If a reader can come away from reading your book with one valuable message, what would that be?
A: The message implicit is that we have limited resources. What has happened in Newfoundland is starting to occur across the planet. If we do not take steps to use these more responsibly, we will see more examples like this and more frequently.
Dr. Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia published a paper in 2006 that received world-wide attention. In it, he predicted that by the middle of this century, all stocks of wild, edible fish will be in total collapse. It will probably happen sooner than that. In this case, Newfoundland was the canary in the global coal mine and no one took notice.
Q: Can you give us a short excerpt?
A: I’d be happy to. “It is almost impossible to separate the land from the people. The land helped shape their culture and the people, in turn, reflected it. The skies are many rich shades of gray that are in a natural counterpoint to the rugged land and the sea surrounding it. One cannot deny (literally and metaphysically) the sea’s impact and importance to Newfoundland. Its contribution to a certain melancholy in the psyche is countered by an ebullient humor about its people. This land has contributed to their rugged and independent personality. The sea which once provided for them does so no longer. However, the boundless generosity of Newfoundlanders continues in sharp contrast to the scarcity of cod. There is much speculation on how the cod stocks have disappeared. It is broad-based, ranging from over-fishing, both domestic and foreign to predation by seals to destruction of the cod’s habitat from deep sea travelers to bycatch, which is the unintentional harvesting of non-targeted fish. Other theories include reduction of the cods’ natural food sources, global warming, government mismanagement, and even conspiracy. No one has been able to come to a conclusive and authoritative answer though the current, widely accepted conclusion is over-fishing.
The outlook for rural Newfoundland remains bleak. Politics have contributed, making it nearly impossible for Newfoundland’s fishing industry to adapt and survive in a changing economy. With a limited annual 5-6 week long lobstering season and shrimping and crabbing efforts that have been undermined by price controls and a strong Canadian dollar, the rural economy remains in trouble and the prospect of survival for the outports is poor.“
Q: In your own experience, is it hard to get a nonfiction book published today? How did you do it?
A: It is hard to get any book published, especially a non-fiction one. Couple that with a serious topic about a place most people have very little knowledge about and you really have to believe in your project in order to convince a publisher to support it. But that said, I’d be remiss in not mentioning perseverance. Don’t lose sight of the book’s worth. And be fearless in accepting rejection. It really isn’t personal.
Q: What’s a typical day like for you?
A: Oh, nothing unusual, a little on the long side perhaps. I tend to get up early and go to bed late. My wife says I need more sleep but my clock has always been a little different from most people’s.
I get up at 4:30, maybe 5:00 and then do my morning meditation. After that get some coffee, work, practice some music in the evening, read, write, a little TV and bed by 11 or 12.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: That’s a great question. I’ve played around with some ideas, one which I researched for four months until I realized it was too big a subject for me to get my arms around. I was sorry to let it go though.
But I think I have found one that is particularly interesting, to me at least. In Europe and Asia especially, the elderly are held in reverence. That is not the case in the US. I’ll be starting on that after the holidays.
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Bruce Meisterman. We wish you much success!
A: Thank you.
Arn? Narn., while telling the true story of a disappearing rural Newfoundland, is also a cautionary chronicle of an imminent world wide concern. In 1992, the Canadian government enacted a cod fishing moratorium on the over 500 year old fishing industry, throwing over 40,000 fisherman out of work. In the next ten years, nearly 20 % of Newfoundland’s population migrated off the large island. Now, 20 years later, the fish have not returned nor have the people.
The implications of this are only now just beginning to be understood. In 2006, Dr. Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia published a paper which received world-wide attention. In it, he predicted that by the middle of this century all stocks of wild, edible fish will be in total collapse. What happened in Newfoundland is expected to occur planet-wide.
Arn? Narn. is a photo-documentary of a culture vanishing before our eyes; perhaps as an early warning to all countries to learn how to manage their resources more carefully. This could very easily happen anywhere.
The title refers to a short conversation in Newfoundland English. It comes from the story of two fishing boats in a Newfoundland bay: one boat is departing, the other returning. The departing boat’s captain yells across his bow, “Arn?” The returning boat’s captain replies, “Narn.” The translation is simple: “Any fish?” “No fish.” That is the tragedy of this story. Through over-fishing, government mismanagement, and greed, the fish are gone.