Robert Benson is an editorial and commercial photographer based in San Diego. For a recent project, he took his camera to the open seas, high-end restaurants, and production plants to document the urchin industry. The urchins are plucked one by one off the ocean floor, processed in California and shipped worldwide in less than a day. Benson, working with feature writer Dave Good, chronicles the urchin’s journey from sea to plate.
Aurora Photos: Peter Halmay, who you photographed for this story, said he banned bananas on his fishing boat because he believes that the fruit brings bad luck. Do you have any superstitions, rituals, or beliefs when it comes to shooting?’
Robert Benson: None whatsoever. In fact, I’ve done a lot of foolish things while shooting. I remember shooting a story about a private company that sprayed for mosquitos in swampy areas of Virginia in the summer. To get unique images, I walked behind the truck as it slowly sprayed, in the chemical mist, which was backlit by the sun. I’m sure that will come back to haunt me….
At a motocross truck race I mounted a camera on a monpod in the dirt bank of a hairpin turn. As the trucks raced through the curve, they immediately buried the camera in two feet of muck and mud, and nearly ran over it.
I’ve shot in lightning and rain, tetered on chairs and other unstable things, and have broken just about every other rule in the superstition book. So no, I don’t follow protocol in that regard.
A.P.: This piece is about nature, industry, food and people. What do you like about this subject? How did you get involved in photographing the urchin industry?
R.B.: Most American’s gag reflex kicks in when they smell, or touch or eat urchin, but I love it. I lived in Japan for seven years and quickly acquired the taste for it. I found out only recently that a large part of the world’s sea urchin comes from waters here in California, and remember seeing a sign once near that waterfront that was handwritten and read “live sea urchin”. I dug a little deeper, met a urchin diver, and he was kind enough to let me on his boat for a few trips. I wanted to experience some of what this world was all about. I feel like I’ve become a sea uchin expert. I know how they grade the quality, how they are cracked open, how they are prepared, how they are shipped, etc.
A.P.: “Uni”, or urchin, is best eaten right on the boat, fresh out of the water. Did you sample the urchin? What sort of odd or unique experiences have you had while you were photographing?
R.B.: I fed the fish on my first trip, vomiting good a couple of times overboard as Pete’s small boat rocked heavily in four foot seas. This was surprising to me, since I spent so much time onboard larger ships in the Navy without incident. I did eat the urchin onboard. We cracked a few on the boat, and scooped out the gonads with a spoon, while the spiny urchin continued to move. The salt sea water gave it a great after taste. Definitely a unique and good taste.
A.P.: You have another series in which you documented trophy rooms. You’ve also photographed fisherman. Is there a certain element to “the thrill of the hunt” that you relate to?
R.B.: I like exploring things that are uncommon to me – and most people. I love fishing too. Grew up in Minnesota.
A.P.: In this story, you photographed underwater, in factories, on boats and in restaurants. Does the way you photograph vary in different types of locations? What advice do you have about lighting, technology and approach?
R.B.: I shot most of this story in film – as much as I could afford to shoot on a personal project at least…. It gets expensive. Most of what I shoot for income are portraits, lit, and choreographed, and planned….. I come from a newspaper photojournalism backround and haven’t been doing a lot of that, so it was nice to document what’s happening, instead of creating what’s happening, which I do with commercial or portrait shoots.