Nicholas Röhl, Restaurateur, MOSHIMO, Brighton, UK, Creator Fish Love

I co-own a sushi Japanese restaurant in Brighton UK with my business partner Karl Jones. We were the first people to bring sushi to the UK in 1994 - the first British-owned Japanese restaurant in the UK. To that extent, we were kind of the pioneers of sushi in this country. In the late 90’s we became aware of the issue with Blue fin tuna. It happened very quickly, that one day we had bountiful supplies of the fish - it filled the conveyor belt.  Then within weeks, it was very difficult to get a hold of. We were the first restaurant in the UK to take Blue fin tuna off of our menu. One thing led to another and as things became more and more serious, we were asked to help with launching a documentary film called The End of the Line. It was the first documentary to alert people to the catastrophe that was happening in our seas. There was still a continuing struggle to get people to take note of the crisis, however, so we came up with this idea of an image of a naked woman, holding a fish against her, almost as if it were a child. I asked my friend Greta Scacchi who was very keen on helping with the campaign and jumped at the idea of doing this image. It just became a global phenomenon.

Afterwords, everyone assumed that was it, but we thought, why shouldn't it be it? It worked well once, why couldn’t it work with another person, or with a whole set of people? The idea of doing a yearly annual launch of a series of photographs came about and that takes us to now.  We are producing our 6th series of Fishlove. We’ve taken a number of series and had huge success worldwide in getting these photographs on the front covers of the newspapers and on the internet, thereby, raising awareness of the issues of the marine environment.

At what point did you realize how much momentum the project had gained?

We were all taken by surprise by the success of Greta’s image, to be honest. I’ve never seen anything like it. What was a surprise was that we were able to maintain the momentum that we gained so early on. Each time we’ve released a new series, it’s become bigger and bigger. The Jillian Anderson image was pretty big. Lizzie Jagger was phenomenal and then the Helena Bonham Carter one from last year which probably topped them all so far.

Regarding the project’s goal, to raise awareness towards unsustainable fishing practices and prevent further destruction of the earth's marine ecosystem, how successful do you think you’ve been at furthering this mission? How much farther would you like to see the project go?

That’s an interesting questions because all we’re doing really is producing photographs that end up on the front page of publications and some people have said that we’ve done nothing more than that. I don’t think that’s the case at all.

For instance, the Helena Bonham Carter image was directly credited with creating the largest marine protected area in the world. Quite contrary to what the critics say, the campaign has led to huge success on that front.

I think that what’s really important is to realize that in the modern era, how much our politicians do look at the media to influence them and to try to understand what the people care about. The very fact is - that you have the media covering a story, or a photograph and talking about deep-sea fishing.

Fish Love was invited into the Berlaymont building in Brussels and into the European Commission as an acknowledgement of the effect that we’ve had on the debate within the commission and in the political establishment of Europe as a whole. Our photographs have caused a lot of debate amongst politicians – may of whom probably wouldn't have bothered talking about fish until the photographs came out and the exhibition was released. It’s important to remember that in 2009 no one was talking about these issues. When I asked around about starting the series, other than Greta who was very knowledgeable, most people would ask me, why I would be interested in having them hold fish and what the issue was. Now of course, most people have some idea of the issue, in part, because of these photographs.

You’ve been praised for finally making campaigning around food issues “sexy” -- what does this mean to you?

What’s interesting about Fishlove is that, at its core, it’s photography, portrait photography -- it’s art and because of this, Fishlove can keep on going and thriving, as long as there continues to be interesting people willing to hold a fish.

As long as the issue needs to be addressed, it should continue. That’s also what’s different about Fish Love compared to a lot of the other campaigns out there. This is not a charity but more of a visual petition.

What are the advantages of using art as a means to drive change?  

Art appeals to the emotions, and that’s where real change happens. There’s a limit to what you can do to change people’s attitudes if you only direct their intellect to the problem.  If you engage people emotionally, then that is much more effective. One of the strange things about the photographs is still the shock that people have when they see a person clutching a fish against their skin. Maria Damanaki, the European Fisheries Minister said it perfectly: Fish Love works because it reminds us that, as human beings, we’re genetically connected with fish and that we can’t live without them, we’re one in the same. That’s the message that we’re trying to get across -- that shock of connection, which is the purpose of art: to shock.

I guess we could be mistakenly compared to something like PETA, but that’s not art -- it’s propaganda and advertising. Fish Love isn’t that at all. It’s not a simple message; in fact, there is no real message. The photographs are simply images of naked people holding fish. On their own, what do they say? It’s nothing simple, and that’s where the art comes in. There’s no single response that we’re trying to provoke.

I think having people feel for themselves is a much stronger form of communication than trying to shove any kind of message down their throats.

Yeah -- Some of the campaigners have told us that our photographs aren’t really of use to them, because we need to have the message directly inside of the image, otherwise, people are just seeing a naked person with a fish. We did consider this, but then it wouldn’t be Fish Love, a complicated and sophisticated series that really gets people thinking, for themselves.  

What I want is to tell the story of Fish Love, with references towards the criticisms that the campaign has received, and my responses to them. All in all: My experience of steering Fish Love through the choppy waters of starting what we did and all of the problems we’ve faced along the way.

This interview had been edited and condensed from its original format.