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Current Project: Ocracoke Island


In November 2021 I made my first visit to Ocracoke Island as a photographer. Inspired by annual childhood visits to the Outer Banks, I hoped to begin documenting the island and the people that call it home. 

Ocracoke can be both typical and unusual - as a town it's filled with people that you would find in almost every town throughout America. But the uniqueness of the island means that living on Ocracoke is unlike living anywhere else. You can feel it from the moment you arrive, and it lingers long after you've left.

My goal with this project is to present a comprehensive "community portrait" that shows through images and words the uniqueness of life on Ocracoke Island.

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Geography and History

Ocracoke Island is a small portion of the much larger system of sand spits and barrier islands known collectively as the Outer Banks of North Carolina. The northern part is dominated by Cape Hatteras and the southern by Cape Lookout with Ocracoke roughly in the middle. Reachable only by ferry, the small island is almost entirely the rural beach and brush of Cape Hatteras National Seashore. A single road from the northern ferry takes visitors down the length of the island to the village, where slightly fewer than 1,000 people call home.

It's unclear exactly when a permanent settlement was first made on Ocracoke. Members of the Outer Banks Croatoan tribe visited the island (which they called Wokokkonfor fishing and hunting. While the first Europeans landed on the island in 1585, it wasn't until the 18th Century that it was permanently settled. By then it was already known as being the hideout of Edward Teach, a.k.a. Blackbeard, the most famous pirate in American lore. Ocracoke has been a stopover point for sailors as far back as the 15th century when Spanish sailors would dock there. After it was developed, fishing, shipping, and the U.S. Lifesaving Station were a part of the island's life.

For much of the 20th century Ocracoke village remained remote and decidedly rural. Roads weren't paved, the village was small, and while tourism was a part of the island's culture, fishing dominated the economy. In the 1980s, Ocracoke experienced the massive growth of tourism as thousands of Americans discovered the charms of the Outer Banks. The income brought in by vacationers, rental properties and the burgeoning service industry started to replace commercial fishing as the village's primary economy.

Always at the mercy of nature, Ocracoke (and the entire Outer Banks) are frequently at threat from hurricanes. In 2019 Hurricane Dorian devastated the village, with dozens of buildings damaged (including the school) and families stuck dealing with the physical and emotional aftermath. Today the island continues the rebuilding process.

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The harbor at Ocracoke Village has been the economic and historic heartbeat of the island. The famous pirate Blackbeard was known to call it home, and was killed in battle off the island's coast. Generations of fishermen have launched from here in search of the local fish, marlin, red snapper, Mahi Mahi, red snapper, tuna and amberjacks.

In the last 30 years, tourism has supplanted commercial fishing as the dominant economy of Ocracoke Island. But often the two go hand in hand, as thousands of fisherman visit the island each year fishing off of the South Point beaches, or chartering local ships to try their luck in the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean, or the shallow ones of Pamlico Sound.

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Jessie Franklin, Student/Barista

Jessie Franklin started visiting Ocracoke in middle school. She moved to the island when her mother became the village veterinarian. Before moving to the island, Jessie attended a school in Piedmont that focused on her dyslexia and ADHD. She preferred the smaller class sizes on Ocracoke and the special focus her teachers were able to give each student. Her graduating class numbered six.

After graduation she attended the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida where she was overwhelmed by larger class sizes, less available teachers and the general stresses of pandemic college life. She came back to the island after one year and hopes to become a tattoo artist in a town that doesn't have one.

In the meantime, she helps support her mother, works at one of Ocracoke's two coffee spots and an island art gallery. She also supports efforts to manage the island's wild cats, nicknamed "Okracats."

For Jessie and most people on the island, the tightness of the Ocracoke community is what makes life on the island so special. 

"When kids want to do something, they'll start fundraisers and the community rallies around them. Everyone being so close and supportive makes it a really safe place to grow up. Especially after [Hurricane] Dorian, the whole town came together and supported each other."

"Everybody lost something in that storm. For me it was the loss of pictures. It was really hard, because my father's gone and so many pictures of him were ruined."

If Jessie could change one thing about living on Ocracoke, it would be the lack of fun stuff to do. "When there's nothing to do, there's really nothing. You can't go to the movie theater, if you're under 21 you can't drink and even if you can it gets boring just going to bars. I know a lot of people who drink only because it's something to do."

"It can also be tough financially. Property values went up during the pandemic after already being high. Then you had the hurricane followed immediately by the pandemic, and it made it even more expensive to live on the island. A lot of people are leaving as a result."

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Not your typical Outer Banks lighthouse

Lighthouses exist to guide ships along the coast and to warn them of shallow waters. On the Outer Banks, countless shoals and navigational challenges have resulted in so many shipwrecks that it gained the nickname "Graveyard of the Atlantic." Lighthouses then have always had a heightened importance on the Banks, and have become a core part of the regional identity.

Built in 1823, the Ocracoke Island lighthouse is the oldest light still in operation in North Carolina and today is maintained by the National Park Service. A few changes have been made since then, including replacing the original lens and automating the beacon, but the original structure remains intact. At 65' tall and with a 14 mile visibility, it's the shortest and weakest of the Outer Banks lights. But this squat, patternless light remains one of the most photographed locations on the Outer Banks.

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Sherry Atkinson, hotel manager

Originally from Columbia, S.C. Sherry Atkinson has lived on Ocracoke for 27 years. Like many others, she first visited the island on vacation. She knew friends running a restaurant on the island, and when they offered her a job she traded in a career manufacturing fishing line for one cooking what is hauled in on them.

Cooking was her passion, and she worked in different island kitchens for more than 18 years. Then she expanded her skill set by taking on management responsibilities. Eventually she hung up the apron and became the hotel manager at Blackbeard’s Lodge, the island's oldest hotel.

As hotel manager, Sherry has quite literally watched some guests grow up. “I’ve had some people that have been coming here since they learned to swim. And then they bring their kids and the cycle continues.” By her own estimation, 40-50 percent of the guests are returning every year.

Property is always at a premium in the village - both for visitors and residents. When she bought her house, the financing was heavily influenced by the fact that the building could be rented out to tourists. For years she’s rented and never suffered from a lack of renters. “We’ve never had to advertise and if we did it for another 20 years, we would never need to put up a sign.”

In 27 years on the island, Sherry has watched the economy of the village change. According to her, no industry has been more affected than commercial fishing.

“When I first moved here, a lot of people made their living by fishing and it's still how the restaurants get their fish. But regulations changed everything.”

“Granted, some of it was warranted because there was some overfishing going on. But today it’s hard to make a living for the people who made this village what it is. They used to be able to make their entire year’s salary just during flounder season. But more and more regulations have made it harder to make a living, so people started finding other ways.”

When we spoke in November, Sherry was celebrating six months of remission from ovarian cancer. After her initial diagnosis, she kept the news private, and continued to work as much as possible. But despite having good insurance, Sherry still faced mounting costs and the intensity of her treatment made working full time impossible.

In her darkest time, Ocracoke stepped in and friends organised a fish fry with all of the proceeds going to support her treatment. “We got all the best cooks on the island together, and took the day off for the fish fry. There was even someone singing.” By the end of the day they had raised $10,000, an incredible assistance to someone in need, and proof of the power of the community to come together.

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Howard Street is the oldest street in Ocracoke village. It's named after the man who bought the island in 1759 for £109. Ten generations later, the Howard family still lives here and anyone walking on the street can still enjoy a timeless feeling of walking through an older time.

Boats have pulled into Ocracoke Harbor and Silver Lake as far back as the 1530s. Today shops and vacation rental properties line the lake with fishing and tourist charters departing every day.

Once running wild on the island, the "Ocracoke Banker Ponies" are now protected and cared for by the National Park Service. The history of these wild horses goes back hundreds of years, even if their precise origin remains a topic of lore. Today they are penned and fed, but have more than 150 acres to enjoy and call home.

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Peter Vankevich, journalist, radio DJ and more

Originally from New England, and working professionally in Washington D.C., Peter Vankevich has called Ocracoke home for many years. 

Like many people that live on the island, Pete wears a number of different hats. He's co-owner of the island's newspaper, the Ocracoke Observer, a frequent DJ and host on island radio station WOVV (90.1 FM), and gracious tour guide for visiting photographers. He has a passion for birdwatching and his photography for all kinds of birds is a frequent presence on the pages of the Observer.

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Dave O'Neal, owner of Down Point Decoys

Ocracoke likely has no better waterfowl expert than Dave O’Neal, owner of Down Point Decoys. A lifelong islander and member of one of the island's oldest families, O'Neal started what he then called "whittling" and carving duck decoys -- a skill he learned and embraced full time after a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Down Point Decoys sits along the Silver Lake "waterfront" on Route 12, and it's easy to stroll in and find Dave speaking with other Ocracoke natives. He's one of the few that continues to keep the Ocracoke Brogue dialect alive on the island. Anyone with time to spend in his store can enjoy fascinating stories about the island and village. And anyone from a diehard decoy collector to a passing admirer of artistic carvings will marvel at his shelves, filled with various duck and bird carvings. As the cutout of an 1986 National Geographic article on the wall attests, O'Neal knows his stuff.

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Kitty Reynolds, artist

Kitty Reynolds wasn't born on Ocracoke, but she's somehow been there whole life. Her father served in the Navy and while stationed in Norfolk, he visited Ocracoke. He had such a positive experience on the island that by 1966 he was bringing the whole family to Ocracoke on annual vacations. They spent two weeks each summer enjoying the island and the beach. Those weeks were a dream for Kitty, and she spent them swimming, crabbing and clamming, and riding bikes.

Those vacations were so memorable, that by the time she graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, Kitty moved to the island to teach art in the village school. "The ink wasn't even dry on my last exam before I was on the road." 

The Ocracoke school is not a big one, so Kitty had the opportunity to teach art to students in every age group for 30 years. She enjoyed the challenge of teaching students with such a wide range of ages. "If I had only done high school it certainly would have been easier. In a bigger school there would be more teachers, each teaching a set of art styles. But here I got to teach many mediums. Some days it was painting, and the next it was ceramics." 

While teaching was a full time job, Kitty was also raising her daughter and playing in the band that includes her husband. "I would teach for a few hours, go to band practice and then do laundry and clean before we had to jump in the car and head to a gig somewhere. The weekend was playing and by Monday we were doing it all over again. All of a sudden you're in your fifties and wondering what exactly you're doing. The band was getting more popular, and with traveling it became impossible to do everything. So I made the decision to focus on my teaching and art. As my daughter got older, I had more time for myself and could focus on my art."

In April 2021, Kitty opened her own studio in a great spot near the "downtown" area around Silver Lake. There she sells her artwork - a beautiful variety of paintings and other assorted artworks.

Having lived on the island for 47 years, Kitty has seen the island and village change radically. When she first visited Ocracoke, nearly the entire island was nothing more than a vast expanse of sand. So much that it would be piling up in front of storefronts and you could see for miles. Today the island is mostly blanketed with thick marine forest. There are more and more tourists, and while the pace of life is much slower than the rest of the country, it's much faster than it was in decades past.

"There are a lot of people who will pine for way things were in the past, and others that go all in on progress. I'm somewhere in the middle. I think this is the greatest place on earth. I thought it when I first came here and I still think it today." 

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