Annapolis photographer Jay Fleming has spent years documenting life on the Chesapeake Bay’s Smith Island and Tangier Island, which are headed toward uninhabitability due to climate change. Here are some highlights from his new book, Island Life.
1. Brown pelicans in their nest. Fleming wasn’t sure where this project would lead in 2009 when he took his first trip to Smith Island to capture images of the birds. He soon realized there was a much bigger story to tell. “I immediately wanted to go back” to the island, he says.
2. In the 1920s, erosion forced residents to leave a part of Tangier known as Uppards. Cameron Evans and Fleming moved the tombstones from the area, “trying to prevent them from being washed away,” Fleming says. “Every time I go back to the shoreline, it’s different.”
3. Fleming has been photographing Smith Islander Morris “Goodman” Marsh since 2013. Along with the island’s natural beauty, Fleming says he “wanted to show a glimpse of the private life of the islanders,” leading him to photograph Morris with his partner, Darlene Marsh.
4. Kamryn Corbin leads the pack during a Fourth of July bike parade on Smith Island. Fleming thinks growing up on the islands can be intense for kids: “They’re a bit more hardened because they’re exposed to more just by virtue of where they live.”
5. Sharps Island Light, 45 miles from Smith Island, once beamed around a 449-acre piece of land. The water has now claimed everything but this structure—a preview of “what could happen if [the other islands] are not protected,” says Fleming.
6. Kids playing on Tangier in the aftermath of 2018’s Hurricane Florence. The storm ended up missing the island, but high tide still brought flooding.
7. This abandoned home on Smith Island is a reminder to Fleming that so much of the islands’ life has been lost: “It represents more than just a decaying house. It represents what things used to look like. I would love to go back in time and see those houses and white picket fences.”
This article appears in the October 2021 issue of Washingtonian.