In the second half of 2014, I was hired for a rather unusual documentary assignment. Amongst very many other things, the German Lutheran Church runs an international mission for seafarers around the world, with various stations and representative pastors in major ports. For their 2014 annual report (yes, I know it’s 2015 – I just haven’t had a chance to write and post up til now), they decided to produce a story on this as one of their featured activities. Even more unusually, rather than choosing a major home port such as Hamburg, the story was focused on Asia – the port of Singapore, to be specific. It’s not too far from Kuala Lumpur, so I got on an airplane. The report has obviously now been published, and I’m free to post the write up.
As with all On Assignment posts, I try to only pick the more interesting stuff – the mundane ‘identical soldier for each variant’ type of product photography doesn’t really make for very interesting reading, and is usually visually a little boring, too. Sadly the really interesting stuff tends to be under embargo for some length of time. I do respect my NDAs, so obviously I can’t always share it – or by the time I can, the moment has passed, or other more interesting things have happened. Still, this one stayed with me because as far as I know, it’s the only time I’ve jumped between untethered boats holding all of my equipment in the middle of a commercial shipping channel – amongst other things.
For three days, myself, an interviewer and the designer/editor putting the story together followed the pastor around pretty much 24/7. During those days, they did their best to cram a varied range of their usual activities into the schedule, and we did our best to document it. Their timetable is dictated by that of the visiting vessels, and which of them will allow access; sometimes it’s arranged in advance by the respective offices (e.g. for companies with whom they have longstanding relationships, e.g. Hapag-Lloyd) and at other times, it’s simply a case of getting on a pilot boat and hailing.
What they do on board is provide counselling, the usual pastorally activities, and more prosaic but highly welcome services such as newspapers, books and phone cards. For crews that might not be around long enough for shore visits, or are not permitted shore leave in the case of some Indonesian fishermen – this may be their only regular link to the outside world. The mission also operates a number of centres within the ports for the seafarers, providing similar services plus an internet connection. I was surprised by how restrictive life on board can be for some of these sailors – and how well-taken care of others were. It was a humbling and educational assignment covering something we take for granted (containerised transport, international trade, fishery) but seldom think about.
I packed very light on this assignment, knowing that there would be a lot of walking and operating in tight quarters. The client only required resolution for a double page A4 spread at most, which meant the D800Es or medium format weren’t necessary. Time at sea meant that I’d have to bring equipment that could live with a bit of water, too. And I was expecting to shoot at night and inside some of the vessels, which meant both available light and not much of it. As such, the weapon of choice at the time was a Nikon D4, AFS 24-120/4 VR and AFS 50/1.8 G, with a Ricoh GR and 21mm GW-3 converter for tighter quarters and backup. At the last minute, I added the AFS 70-200/4 VR to the bag too, but hardly used it. No backup body, because I knew I could complete the whole assignment at 28mm with the GR if I had to, but fortunately I didn’t. Both pieces of equipment performed flawlessly, but most of the time I just shot with the D4 and 24-120.
My direct client on this shoot was actually the agency producing the annual report, and I was fortunate to be given a very open brief, with a free hand in style – the only stipulations were that they had to be in color, and of a documentary nature – but I was also free to get additional pickups or images that didn’t stand alone since they’d be accompanied by several pages of text anyway. I enjoyed it immensely – the creative freedom, the intellectual discussions with the pastor, and the very diverse variety of shooting situations; everything from the engine room of a brand new 340m-long container vessel to jumping between pilot boats in the Melaka Straits in the face of an incoming storm to a Taiwanese fishing boat at night at one of the secondary ports. And on that note, I’ll leave you with a selection of the images – enjoy! MT
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