On Assignment: the International Lutheran Seafarers’ Mission

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Images and content copyright Ming Thein | mingthein.com 2012 onwards. All rights reserved


  1. Many others have praised your images above and I agree. I just want to add that this non-believer is inspired by the mission of these men and the services they provide, especially to the poor (and perhaps semi-enslaved) fishermen. Bravo.

  2. I like human interest stories like this one and hope to see more of them!

  3. As always Ming a well constructed post beautifully illustrated the last frame though is special, I love it.

  4. Excellent work Ming and great to see you developing your own style of documentary work.

  5. Really enjoy seeing your assignment work. It’s always amazing to see how much of your personal aesthetic can be worked in while shooting to fulfill a client’s need.

    Also — proofing on a lousy monitor parallels what I used to do when producing for radio: play the final mix on a really crappy speaker to emulate the conditions under which It probably will be heard. All the sonic fine points to be enjoyed on a set of reference monitors in a production studio need to disappear. Otherwise there’s no understanding of what’s really being delivered.

    • I think that’s also partly to do with mutual client-photographer selection 🙂 But I am certainly not complaining when it all comes together!

  6. I enjoyed this immensely Ming.

  7. Excellent images. To me you not only conveyed the place, but also the spirit. It is like being there. I am also impressed with the precision of your composition, especially considering you were shooting from the hip 🙂

  8. John Brady says:

    A really interesting insight into the assignment process, and some stunning images. Sounds like it was an interesting learning experience too.

  9. Great photos, Ming! I wonder how they integrated your landscape photos however, considering center fold etc. Do you have a link to the final PDF? (Didn’t find one …) Nice to see you’re getting closer also – or as my former professor would put it: Wonderful composition and technique, now go and find the humanity within. 😉

    • I do somewhere. They weren’t all double truck – and I think they used perhaps 20-30 out of 200 delivered.

      I have no problems getting close, I just choose not to because that’s not my aesthetic or germane to my idea.

      • Again, I really like the photos – they pretty much suit the task (apart from maybe the “double spread center motif” issue) and I was asking for the link because I design annual reports myself and was curious about the final layout. Technique and composition is out of question anyway, as I guess we do all agree this is as good as ist gets. Still I’m asking: is this it? And where does formality get in the way of something closer/deeper? Sorry if I’m getting to philosophical here …

        • I don’t know the answer to your question, but I do know that no matter how good we think it is now…it has to be better with experience, otherwise might as well hand up that camera now 🙂

  10. Nice series of images. Looks like an enjoyable assignment. I’ve had similar image embargo agreements with shipping company assignments, and often as much as one year image embargo.

  11. Hi Ming, great shots and like many others, I love the lighting in the last shot. The images have the typical ‘pop’ and sharpness that I find very characteristic of your style and one I try hard to emulate. Ming, you mentioned you didn’t feel the need to bring a backup body as you felt you could have shot the assignment with the Ricoh GR, if the need came up. Are you at all concerned about what your client would think if you shot a paid assignment with a ‘pocket’ camera?

    • Thanks Bill. No, I’m not concerned re. ‘pocket camera’ – I now choose clients where our creative goals are aligned, and they’re not bothered how we get there so long as the output is fine 🙂

  12. Well done and what a wonderful client to work with. Congratulations.

  13. Brett Patching says:

    As always, wonderful to read about your assignments, Ming!

  14. I love the angled reflections off the windows of the bridge.

    On a cruise once I took a fun self-portrait in them with a telephoto; it made for an unusual angle.

  15. Great images in so many ways! Thank you for posting. I especially like the second to last one. On the right hand side it looks like the three buildings are connected at the top, or there is a really dark cloud in the right place. Which is it?

  16. Those shots are exceptional.
    Truly excellent documentation and storytelling.

  17. Great stuff as usual! I was wondering what camera bag or bags you used to allow you easy access to tight spaces, keep you mobile and allow you to jump between boats? Also on some of the interior people shots were you bouncing a little flash or using just available light and higher ISO? Thanks

    • Thanks. For this job – I was either carrying just the camera and lens and a spare battery in a pocket and the GR on a holster, or I had a small Kata backpack for the ancillaries. No flash, the client wanted available light and we had to work quickly anyway.

  18. Gerner Christensen says:

    It is not all that easy to gather inspiration on a fuzzy Internet, but I know where I can fill my empty cup: In the room of your wonderful blog Ming. Maintaining the variety of topics on such a high level is just bloody amazing!

  19. Great stuff. If I ever want something photographed and I don’t have the skill to do it myself, I know who to call!

    Just out of curiosity, when you’re doing this kind of job, do you try and work candidly? Or is it difficult to do so in a relatively compact, closed space? I ask because quite a lot of those shots look very natural, not at all posed, yet a D4 is hardly a small camera.

    Love the last shot in particular. Great use of light. That looks too perfect to be spontaneous, or was it just one of those moments and you caught it?

    • I’ve been on call for several years now 😉

      I work both candidly and conspicuously. After being conspicuous for a few minutes, people often ignore you especially if they have a job to do or zero interest in photography. Even with a D4 you can still disappear…

      Last shot was spontaneous – sometimes you get lucky!

  20. Zerberous says:

    Thank you for the interesting post and pictures. btw. tapping on the pictures now seems to require a Yahoo login to see the EXIF data e.g.

  21. I like this set very much, thank you for sharing. What is really impressive for me is the clarity and transparency of your images. And currently I’m looking on a very lousy TN panel laptop display.
    I’m wondering if this is the result of good color adjustment or if the other parts of post processing are more responsible for this.

    • Thanks Thomas. I actually do proofing on a lousy monitor if the client intends to disseminate via mass media – you have to ensure everything looks good for as many people as possible on as many devices as possible…it’s both color profiling of the camera and the target display.

      • A valuable lesson. The photos I publish are all processed on my IPS panel display. But then I’m constantly dissapointed afterwards when looking at my own work with my laptop display.
        But there are some important learning steps that I need to take first before I would be able to solve this problem on my own.

  22. Amazing and quite heartwarming footage. Thank you for sharing. A small aside, I would call the missionaries pastors rather than priests.

  23. Wonderful images Ming! You have the port situation figured out beautifully. These shots really nail it.

  24. Thanks for sharing. I love the images. Lucky for you the project started last year . You will cursing the haze at Singapore currently & will delay the project. On above pictures, which one was shot on Nikon D4 & Ricoh GR.

    • Indeed. If you click though there should be EXIF data on flickr – however it actually makes almost no difference because image quality is about the same below ISO 400, with the GR possibly even having a bit of an edge due to lack of AA filter.

  25. ravindrakathale says:

    Ming, some of the images a re breath-taking and many of them innovative. The write up is also quite educative. This is one of the better examples of sharing one’s work from paid assignments, balancing terms of non-disclosure. This is worth emulating. Thanks.

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