Travel Report

Travel Report


Documenting the passengers of a container ship through photography: an idea I wanted to make the focus of my bachelor's thesis. Why do people step onto such a ship, what motivates them, and what exactly does one do throughout the day on a working vessel like this? A few years ago, I stumbled upon the term "cargo ship tourism." What was once considered eccentric and "too exotic" by many is now gaining the attention of travel enthusiasts.


The challenges and successes of my previous photo and film projects have taught me a valuable lesson: approach new projects with manageable steps, plan well, and avoid overshooting the mark. Perhaps even more crucial for me? Accidentally stumbling and being in the wrong place at the wrong time – no wonder my friends dubbed me the "Buster" (Buster Keaton of the 21st century). But what could possibly go wrong on a cargo ship? The parameters and spaces are defined by the ship's structure. The crew and tourists remain constant throughout the journey. And if the weather isn't right on Day A or if a battery runs out, I can photograph on Day B or C or D... Highly motivated and perhaps a bit naïve, I embarked on my research. However, the first phone calls and emails with shipping companies from Hamburg to Bremen, France to even Taiwan took the wind out of my sails: "We don't offer such trips" and "You need to contact a specialized container cargo ship tourism agency." After some internet searching, I found a few specialized agencies based in Germany. After weeks of back and forth, clarifying starting and ending points, routes, ports, ships, travel duration, and whether there would be passengers on board, it seemed I had secured a travel ticket. As we went through the documents, I was asked to sign a declaration stating that I wouldn't photograph or film. Even though I had explained the purpose of my project from the beginning and my intention to exhibit it publicly, this demand took me by surprise. The cargo ship agency's response was simple: "Oops!" My question led to more weeks of emailing and calling back and forth. The shipping companies were not enthused by my idea; in the past, tourists had turned out to be reporters and published unflattering articles. If the shipping company and I reached an agreement on one day that I could photograph, the next day would bring a call saying my route had changed or my ticket had been canceled altogether.


Finally, I had received confirmation for the freighter Andrea and permission to document my journey photographically. Andrea is a 134.4-meter-long and almost 23-meter-wide container ship that sails the world's oceans with its 7950 kW engine, capable of carrying up to 986 containers at once. The crew, besides the captain, includes 11 other crew members (first and second officers, chief engineer, mechanics, deckhands, and the cook), and up to 4 passengers can be accommodated. The departure was scheduled for October 6th at dawn. However, instead of the container ship, a storm hit the Antwerp port earlier, damaging parts of the port so severely that many ships couldn't dock. Fortunately, the departure was only delayed by a day.

On October 7th, shortly after 9 o'clock in the morning, I boarded the Andrea. A sturdy Asian man with an uncertain smile shook my hand and led me to my cabin. Except for two other workers, I saw no one else on the ship. The room was much cleaner and more spacious than I had anticipated: it consisted of a kind of living room, from which a small door on the left led to my sleeping bunk. The bed was narrow and small but incredibly comfortable. Adjacent to the bedroom was a bathroom with a shower. Next, I met Chico, the cook. Chico is in his mid-40s and probably one of the cheeriest persons I've ever met. He immediately offered to prepare me breakfast. Then he pointed to the stairs and described how I would get to the bridge. During lunch, Jack came aboard, the only other traveler. Jack's name wasn't really Jack, and he asked me to keep his identity protected. He had spent many years in the military and participated in numerous missions in war zones. After explaining to him that I wanted to photograph the people on board, he told me with a broad, friendly grin that it might not be the best idea. He probably hadn't made many friends by doing so. So, he kindly asked me not to photograph him. I began to doubt my project once again.


7:00 PM. The Andrea maneuvered its way out of the Antwerp port among the other ships. The cargo vessel was hard to miss: spanning 134.4 meters in length, it even surpassed the height of the American Statue of Liberty. The neatly stacked containers are unloaded and replaced at a handful of ports. Our planned route would take us from Antwerp to Casablanca in Morocco, Cartagena in Portugal, Setúbal in Spain, and then back through Rotterdam to Rouen in France.

To avoid startling the captain and the crew right away, I often refrained from using my camera during the initial days. They shared their origins, their years of service at sea, and stories about their families. Bossun, 57 years old, has been a sailor for more than 40 years. The daily routine on board is well-structured: breakfast is served between 7 and 8 in the morning, lunch from 12 to 1, and dinner from 5 to 6. During their roughly eight-hour work shifts, the men clean, maintain, and repair the ship. Due to the corrosive saltwater, rust spots must be continually addressed, repaired, and repainted. Additionally, the crew prepares the ship for docking and departure at ports, as well as organizes the loading and unloading of containers. When time allows, they get a few hours ashore. During their free time, the men make phone calls, surf the internet, watch movies, or use the ship's gym. After getting to know the workers and getting accustomed to the ship and the rhythm of the sea, I began capturing photos and videos each day before breakfast, continuing until after dinner.


I used the PENTAX 645Z as my main camera. Its robust construction made it the ideal tool for the rugged conditions at sea. Furthermore, the optical advantages of the medium format sensor, combined with its high detail resolution and fantastic color reproduction, allowed me to capture images of unparalleled quality. Additionally, I had the Theta V on board, a compact yet highly capable 360° camera. Unfortunately, my mirrorless secondary camera did not survive the journey unscathed.


On the sixth day, we set course for Casablanca. Out on the deck, I set up my small 360-degree camera to capture a time-lapse of our entry into the harbor, and I snapped a few pictures with my Pentax as well. After that, I had a few hours to explore the city. Two days later, to my great shock, it turned out that I had unintentionally taken pictures of the military port in Casablanca. It was right next to the commercial port. Two port workers had seen me and reported it to the authorities. While I was wandering through Casablanca, our captain had to convince the authorities that I wasn't a spy. Luckily, no one noticed the 360-degree camera... After Casablanca, we sailed to Cartagena in southeastern Spain. The plan was then to head to Setúbal in Portugal and Agadir in southern Morocco. However, as the schedule kept changing during the journey, we ended up going directly back to Rotterdam from Cartagena. For me, that meant instead of three weeks on board, it would only be a little over two weeks. It was high time to capture aerial shots.

Aerial photography proved to be a real challenge. The wind was too strong for a drone, and my drone piloting skills weren't well-developed yet – I would have risked literally throwing a lot of money into the water. So, I opted for a kite with a camera attached using a Picavet system. A Picavet is a string arrangement with a cross-like base to which a camera can be attached. The system uses gravity to keep the camera horizontally aligned, regardless of the kite's orientation. On our way back to Rotterdam, we encountered a "fresh breeze" with winds reaching up to 30 km per hour, which was actually optimal. There was exactly one spot on the Andrea from which to launch the kite without it colliding with the radar. With Jack's help after a few failed attempts, I finally managed to stabilize the kite in the air using the 15-meter line... until I tried to release more line, and the kite got caught in the exhaust stream of the engine. It was caught by the wind and the heat turbulence and crashed. When reeling it in, a strong gust of wind tore the kite from my hand and slammed it directly into the freshly greased ventilation hatch. The kite looked terrible and was no longer airworthy. After cleaning and repairing it, the weather conditions unfortunately were far from even remotely okay. As a result, there isn't a single aerial shot from my adventure. But an even bigger problem awaited us: Ophelia, the hurricane with winds reaching up to 185 km per hour, was predicted to hit us directly according to weather forecasts.


As we sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar into the Atlantic Ocean, the sea noticeably grew more restless. Ophelia had just struck the Irish and English coasts with full force. The ship swayed with rolling movements in the water, and off the coast of Portugal, I found myself – seasick – curled up in my bed. The second officer had informed me about the two stages of seasickness just before this: Stage 1 – you believe you're dying. Stage 2 – you wish you were dead already. With a smile, he added that he'd heard some people even attempted suicide to escape the nausea. It wasn't until we reached the English Channel – after I swallowed seasickness pills like candy – and the sea calmed down again that I began to feel better.


Back in Rotterdam, like at every stop, parts of the old cargo were unloaded and containers were loaded. From there, we headed to our final destination in Rouen, Normandy. The grand finale? Back in the English Channel, the engine started having issues: fuel was leaking from a faulty spot in the engine room, igniting around the third cylinder. However, in the channel, you can't simply stop or turn around, so with a malfunctioning engine, we had to keep moving. After leaving the channel, the ship was able to pull over to the side to shut down and repair the engine. In just 40 minutes, three crew members had opened the engine block and replaced the faulty injector. With the help of a small magnetic tripod, I captured the repairs with my 360-degree RICOH Theta V camera. I simply hung it from the steel deck above me. A few hours later, we had passed Le Havre and sailed up the Seine to our final destination, Rouen. A stark contrast to the past few days: old half-timbered houses and little castles on green meadows, serenaded by sparrows.