In Allan Sekula’s recent project, Ship of Fools, the once submerged social truths of the shipping industry finally begins to surface.

With Ship of Fools, Sekula explores the labour conditions of seafarers and dockworkers and exposes the effects of globalisation. Exhibited currently at the Stills in Edinburgh, Sekula’s Ship of Fools is composed of an ensemble of images arranged throughout two galleries. The front gallery featuring “The Crew”, “Churn” and “Sugar Gang” while the back gallery showcases “Good Ship, Bad Ship”, “Working” and “South African Visitors”. Streaming between the two galleries are various artifacts from the Dockers Museum that highlight the many aspects of maritime life, among which are a Japanese foghorn and a bronze statue of a stevedore from the Port of Antwerp. Curated by Kristen Lloyd, Ship of Fools serves as an extension of the Stills’ Social Documents program. As best explained in the program brochure, “Social Documents is a trilogy of exhibitions that examines the re-emergence of documentary modes and tropes in contemporary art since 1990”.  Having contributed significantly to the revitalisation of documentary photography, Sekula’s work offers an essential addition to this ongoing project.

"Crew Portrait" by Allan Sekula

In an interview with Grant Watson, Sekula discusses in greater detail his motivation and investment in Ship of Fools. Sparked in the mid-1980s, Sekula’s interest in “the connection between port cities” and “the materiality of goods flow”soon lead to a project that closely examined the maritime trade industry and the people who have become so intricately woven into this seafaring web. Ship of Fools documents Sekula’s expedition on the Global Mariner, a refitted cargo vessel that transported within its renovated rooms an exhibition protesting the ‘flag of convenience system’. Sponsored by the International Transport Workers Federation, the Global Mariner voyaged around the world for twenty months, with an emphasis on the lives and labour conditions of dockers and seafarers, “exposing the effects of unregulated labor markets and the risks attached to their trade”. The program encouraged resistance to neoliberalism and privation in the transportation sector, striving to, according to Watson, “create alliances between workers and port cities” and bring awareness to “an industry that appears to be running on invisible labour”, as Sekula describes it. Sekula then continues, describing the dichotomy presented by the maritime industry, “An industry that is, admittedly also victim to the economic crisis. But at the same time, you can argue that this industry invented the means of transport that in fact made globalisation possible”. As the interview came to a close, Sekula reveals his main motivation for his project, “Both the ‘flag of convenience’, which really globalises the labour market for seafaring, and the container, which opens up the possibility of globalising the work of production of goods, these two key maritime inventions, set the machine in motion and we’re living with the consequences now”.

In Ship of Fools, Sekula pieces together the epic journey of the Global Mariner through a series of portraits of the ship’s multi-national crew, dockworkers at the port of Santos in Brazil and photographs of the ship itself. In presenting an investigation of “exploitation, activism and the sublime”, Sekula’s work forces us to engage in political dialogue; his goal being, according to Gail Day, to recover suppressed dialogue origins. Sekula does not passively convey information on to his audience; to further emphasize his theme of the sea as ‘forgotten space’, he forces us to read in between his carefully narrated sequence of images. In doing so, Sekula presents us with a problem while simultaneously challenging us to address it.


Carolyn Bevans

Image credit  – Glasgow School of Arts