Photographers that pursue long term projects usually possess a great amount of knowledge around their chosen subject matter, whether through extensive research, sheer curiosty, the love of it, necessity, or all of the above.
At the outset of my now-labelled Realistic Project, I feel it’s important to establish that I know next to nothing about my chosen subject matter at this time, and that you’ll be following me on my journey of getting to know tugs, as well as my experiences of being on them.
Tug boats, or the industry that they serve, have always been cloaked in romantic fancy for me, until the day I decided I wanted to experience it for real, and a Magnum Photos workshop made it possible. This episode that started at the Workshops was me following blind instinct, playing out some buried compulsion. I’d not stopped in the March to August gap between my first and second experiences aboard a tug, to think about why I was so drawn to them. All I knew was that I was really keen, and someone-get-me-on-a-tug-boat-now.
So why am I so drawn to tugs?
It comes down to two things:
1. I like being on the water
No maritime background, or lineage of proud/rogue sailors in my family’s runaway past. My father is a mad keen fisherman though, and that’s probably where it started. Dad would disappear for days on these extended fishing trips in the South China sea when I was little, bringing back ice chests full of all sorts of fish and a bunch of awesome stories each time (he is a sensational story teller). I begged to go for years and kept being told it would happen as soon as I was old enough.
So that was my 8th birthday present. My parents worried for their small, sickly child out at sea during the onset of the monsoon season, but as Dad would recall about 20 years later, I’d positively flourished in those 5 days. That was the beginning of yearly trips in Malaysian waters.
The things I remember about being at sea: Stormy days – large approaching masses of angry water waiting to eat the boat, securing anything that would fly when being tossed around. Listening to the boat creak and moan woefully in the thrash. Afterwards, small fish roiling on the water as the clouds moved away, far as the eye could see in every direction; a lone marlin worrying a frantic ball of its prey in the water, the glorious still-frame of a sailfish in flight, a line of sunlight gleaming off its saltwater lacquered dorsal fin, down curved flank and flashing off its sickle of tail. The curious, heady mix of brine and diesel fumes (and in this case, old fish) that to me, will always mean “port.”
But what I retain most about those days is staring up at clouds puffing into existence, wavering shards of sunlight converging conical to a point in the water, or at a horizon that was never really still, the way it is on land. I never took to fishing, but it allowed me to spend days dreaming in any available spot on the boat, with or without a rod in hand.
Now older, I am rediscovering my sea legs in that imaginary place, surprised to find it crossed the ocean with me.
2. Tug boats have a mystery working life.
Little non-industry specific stuff has been featured about tugs, as far as I have found. They don’t possess the impressive mass of large cargo ships, the holiday mystique of ocean liners, the romance of historic tall ships or the popular draw of recreational vessels. They are the worker bees of the ports, one variety of cog in the machinery of shipping, there to provide a service. You see them, but they don’t excite the imagination.
Unless you’re fascinated by working lives. How people do all the things that make the world go round. Why the thing that traps one man in a miserable existence is necessary to the beat of another’s heart. How people find wonder in what they do. What the reasons for that are.
And this is a working life one on the water, replete with “big boys toys,” to quote one tug master, patting a bulkhead fondly.
I find the combination irresistible.
I had plans to run away to sea fresh out of high school. As a good (or, trying to be so) Asian child, further study was the only choice I had at that point and I’d found, in the recesses of the motherland’s post secondary education options, a lotto win. A working life at sea. Perfect! It was vetoed by my parents, who probably had a very good idea of what was going on in my head, and so I came to Australia. Which was a big win of another sort entirely, but not too relevant to this story.
But a decade and a half on, I’ve come full circle in idle daydreams where I am actually of some use at studying. I probably never will be a real sea farer, but documenting that life is something I can do, and have been given the opportunity to do by the good folks at Svitzer, and I still can’t believe my luck.
Jean Gaumy articulates perfectly for me, why the sea, and why tug boats:
March 1984 – I’ve been photographing now for fifteen years. Sometimes hard pictures, difficult moments. Combine them one day with the other pictures: moments of rivers, winds and shores. They belong to the same world. It’ll come on its own. I don’t know how. I want to go out to sea and the desire already contains this seed. It can’t be about reporting. It’s about someting else. I don’t really know what. I’ll have to describe. Simply describe. Avoid deception, the heroic being. Stick with just man.
– from Men At Sea
Thanks to Flemming, who knows about following what’s in your heart, for the title of this post.