The ship-breaking yards of South Asia – Gadani (Pakistan), Alang (India) and Baro Aulia (Bangladesh) – are not lacking in attention from artists, from either the region or the West. Photographers including Edward Burtynsky, Navroze Contractor and Ketaki Sheth, as well as filmmakers Shaheen Dill-Riaz and Yasmine Kabir, have drawn attention to the industry’s dehumanizing and exploitive labour conditions, as well as to the environmental hazards it poses. Neither trade unionists nor the media are welcome at ship-breaking yards; while these hulking container ships come to die in South Asia, their life stories are defined by the flow of global capital. An incisive account of a vessel’s life is found in Peter Hutton’s 2007 silent film At Sea which was shown for the first time as a three-channel installation at Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York, in early 2015. Divided into three chapters, it includes footage of a ship being assembled in Korea, its crossing from Montreal to Hamburg and its eventual demolition in Bangladesh. Around the same time, Lala Rukh’s minimal series ‘Gadani’ (2001) – drawings of the sea’s horizon as seen from the beaches of the Pakistani ship-breaking port Gadani, were exhibited at the 12th Sharjah Biennial. While the ship is at the centre of At Sea, it is absent from Rukh’s renderings. It is this tension between the ocean itself and the life of the ship-breaking yards that Shumon Ahmed captures in his photographs.
‘When Dead Ships Travel’ at Project 88 was Ahmed’s first solo show in India, and it comprised two photographic series, ‘Metal Graves’ (2008–09) and the eponymous ‘When Dead Ships Travel’ (2015). Ahmed’s images, mostly devoid of people, were shot in Bangladesh in Baro Aulia and on St Martin Island – the only coral island in the country – with a range of analogue cameras (Hasselblad, Diana plastic, pinhole, Polaroid) on an assortment of film stock (Kodak 100 VS, Kodak 400 VC colour film, Agfa 100 to 400 ISO). Ahmed then subjected the film to a series of processing techniques, including cross-processing, which yield unpredictable results, as is evident in these double-and-triple exposed, blurred, highly contrasted and tinted photographs. This moody suite of images is more akin to abstract painting than documentary photography – in fact, Ahmed has cited the Bangladeshi painter Zainul Abedin as an inspiration.
It is clear that the artist’s intention is to filter these dying ships and the landscape they inhabit through an elegiac and melancholic atmosphere. It is a stance at some distance from the more direct reportage of the human rights violations and ecological devastation of this trade. It is not that Ahmed seeks to deny or delegitimize the industry, but rather that he wants to communicate a more sensate experience of these yards through analogue means. Without a doubt, these ports are distressing places to visit and, amidst the outrage they provoke, there lingers tragedy, the spoiled romance of the ocean voyage and the majesty of the sea polluted by the ugliness of contemporary politics. This is made manifest in the spectral presences and traces of the rusting carcasses of the ships and all that surrounds them. Ahmed trains his camera on scattered rocks, coral, the patterns left in the sand by the waves, crabs and even his own footprints. Perhaps the most revealing image in the show was When Dead Ships Travel #4 (2015), which includes a cluster of wild grass flowers – kash ful – that grow in Bengal in the autumn and have a particularly romantic connotation there. In Ahmed’s photograph, the pipes of a ship, like a canon in motion, burst through these delicate blooms to leave death and destruction in their wake. No greater heartbreak is felt than in this simple juxtaposition.