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A DRYDOCK WITH A DIFFERENCE:
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH PHOTOGRAPHER MARK POWER

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Mark Powers' Short Film Metamorphosis Showcases Crystal Symphony In A Stunning New Way

Written by

Authoress Zoe Hearne

Zoe Hearne

Published on 08/28/2023

Mark Power is a renowned British documentary photographer known for his captivating and thought-provoking work. Through his lens, he captures powerful stories and moments that resonate with viewers on a deep level. His photographs often reveal unique perspectives on everyday life, showcasing his ability to find beauty and meaning in the ordinary.

With a keen eye for detail and composition, Mark's work transcends the boundaries of traditional photography, offering a glimpse into the human experience and the world around us. His portfolio encompasses a wide range of subjects, each telling a compelling narrative through his distinct visual language.

We invited Mark to showcase Crystal Symphony, during her 2023 return to sail drydock at the shipyard in Trieste, Italy.

Was this your first time in a shipyard, and if not, how did it differ from other visits?

No, it wasn’t. In 2004, while I was working on a 5-year project in Poland (’The Sound of Two Songs’) which followed its accession to the European Union, I gained access to the former Lenin Shipyard in Gdansk. I’m my student days, in 1980, I’d sold badges on the streets of Brighton in support of the striking Lenin shipyard workers. It was here that Lech Wałęsa, then a humble electrician but later to become president of Poland, led the Solidarność (’Solidarity’) movement. I was desperate to visit, but when I finally did, it was a depressing experience. Yes, the striking workers had finally achieved their goal of better pay and a safer working environment, but at the same time, they discovered they couldn't compete with the Chinese, Korean, or even Swedish shipbuilders in the open market, so many lost their jobs altogether. It’s worth remembering that under the communist regime, the Soviets were ordering ships to be built that they didn’t really need in order to keep people in work. In Trieste, of course, it was very different. And, compared to Gdansk, it was tiny.

Shipyards are traditionally stark and gritty places. How did you approach finding beauty in this environment, and how did you convey that through your film?

It’s an old adage, but there is beauty to be found everywhere. You only have to look. Over the past 25 years, I've done a lot of work in construction sites (including shipyards), and I don't find them stark or gritty at all. I love the contrast between enormous industrial spaces and intimate, tiny corners. Between big objects and small ones.I also enjoy the accidental sculptures that are created by the workers, made without any artistic intent but which are often astonishingly beautiful. A good example of this would be the blue canvas that I found tossed over the ship's propeller, which couldn't have been done more aesthetically if they'd tried, and the point is they hadn't tried at all… it was only there to perform a function. Likewise, with complicated wiring made by electricians, which is something I'm always drawn to.Over time - and I've been a photographer now for over 40 years - I've learnt to be able to see any three or four-dimensional space in two dimensions, just like a picture. In other words, I can imagine exactly what something will look like when photographed. So that's the next stage… You find something interesting, but then you have to make a ‘good' picture of it. But most often, in industrial spaces, objects hang around for a while, giving me enough time to make the picture I want.

You have carved a niche by giving power and enigma to subjects and landscapes that are essentially unemotional. How did cruise ships fit into this narrative?

I'm not sure, I entirely agree with the question because emotion is in the eye of the beholder. I think you might mean that I tend to photograph from a certain distance to emphasize the idea of being from somewhere else and not quite belonging (my 12-year project in the United States, for instance, uses this method a lot). But I'm not looking for emotion when I'm in an industrial space. That's not what I'm doing. Instead, I'm trying, as best as I can, to show the viewer what something looks like, albeit in an interesting way.

Photography is a powerful medium for storytelling. What stories or messages do you hope Metamorphosis conveys to your audience?

I've never seen myself as a ‘storyteller.' That's a term that is bandied about in photographic circles, but I don't believe most people understand what it means. I'm more interested in making individual pictures that contain many layers of detail and information to suggest a number of issues. Generally speaking, I try to get everything in my pictures in focus so they are more (dare I say) ‘democratic.’ I try to imagine myself as an alien, looking at the pictures for the first time and finding interest in everything equally. In other words, everything within the image is of equal importance, and I'm not telling the viewer exactly what to look at. Apart from, of course, the fact that I have chosen to frame the image in a certain way and include certain things (and not others). This is greatly considered, believe me!

What inspired you to specialize in industrial documentary photography, and what draws you to these subjects and landscapes?

My industrial work is only one aspect of what I do. At the moment, it's not as dominant as it used to be, and I'm currently interested in making work more generally about the world around us at this moment. That said, I'm currently putting together a book that uses pictures from the many, many different industrial/manufacturing sites I've had the pleasure to photograph over the years. I've mixed them up, and there are no captions, so we’re never sure where we are or what we’re looking at. The pictures are then sequenced very carefully. I'm trying to make the point that it's possible to make powerful, beautiful, eloquent, and deeply personal work within the corporate sector. Importantly, it's not a book to put out there in order to search for more work, but instead, I want it to be a celebration of the possibilities to make good work when trust exists between the company and myself.Crystal Cruises gave me complete freedom to photograph whatever I wanted on board their ships. I was never told what to do, and I was very grateful for that. That's the kind of thing I'm talking about.

How did you go about selecting the sections of the ships you’ve photographed? Are there specific criteria or stories you want to tell?

Not really. To be honest, two days was simply not enough time. There was so much I wasn't able to see or photograph because the time went so fast. Luckily, on the first day, we were taken around by someone who knew the ships intimately, so we saw most of the main spaces. I was able to revisit most of those over the two days. But it was a little frustrating because there were definitely things I missed. But at the end of the day, I was trying to make photographs that worked, and of course, it's never possible to photograph everything. Also, some spaces were more giving than others. Just because something looks spectacular or has nice colors, it doesn't necessarily mean it will give me a picture that I like.

Many of your photographs evoke a sense of scale and human presence within these industrial settings. How do you work to capture that perspective?

Where possible, in Trieste, I would use people to give a sense of scale because the ships are so vast. Sometimes, often, a photograph struggles to convey scale accurately. In these cases, I'm not necessarily trying to describe what the people are doing, but instead, they are only there to perform a function. But, then again, most of the rooms on the ship were empty of people, so this wasn't always possible. In that case, I might play with the idea of scale to suggest that something is bigger or smaller than it appears to be. Photography is very good at that!

Could you share a memorable or challenging experience you had while documenting our ships while on locations?

My biggest problem was coping with the heat, although it had started to cool down a little after the extremely high temperatures Italy had experienced a few days before. I was lucky to have missed that, at least.I enjoyed going to the canteen at lunchtime. It was in one of the fancy onboard restaurants, but everything was covered in plastic to protect it. There, you would see workers from all over the world sitting together and somehow communicating. Which reminds me of something else... Whenever we went on board a ship, we had to renew our passes. While that was being done (it often took 10 or 15 minutes), I would watch each worker come through the barrier, scanning their own pass. As they did so, their portrait and nationality (and various other bits and bobs of information) came up on a computer screen, which I was able to see. I counted well over 20 different nationalities passing through during one 10 minute period.

Will there be a follow-up to Metamorphosis?

If you're talking about will I work for Crystal again, the answer is I would love to!

My final question is a question on the issue of the equipment. Do you still use medium and large format film cameras, or do you prefer digital media?

I used a large format film camera ( 5" x 4” negatives) for over 20 years but made the switch to digital in 2013. I managed to find a digital version of my technical camera with the same movements I was used to. It meant that I was able to make the same kind of pictures digitally as I used to make on film. This was important to me because I had developed a way of looking and of making pictures that I didn't want to lose. All photographers are in search of their individual voice, by which I mean that (if you find it) others recognize your pictures immediately. I like to think that after all these years, I have managed to find my own voice.