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The magazine of the photo-essay
February 2017 issue
by Claudio Cambon
“A free, really high quality photo-essay magazine.  Fabulous!” Stephen Fry. British actor, writer and film & documentary maker
Shipbreak Back to menu
When the American-flag oil tanker SS Minole beached in the breaking yards of Chittagong, Bangladesh, in January 1998, it signaled both an ending and a beginning. For the American sailors who ran the ship aground, this event meant the close of a long, productive life spent wandering the world's oceans. For the Bangladeshi shipbreakers who over the course of the next five months dismantled the vessel, more or less by hand, it signified instead a point of commencement, because the ship provided many materials necessary to their country's struggle to create a modern existence for itself. The death of one man's livelihood became the birth of another's. However, more than a ship was exchanged in this process. To all of them she was not just a carrier of cargo, but an emblem of life itself; like all living things she decomposed, and her recycled elements formed the basis of new organisms: a hull became building rebar, a machete, a drum tensioning rod, a religious statue. These photographs give record of this transformation; they ultimately serve as a meditation on how life possesses us more than we do it, and how it mysteriously changes shape from one beautiful form to another, passing through us like light through the filament of a bulb.
Ship: Nocturne.
"Papa" John Wallace, Bosun. None of the sailors are original crew to the SS Minole. They have been gathered from various other ships and companies. As a result, she does not hold anything special for them; this trip is only a detail. It is as if they are pallbearers of the body of a person they never knew. Only "Papa" John, at 71 the oldest member of the crew, has a sense of the poignancy of this voyage, the last of so many.
The Beaching of the SS Minole, January 14, 1998, Chittagong, Bangladesh. On Jan 14, 1998, at 2:20 p.m., the steamship Minole beached in the breaking yards of Fahad Steel Industries, north of Chittagong. She started about eight miles from shore and reached a speed of 15.5 knots; even from afar one could hear her propeller beating rapidly through the water like that of a helicopter moving through the sky. She crossed the sandbar and plowed to a standstill in the shallow water of the beaching plain. She pushed a long wave of water ahead of her, which rumbled into shore. Like an animal shuddering in the throes of death, she slowly vibrated to a halt in that mud, ceasing a movement that had lasted for thirty-seven years and for millions of miles across the world's oceans. "Please, God, please, let it be over for her," the crew thought to themselves. When the engineers shut off her fuel line, she choked and gasped, belching one last, thick cloud of black smoke, and then she died.
Paid Out Anchor Chain. In the late 1960s, a typhoon blew a small ship up onto a tidal flat on the beaches north of Chittagong. Efforts to refloat the ship failed, and the vessel was abandoned. The local community slowly picked at the ship for years, but, according to shipbreakers, it wasn’t until a second ship suffered the same fate a decade later that the idea sprang forth to bring the industry to Bangladesh. It had previously been concentrated in East Asian countries such as Taiwan, where ships were broken in drydocks using cranes and other forms of industrial mechanization. Here, in a country without such resources, people began with their only advantages: a kilometer-long, shallow beach plain where ships could be beached at high lunar tides, and then demolished during the lower tides by a  population hungry for work. Today Bangladesh is the world’s largest breaker of ships.
Climbing the anchor chain.
The Felling of the Fantail. The ship is demolished more or less by hand. "Cutters" sever chunks weighing fifty to one hundred tons with ordinary blowtorches, patiently cutting through myriad layers of decks and bulkheads. When they are ready to fell a piece, the whole chunk remains suspended by just two one-foot stretches of uncut steel. The cutting foreman begins yelling to clear the decks, above and below, and then signals to the two cutters to torch through the last pieces. No one else dares talk as he continues to nervously bark instructions. Seconds before the workers finish cutting, the weight of the fantail finally makes itself felt; the metal groans as the piece rips itself free and plummets into the shallow water with a deep and resounding "thud." The ground beneath bounces like a trampoline as sheets of water and mud spray, hissing, in all directions. The sound of the impact echoes off the neighboring hulls like a cannon shot. When everything has settled, the foreman rushes over to the edge to inspect his crew's work, and then he cheers approvingly.
Beggar Woman. The only women ever to be seen in the yards are beggars who poke through the mud with sticks, scavenging for random chunks of metal. At the end of the day each one is happy to have gathered maybe ten kilos, which they then pool together and sell. With this they buy several kilos of rice and maybe some vegetables, just enough to feed their families. Despite the fact that they collect material that is of no value to the breakers, security guards are quick to shoo the women away, sometimes throwing rocks to drive them out.
‘Wire carriers’ carry a three-inch-thick steel cable for almost one kilometer out to the ship, where it will be attached to a felled chunk and pulled into shore by a homemade, truck-engine-powered winch. The cable is heavy, and it sways with a mind of its own, forcing each carrier to veer sideways as much as forward under its considerable weight.  Out toward the ship the mud is deep, oily, and claylike; it is also septic and full of chunks of steel from other cuttings. The workers trudge through it barefoot, somehow avoiding cutting their feet.  From a distance they appear to stagger like marionettes suspended along the cable, which seems to move both them and itself.
Unloading the Ship's Contents.
Offloading a Mattress. Everything that can be reused as is will be off-loaded from the ship and auctioned to buyers specializing in those goods. This mattress, for example, has been sold to the owner of a furniture store, who has bought all the beds and chairs onboard. This is considered an upscale item in his store, because very few people in Bangladesh have mattresses, and almost no one can conceive of buying a new one. Perhaps the only items from the ship that never seemed to be reused were the toilets, which could be seen along the Dhaka-Chittagong road, lined up neatly in rows; some had been converted into planters.
The ‘loaders’ endure the most physically difficult job of anyone in the yard.  Once the steel has been cut into large, flat pieces, these workers pick them up and load them onto delivery trucks. They rally in groups of fifteen to twenty around a piece, which often weighs more than a ton.  A foreman goads them with a song, to which they provide the chorus. They chant fiercely as they hoist the slab and place it on their shoulders.  They walk in step, singing the whole time, until they load the piece completely onto the truck.  Often they run back for the next piece, cheering like crazed sports fans charging the field at the end of a game. Cranes that use magnets to pick up and move the cut steel slabs are slowly replacing loaders. This is ultimately safer, less taxing, and more productive, but the greater mechanization also means less employment.
Drying Off at the End of the Day. The workers are from all parts of the country, the majority from poor, agrarian areas to the north.  They leave behind a way of life which had sustained them for centuries but which now leaves them indebted and starving. They have come here embracing the thorny promises of modern existence, more money and prosperity, all the while risking the rupture of their cultural continuity, and their very lives.
Loading rebar onto a truck.
Cooling Rebar: End of the Night Shift. The steel from the ship's hull is rerolled into rebar, which is used in domestic construction. It is three times cheaper to make rebar this way rather than milling it from raw ore, which is nowhere to be found in Bangladesh’s river delta ground. It is a country with an infrastructure still requiring extensive development, and so the rebar is desperately needed. The rerolling mills are so hot that they can only operate at night. In the early morning hours the fresh rebar is bent and tied into a pretzel-like shape, then thrown onto delivery trucks. Here and there in the approaching dawn one sees a worker who has finished his shift lying asleep on a cooling pile of steel. Does he dream of the tall, soft grass in the fields of home?
Burning rubber casing off copper wire.