PPD Spotlight: Claudio Cambon's Compelling "Shipbreak"

By David Schonauer   Wednesday November 25, 2015

The American-flag oil tanker SS Minole was a praiseworthy ship.

Over 36 years, she had traveled millions of miles transporting barrels of petroleum products around the world. “Boy, she was a submarine! Dove right through waves,” said one man who had sailed on her. Another sailor, a cook, recalled his first time about the ship — a winter trip from Alaska through rough seas. At one point, the Minole ended up in a trough between two waves and rolled so far over that water gushed down her stack and extinguished one of her boilers. Somehow, she fought her way out. In her life, she never spilled a drop of oil.

But in 1998, her time had come to an end. A single-hulled taker, she did not comply with safety standards established by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990. Documentary photographer Claudio Cambon  was on hand to record her final voyage.

The result is his new book, Shipbreak, which tells the story of the Minole's journey from New Orleans to the ship-breaking yards of Chittagong, Bangladesh — made famous in a series of images by photographer Sebastião Salgado. But the book goes further, ultimately documenting how the Minole was recycled into other, everyday objects, including rebar, a machete, a drum-tensioning rod and 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,” writes Cambon, a PPD reader who divides his time between Bangladesh, the US, and Europe.

The project came about after Cambon began documenting US Merchant Marine sailors in California in the mind 1990s. “I was trying to think of a better way to show the disappearance of their work and way of life than what I had come up with to that point when one of them told me about ship breaking, which I had never heard of or even imagined could exist,” he says. “In a still largely pre-Internet world, all I had were the testimonies of these sailors describing this dramatic activity that took place halfway around the world. Only much later did I discover Salgado’s photographs of ship breaking in Bangladesh in his book Workers.”

A year and a half later, after doing considerable research, Cambon was a passenger about the SS Minole on her way to Bangladesh.

His book contains over 80 photographs and 40 pages of compelling text describing the history of the ship and his experiences aboard her. It’s an adventure tale and a rumination on the nature of the world that is absolutely original.

“I came to see a ship die and be reborn as I had my father, to watch life reconstitute itself and out of forms, from those those familiar and loved to ones new and unknown, each wonderful and magnificent, but ultimately impermanent and transitory,” he writes.

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