Photofusion Member | Tim Mitchell

All that is solid melts into air
Karl Marx

Ships are the workhorses of globalisation, slowly but surely transporting materials, influence and power across the globe. Built to last and to survive the rigors of a life at sea, they require huge amounts of energy and force to be dismantled at the end of their working lives.

Their structures contain vast quantities of hazardous materials that during the ship’s working life are safely contained within its walls and are there to propel the ship and to protect its inhabitants. At the end of the ship’s life, these materials become reanimated, problematic and dangerous. Asbestos and hydrocarbons (fuel oils) have to be found and removed before any deconstruction can be carried out.

Despite the best efforts to remove all known hazards using the construction plans as a guide, these materials will continue to be found throughout the deconstruction process. The ship’s plans never truly reflect the repairs and alterations carried out over its lifetime. Deconstruction grinds to a halt while hazards are safely removed. Once disturbed, the very materials that protected the lives of those at sea now become a threat to life.

These hazards not only pose a threat to those deconstructing the ship but also to the economic viability of a ship breaking project when carried out for profit, in a health and safety conscious country. So far, it appears that recent ship-breaking projects carried out in the UK have proved to be unprofitable. In this case, a predicted 6-month job, took 20 months. It’s a lot cheaper to sell our old, unwanted ships to countries where the ship’s carcasses will simply be beached and disemboweled where they sit, allowing their toxic payloads to spill out into the surrounding environment. Despite the Basel convention and the European waste shipment regulations specifically banning the export of toxic waste, ship owners have found it easy to circumvent the law by changing flags and selling their vessels for scrap once they are outside EU waters. EU Parliament are currently trying to write up a financial mechanism that would close the loop, internalize the costs and stop EU shipping moguls from profiting from the dumping of their toxic waste on developing countries while promoting environmentally sound ship recycling within the EU.

Tim Mitchell Tim Mitchell Tim Mitchell Tim Mitchell Tim Mitchell
Tim Mitchell Tim Mitchell Tim Mitchell Tim Mitchell Tim Mitchell

For this document, I started by installing a ‘locked-off’ time-lapse camera in a secure, all- weather housing, before the arrival of our condemned ship. This autonomous camera with its fixed viewpoint then took a photo every hour for the best part of 2 years. Meanwhile, and within certain safety parameters, I was given free rein to explore the ship whilst it was being pulled to pieces, trying to convey the feeling and signs of the process, as it happened around me. I moved from deck to deck during its last months as the mighty workhorse was reduced to its component elements for recycling and disposal. Ferrous, non-ferrous, hazardous, naval memorabilia, fixtures, fittings and furniture. 97% of the ship was recycled. Asbestos strippers and other visiting specialists aside, a core team of only half dozen or so men worked on the 20-month job.

A Fish Out of Water brings together photography, a 20-month time-lapse film, text and physical evidence to create a broad document made up of contrasting forms and perspectives.

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