Life on a container ship

26 days on a container ship puts life on dry land in perspective for a photographer

Words: Emma Rawson  Photos and video: Birgit Krippner

Photographer Birgit Krippner is naturally inclined to think outside the box so it’s curious that her latest project sees her lens focussed on the containers crossing the ocean.

The Wellington-based portrait photographer who last year captured Maori activist Tame Iti in nothing but his birthday suit left New Zealand last month on a container ship heading for the United States. It might sound hellish to be trapped on a ship with 26 strangers for a 26-day voyage but Birgit has wanted to do this since she young.

Birgit Krippner cntainer ship

Birgit looking from her cabin as she leaves Auckland.

“I first had this dream when I was a teenager, in Austria, watching ships sail the Danube. About six months ago, while walking the Seatoun beach in Wellington, I watched a cargo ship sail past and it brought my dream back into the present.”

The container ship on which she sailed, the Spirit of Auckland, stopped in the Panama Canal before heading to Columbia and finally Philadelphia where she disembarked.

Birgit Krippner container ship at sea

It took a while to adjust to life on board and to get her sea legs. “On the second night there were a lot of rolling waves. I got scared and thought that the ship might sink,” says Birgit.

“When I told the officers the next morning, they smiled at me. That rolling was not even strong they said! After that, I built up resilience and was not scared anymore. Even when we had violent rain, I enjoyed that very much. No seasickness at all. I was told by some of the seamen, that I am now one of them.”

The Spirit of Auckland crew scrub the deck

The Spirit of Auckland crew scrub the deck.

In their downtime the crew onboard avoid cabin fever by playing table tennis, watching DVDs and jumping into the cold swimming pool filled with fresh seawater.

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Birgit observed how creative people become in the face of long hours of boredom, and that included welcoming Birgit.

“The most surprising thing for me has been how powerful my personal connection with the crew members has become in a short time. The crew is all male and I’ve talked to many and all are extremely nice and open to sharing part of their life with me.

Birgit Krippner Life on board container ship

“Some of them tell me about their families, how much they miss them, and that they have not been back home for several months.”

Although Birgit had thought being at sea would be a struggle she says it puts life on dry land into perspective.

Birgit Krippner Life on board container ship

“The crew members have a quality to their lives which I don’t always see around people on land. Life on board puts small things into perspective and nature becomes more important. Sun and moon risings are powerful experiences. First, ocean and sky are one. You could not tell them apart. Slowly a fine line appeared in the distance – the horizon.

“Equally beautiful, if not even stronger, was the full moon the night before. It shone so brightly that it could have been mistaken for the sun. I saw this and an ocean of stars.”


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