By Kip Scott
Growing up and living in Yarraville, the docks of Melbourne have never been far away. Cranes for unloading containers and cargo boats from around the world have provided much visual inspiration. Over 3000 large ships pass through our ports each year, and we all play a part in using some of the many imports they bring. But I have always wondered where do all the large container and passenger ships end up when their working life of 30-40 years is over?
I first learned of the Chittagong ship breaking yards, Bangladesh, when I chanced upon an article in National Geographic (May 2014), with some amazing photographs by Mike Hettwer. From that point on it became a dream to visit and photograph this intriguing and often dangerous industry.
In recent times, tourism to Bangladesh has unfairly been marred by the news of an isolated terrorist attack and before that a clothing factory disaster, but it is a beautiful and vibrant nation.
Last year, Bangladesh opened its borders to Rohingya refugees and continues to provide support to those who are displaced.
The Chittagong ship breaking yards are the largest in the world and account for one fifth of all the steel used in Bangladesh. This is recycling writ large, albeit a dangerous process for the workers involved.
There is over 18 km of coastline north west of Chittagong scattered with these large ships, and at least 100 ships per year are dismantled here. The area employs over 10,000 local people and many secondary industries, such as the sale of reusable ship parts, stem from this.
I had been warned that it would be difficult to get close to the large ships. Years ago access was much more flexible but now there is tight security. ‘Accidents could happen. Pieces of debris could fall on you as the big ships are pulled apart by hand.’
In late December 2017, I was able to travel to Bangladesh. I made contact with local fishermen who took me out into the ocean over several days on an old orange life boat. We went out at high tide, and drifted close to the ships, and the workers involved in the task of breaking down countless vessels.
The massive propellers and ships were close, and workers waved and were happy to be photographed. I could make out the origins of the ships. The name Shanghai had been worn down and the word Chittagong written on one of the bows. Some of the vessels were almost intact, but others looked like a skeletons of whales with their skin peeled back to reveal the bones. Coasting along parallel to the shore, a half submerged piece of wreckage would often pop up in the ocean. The smell of oil and diesel drifted to our small boat.
The large ships once carried people and goods between nations, were abuzz with life and stories, and even still they appeared monumental. There was an industrial beauty and quietness in the rustic colours of the aged and deconstructed ships that instantly reminded me of home, of Footscray and Yarraville’s vibrant visual and industrial connections to the Port of Melbourne. I felt like I had travelled full circle.
I have selected some images from the many photographs I managed to take for an exhibition,’ Chittagong Steel’, to be held the Fox Gallery, Kensington from May 12-26th. The exhibition opening is Saturday 12 May 6pm-9pm. A small book of images will also be available at the exhibition.