Greetings from Paradise is about the complex and multifaceted world of Caribbean cruising. Over the course of nine years or so, I’ve been going on cruises and examining the culture surrounding it. There are three separate but intertwined stories to be told.
The cruiser. I’ve always been interested in this strange breed. Why is a cruise ship paradise to some, and a nightmare to others. It seems to me that cruise ships offer people of average means an opportunity to experience the illusion of a luxury experience. To participate in at least the imagery that we associate with wealth and a life of excess. Or maybe it’s simpler than that. Maybe it’s just an easy vacation. The food and itinerary are mostly predetermined, you just have to show up. It’s all very safe.
The worker. The Italian cruise lines that I’ve spent time on have a distinct hierarchy of employees. The entertainment and sales teams and specialized jobs are mostly Italian and other Europeans, while the remaining and less desirable weight staff and cabin steward jobs go to people from developing Asian countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia. I have heard horror stories of the conditions that this class of workers is subjected to, but to protect their jobs, and anonymity, it’s not a subject that I get into in depth in this project. In short though, it’s an issue of exploitation based on economic demand. Becuase this job offers a level of comfort for the families back home, the cruise employees are willing to endure the intense work schedule and poor living conditions. Which brings us to the third story and the one which holds most off my attention.
The port merchant. The socioeconomic dynamic surrounding the relationship between cruisers and the Caribbean locals who make a living off of the cruise industry is my primary interest. As the cruise industry grows, with it grows the economies of these port towns. As a local, there are few ways to keep up with the growing economy aside from taking part in the industry and trying to find a way to benefit from it. This relationship to me, is extremely complex and even after almost a decade of exploring it, it’s still hard to really land on any resolved conclusion about I feel about it. Everyone I’ve ever talked to at a cruise port is happy that the cruise ships come. How could you blame them, it’s thousands of people a day piling off of ships looking for ways to spend money. The cruiser is a very specific type of tourist though, and in the Caribbean in particular, there is a certain expectation that in their short stay, they will see a very digestible and simplified representation of the culture in question. The result is perpetuated cultural stereotypes due to economic demand. As an observer of this dynamic, where both parties seem to be happy with the arrangement, you can’t help but feel that something is just wrong about it. But then of corse who am I to say, thus the complexity.
One thing that has not changed despite my many years documenting cruises, is that I feel deeply disconnected from pretty much everyone involved. I am not a cruiser. While I do not consider cruises strictly unethical and pass no judgement whatsoever toward those who enjoy them, I don’t relate. But being that when I’m on a cruise, I am a cruiser, my interactions with the other two groups (workers and locals) are as a cruiser and as an opportunity. The instinct as a photographer, would normally be to try to get in with the locals and penetrate the usual dynamic to get the deeper story of who these people are. Perhaps visit a port when the ship isn’t there. I have decided not to do that. I want to be seen as a cruiser and experience the relationship under that pretense and photograph it through that lens. The distance and tension between me and the subjects is my way of communicating that alienation that I feel and the greater dissonance and tension that I see between players involved in this strange dance. I think of my role as similar to a nature photographer. I observe from afar, sometimes out of sight with curiosity and awe.