An exhibition has opened of photography of marine life, but it’s not the expected photos of fishes and corals and nature — but of humanity at work at sea. Raw industry and machines, and the humans who work them.

The sea is an unforgiving environment, and the machinery shows the effects of the rust and grime and salt that the sea inflicts. It’s raw and brutal in its appearance.

It’s that raw untouched industrial beauty that in its own way has appeal.

The exhibition zones are per photographer, and one has been chosen for their different areas of work — all are working on these sites normally, then taking time out to photograph them.

From the Antarctic research labs, to the North Sea oil rigs, cargo ships, fishermen and scientists.

A timelapse film of a captain’s eye view of a cargo ship shows the beauty of the night sky in a way we cloudy British island dwellers will rarely see.

Yet, the photo of the sailor staring at his phone might be for any of us just someone wasting time on social media instead of doing something more interesting — and yet here, it’s a man fishing for a few weak bars of phone signal when close to land so they can have fleeting calls with loved ones.

The photographer, Popescu Cezar Gabriel, was already commissioned to work for the exhibition when the lockdown started, and sailors used to working away from home, but with clear fixed dates of going home, found themselves stranded far from home as countries locked borders and shut-down flights.

He spent three unexpected months stuck on a cargo ship in a Brazilian harbour unable to leave the ship.

Photos of oil rigs and the industry of energy are rare, usually being sanitised and clean publicity photos of newly built rigs minus the decay caused by the North Sea weather.

To get a glimpse of reality, the photographer, Peter Iain Campbell specifically trained to work on oil rigs and spent months getting work on them, to be able to take photos. There’s also fascinating insight into the working restrictions on oil and gas rigs, as the photographer has to use a manual film camera rather than a digital camera, as any electronic devices need special permits to be brought on board, and it’s a lot of hassle for a camera. Hence, film.

That also resulted in a very wide photograph of a calm North Sea and in the distance a number of oil rigs. A mix of proximity so you’re not alone in the wilderness, but so far away that the comforting sight is a reminder of how alone you are if anything goes wrong.

The exhibition’s photography ranges from wide landscapes to close-ups of people at work, from large canvas to small family-sized photos. Together, these six individual experiences offer a snapshot into the varied ways life is spent at sea.

We rely on our oceans for food, energy and transportation, yet it is a world rarely seen. This is a chance to see the marine life that won’t be appearing in a nature documentary.

The exhibition, Exposure: Lives at Sea, open at the National Maritime Museum until further notice.

The exhibition is free to visit, although as with most venues at the moment, tickets need to be booked in advance here.


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