When dead ships travel
Project 88 is pleased to present Shumon Ahmed’s new series of photographic prints for his debut solo in India, When dead ships travel along with a selection from his earlier acclaimed series, Metal Graves.
Metal Graves (2008-9) shows stripped and eviscerated freighters and tankers rusting on the shores of Baro Aulia (Bangladesh), home to the world’s second biggest ship-breaking industry, in Chittagong district. Some images home in on workers who make the wheels of this industry turn. Others offer vignettes of nature - rippled sand, wave-bitten rocks, crab trails - peppering the terrestrial scene in and around the ships. If the series alternates between the grandly picturesque, the pedestrian, and the reflective, the internal instability of these categories reflects clearly in Ahmed’s technical choices.
In Metal Graves 22, the shadow of a ship’s rails evokes a quality of fleeting observation, which in this case is chemically manufactured. By cross processing positive slide film (Kodak 100 VS) using the C-41 process which is germane to regular negative film, Ahmed surrendered control on what the final image would look like. Seen alone, the image constitutes a facile coincidence; the artist exploited an objective process’s visual unpredictability to express a pre-desired meaning. But in the context of the series, shot on a plethora of cameras (Hasselblad, Diana plastic, and a pinhole camera), a variety of film (Kodak 100 VS, Kodak 400 VC colour film, and Agfa 100 to 400 ISO), using multiple bespoke techniques (cross processing, and normal lab processing, manual push-pull to control exposure for B&W), the image defends its contrivance in a larger record of metal graves.
Ahmed’s works are only accidentally about the ugly side-effects of a post-industrial world in an otherwise still industrializing country. The central point in the series is the visual melancholy - expressed in sepia tonalities, blurred planes, fading corners - that industrial detritus persists in eliciting in the photographer. This crux re-emerges in a new group of Polaroid prints (2015). Almost entirely evacuated of people, the subject matter here narrows exclusively to ship parts framed as inaccessible, defunct, and immovable wrecks. Isolated at the centre of each frame, like dominant protagonists, are hulls, prows, holds, decks, and internal staircases of ships, with their mystery nonetheless preserved by the watery picture plane of the Polaroid frame. When dead ships travel (2015), a new set containing pinhole panoramas, returns the artist to the central icon of the ship, now ghostly and ever more removed from access.