Documentary photographers are able to open these windows into other worlds that few people have access to. It’s something I never get tired of, to explore other worlds.Nina Varumo
Nina Varumo is a freelance portrait and documentary photographer based in Stockholm. A recent project of hers Kvinnor till sjöss (‘Women at sea’) is an ongoing photo series highlighting the working life of female seafarers in order to change the stereotypical image of what and who is a seafarer. Following 12 different women, with the youngest at 22 and the oldest 63, over one year, Nina had unprecedented access to life behind the scenes at sea.
So, what was it that inspired Nina to bring this project to life? She speaks about one of her close friends, Petra Sviberg, who worked on a cruise ship, but would never really share much information about what she did after her shift. “I didn’t know if she hung out with friends, or colleagues, or what she did when she wasn’t working” Nina comments. That feeling of the unknown tapped into Nina’s desire as a documentary photographer to “open up windows into other worlds that few people have access to”.
The years went on and Petra started to work within the maritime union. Having moved into a new apartment she wanted to decorate the worn-out wallpapers with photos of strong women working at sea. However, this imagery was nowhere to be found, instead she saw “pin ups and mermaids, but no actual images of women working. That’s when she called me and said ‘Nina, we’re doing this’”. That is how the women at sea project was born. To drive the project forward Nina set up a working group, with Petra and Cecilia Österman senior lecturer at Kalmar Maritime Academy.
The driving purpose behind this was the shared goal to “show women working at sea, the ones that you don’t see depicted or portrayed. I wanted to show not only those who are captains, but across all aspects, workplaces and areas. Different types of vessels and different ages.”
However, it wasn’t just a case of turning up to a ship and taking some photos, external funding was a big hurdle and one that they were keen to overcome. Not just to get the project off the ground financially, but to legitimise it, as “it was important to say that, as a female initiative, we’re not going to do this for free”. The project obtained SEK 250,000 (£22,000) in funding from the Swedish Mercantile Marine Foundation.
With funding secured and once word got out about the project, it started gathering momentum and people in the industry realised that “there was a gap, but also an opportunity. People really wanted to see this. To be a part of this. To help”. So, with a core group of initial participants, Nina and her team were able to build that out even more via word-of-mouth, recommendations and volunteers. It wasn’t just women in the industry putting themselves forward – it was their family members too. In fact, Nina highlights that “there was this one guy who saw the press release and said, ‘my sister would be great for this!’ It was so nice to see that support”.
Getting this unprecedented access to ships is hard at the best of time, navigating when and where certain vessels are in harbour, scheduling appropriate timings to board and depart, as well as getting permissions to be aboard itself, however an additional and unexpected layer in this story was timing. This project was due to take place for one year from March 2020, right when the COVID pandemic and restrictions were brought in.
“Sometimes I wonder how these photos would have turned out had we not done it in the pandemic. But looking back I also wonder how we didn’t give up when faced with all these obstacles and difficulties. We didn’t. I’m very proud of that.”
After various and regular COVID testing, navigating layers of clearance, and adhering to relevant safety protocols, Nina was finally aboard, and the real work could begin. Very keen to keep the experience and the photographs as natural as possible, with nothing staged Nina “want[ed] to follow them in their environment, I’m essentially just their shadow for a few days”. But in order to get that authenticity, there needs to be trust. Some days Nina found that “you don’t take photos, you just sit and talk” so as to build that trust and really capture life at sea.
Many conversations were simple day-to-day chats, but they would inevitably and naturally lead to insights about personal life and family. One response really resonated with Nina, who highlighted that “we were talking about balancing work and family, and she stated that ‘a question that I always get asked and I am so tired of, is about being a seafarer and having a family - as if they are two things that can’t possibly be combined’”. Being able to spend time aboard a variety of vessels, and seeing women in a range of roles, Nina found that, just as with any industry, there are more flexible arrangements available. Whether that is a more regular 9 to 5 captaining a commuter ferry, or three weeks on/three weeks off aboard a rig, “it’s so much more than work, it’s a lifestyle to be at sea. Women working in unconventional spaces should not be unconventional.”
Ultimately, Nina hopes that these photos show that the industry is “not just a captain with a beard, smoking a pipe, but there are other sides. We must change that perception, to include women, to show what they can do. You can’t be what you can’t see”.
For more information and to see a selection of photographs from the series, click here.
Soon to be exhibited, Nina has given us exclusive access to some of the moments captured.