Living on the water is often an existence at the margins of society. The children living in stilt houses in this port in southern Mindanao, Philippines, are young members of a squatter settlement that is exposed to storm surges and flooding. A powerful typhoon struck the area the year before this photo was taken and washed away thousands of such homes, killing over a thousand persons across the island. Yet, on calm days like this one, the water is the children’s playground and they are spending their days frolicking in it, making somersaults from the "bangka", the small wooden boat laid up on the platform in the center of the photo, and diving for treasures on the sandy bottom, such as the starfish in the picture, or the various plastic items that accumulate there. Sometimes they play by the large passenger "bangkas" at a nearby pier, urging travelers to throw coins in the water for the children to dive for.
Another community living a marginalized existence on the water is the crew working on board the container ship to the right in the photo. While the work of seafarers is central to the world economy with over ninety percent of the world’s traded goods being transported by sea, for many of those who work and live on board, the sea is less a space of connection than it is a giant moat separating them from society ashore. Many sailors go to sea with dreams of freedom and of “seeing the world for free”, but the reality is different. Filipino sailors, who make up around one third of the world’s seafarers, typically have contracts of six to nine months, and during those months they rarely get the chance to step a foot ashore. Ships may be moving links in a global system of mobility, but the faster the goods and the ships move, the more confined the people on board the ships become, and many seafarers speak of their ships as prisons.
In today’s containerized shipping industry, ships spend only a few hours in port, leaving almost no time for crewmembers to go ashore. And while historically ports were often the very heart of cities in shipping circuits, with port areas bustling with life, today container terminals are usually located at the outskirts of cities. Looking out from a ship at berth today, one sees not a bustle of bars and brothels, but a container terminal where the only colorful elements are the rows and stacks of shipping containers. The port itself has become a kind of “non-place”, an intermediary zone, often highly securitized, between ships and shore. Neither the ship’s crew nor the local communities living nearby actually venture into this space, each staying on their respective side of this concrete border landscape. The armed security guard standing on the quay that separates the two worlds illustrates this distance.
Having done research both in coastal settlements and ports in the Philippines, and on board internationally sailing cargo-ships with Filipino seafarers, I know that the step from being a child from a squatter area to becoming a dollar-earning seaman on an international vessel is a big one. But it is possible. Seafarers move worlds in more than one sense. They move the goods of the world. They regularly move between the world of the ship and the world back home. They live on board ships that are themselves moving worlds, entire multicultural communities in perpetual movement across the ocean. Finally, some have moved social worlds from a poor coastal community existence to a high-paying job on an international ship that allows them to send their own children to private school and to provide their families with a home that is safe from storm surges.
This photograph of the sea, the ship, and the two sea dwelling communities is an image of the global and the local. It also illustrates the sea’s ability to both connect and separate, and shows how the sea is a space of recreation and play, as well as of work. Finally, it represents the interplay of mobility and immobility, physical as well as social.
Commentary on Rachel Tanur's Works: French Houseboats