At Sea With Anna Beeke

Intrigued by the fact that cruises were the fastest growing sector of the global tourism industry, LA-based photographer Anna Beeke booked one for herself — the resultant documentary series is ‘At Sea’.

Mention cruise ships and an assortment of clichéd images involuntarily spring to mind; Leo and Rose, Hawaiian Leis, sunsets and elderly couples in matching leisure-wear. “Personally, I had never actually wanted to go on a cruise,” Anna explains during our interview with her. Despite this fact, her series isn’t critical, preferring to take a documentary approach to this floating leisure culture. In ‘At Sea’ the postcard-like crystalline water and white sand beaches are present, but so too are these buoyant ecosystems and the people who inhabit them. We spoke to Anna about her interest in American cruise culture, its impact on nature, and the people who she met on her ocean voyage.

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The series looks at American cruise culture — could you tell us a bit about your interest in this?

I came to this subject in a roundabout way. I had just finished a project about the forest and wanted to make a body of work about another great wilderness: the ocean. Cruise ships came to mind as an easy way access that landscape. Personally, I had never actually wanted to go on a cruise before, but I had always been intrigued by cruise culture and tourism culture in general. I learned that cruising is the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry worldwide, with over half its 20+million annual passengers leaving from American ports, which made me even more intrigued to discover what it was all about and so I shifted the focus of my project specifically to cruise culture. Also ­– after spending several years photographing alone in the woods, where I feel totally at home, it seemed like a good exercise to make pictures in an environment that I don’t necessarily love.

Is the series supposed to be a critique, or is it purely documentary?

Though I just admitted that cruising is not my preferred type of vacation, I don’t intend to be critical with these images. Cruises are a visual feast, and I’m interested in and in awe of most things I see. I try to make images that are strange and humorous without judgment, images that convey a sense of place and capture the carefree feeling of being on board a cruise ship. An underlying theme of a lot of my work is how humankind interacts with nature, and while I do personally worry about the cruise industry’s environmental impact, ‘At Sea’ is more about examining the idea of leisure time as a key component of the American Dream.

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Did you find that your own experience on a cruise altered your desired photographic outcome — was it unexpected, or was it all as you had imagined?

A lot of things were even better than I imagined! As a documentarian, I usually approach projects with a great deal of flexibility because I’ve found that I always land in a more interesting place than intended when I stay open to chance and allow the project to change course if it wants to. I knew I wanted to explore the disparity between the vast commercial enterprises aboard the ships and the natural beauty of the places they ferry us to, and the way the industry, in part, constructs our experiences of nature and culture for us, but I didn’t have too many preconceived notions about what the images would be. It was interesting, however, to be a passenger – to be a participant as well as an observer. People are generally very friendly and approachable, but basically everyone comes with partners, family, or friends, so traveling alone was really a much different experience than I think most folks have on cruises

“I have titled each photograph with the coordinates of its location in order to counter the fantasyland aspect of cruising and ground the images in reality.”

Each of your photos from ‘At Sea’ features a set of coordinates — could you explain the locations of this series?

The actual locations are anywhere from off the coast of New York City to the Bahamas to Mexico. This project originated with an interest in the ocean, but in choosing cruising as my vehicle, the real ocean got lost. On deck, in between ports, with water from here to the horizon in every direction and everything is taken care of for you, the importance of your real location slips away and it’s easy enough at times to forget you are even at sea. I have titled each photograph with the coordinates of its location in order to counter the fantasyland aspect of cruising and ground the images in reality. The coordinates are not only a foil to this fantasy but also an homage to the seafaring life and to the impressive crew working behind the scenes who know the ship’s exact location at all times as they navigate very real natural elements.

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All images © Anna Beeke

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