News & Media

News and Media

News and Media

Around the World in a Year, on Cargo Ships

Nov. 20, 2012

Liv Combe

Allison Swaim '10 at a port in Singapore

The video begins with this image: the golden deck of a cargo ship at night, the sea and sky an inky black in the background. As the stop-motion photography rolls, a deep, accented voice begins to speak.

“There is one Latin saying,” the voice says as the screen and the ship travel from night to day and back again. “Navigare necesse est. It means that you need to sail. You don’t need to live, you can die tomorrow, but you must sail. Because without the sailing there is no trade, there is no merchants, there is no exchange of the money, of the goods, of the culture. There is nothing. You know? But you cannot explain this thing. You must live it.”

Meet Anti, a Croatian sailor. Allison Swaim ’10 recorded their conversation in a seamen’s club in Gothenburg, Sweden — just one of the hundreds of interviews she conducted and one of the dozens of stops she made along her journey, circumnavigating the globe as she collected audio narratives of life on cargo ships.

Swaim embarked on her journey in July 2011. She packed her bags, bringing mostly electronic equipment and few clothes. She flew to Canada, where she boarded her first ship, setting sail eastward into the Great Lakes. It would be more than a year before she set foot back on American soil.


Out of Oberlin

Earlier in 2011, Swaim received a Watson Fellowship, a $25,000 grant for independent study and travel outside the United States. The parameters of the fellowship are surprisingly simple; recipients must “create, execute, and evaluate their own projects,” and they cannot enter back into their home country for one full year. Otherwise, they’re given free reign to let loose their sense of adventure and creativity.

Swaim decided just before the September 2010 deadline to apply for a Watson Fellowship. Her proposed project, Trade Route Stories, incorporated her passion for radio and audio documentary and her interest in transportation.

Swaim discovered radio journalism during her sophomore year, when she spent the month of January working for a community radio station in El Salvador. That fall, she studied radio at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Although she majored in comparative American studies, Swaim spent her last few semesters at Oberlin deeply involved in the Technology in Music and Related Arts (TIMARA) department, even taking an extra semester at Oberlin to pursue a private reading with Assistant Professor of TIMARA Peter Swendsen ’99, who proved to be a friend and mentor for Swaim throughout the Trade Route Stories project.

Swaim spent the beginning of her last semester at Oberlin mulling over what she would like to spend the next year of her life focusing on, eventually settling on the idea of transportation. Swaim’s mind hopped from bikes to buses, buses to trains, and before long she had her plan for riding on cargo ships.

Swaim had already begun making phone calls to shipping companies in Cleveland and other port cities, inquiring into the possibility of getting a spot on a ship, any ship. She managed to finagle her way onto a cargo ship in the Great Lakes, and for nine days that November she sampled her potential yearlong project — taking hours of audio and stop-motion photography aboard a cargo ship. With the material she brought back, Swaim pitched and produced an audio documentary for public radio station WBEZ Chicago; “Big ship diary” aired in the summer of 2011 as a segment of the station’s coverage of the Great Lakes region.


“We Don’t Have Time for Media These Days”

But while her brief foray into the cargo shipping industry was a success, it proved to be much harder finding a ship for the long term.

Swaim recalled that many people in the shipping industry told her, “’There’s no way you’re going to make that happen, that’s not going to work.’ People who knew the industry told me that I didn’t know how it worked, that it would be impossible.”

After being told “we don’t have time for media these days” by one shipping agent, Swaim wrote on her blog, “This is what I’m up against. I’ll find a way… just gotta keep trying a different approach to get my foot in the door.”

This fierce determination in the face of naysaying industry professionals was what impressed Swendsen most about Swaim. “’She was unwavering in the idea that this could happen, and happen in a really positive way,” he says, not just in regard to the logistics of getting on a ship, but also about what would happen — a woman, alone on a ship with a crew full of men — once she made her way on board.

“Even the people who were excited about it were a little … not doubtful, but worried, and a little incredulous,” says Swendsen. “But she, from the very beginning, seemed to have faith that it was going to be fine. And because she was so convinced, I was really convinced too.”


“Ships Run the World”

Unless you’ve worked on a cargo ship, says Swaim — spending weeks and months at a time at sea, away from the comforts of solid ground and your family — it’s hard to imagine what such a world would be like. You might see land every day; but even when you pull into a dock, you don’t have time to get off the boat. Instead, you’re unloading and loading the next haul, unloading and loading. One young crew member Swaim spoke to likened being on a ship to being in “a floating prison.”

When Swaim was planning her journey, she had very little idea of what she was getting herself into. As it turned out, about half her year was spent in a port city somewhere in the world, waiting and working to find another ship to board (this process was significantly helped along by Swaim’s connections in the Women’s International Shipping & Trading Association). Despite the uncertainty of her day-to-day and ship-to-ship, Swaim knew that the story she wanted to tell — about the shipping industry and the people who run it — was important.

According to the International Chamber of Shipping, 90 percent of world trade happens on water. That’s because shipping is a relatively inexpensive and environmentally friendly mode of transporting massive amounts of goods worldwide.

“If ships stopped for just a matter of days, half of the world would starve and half of the world would freeze,” says Swaim. “These vessels are physically responsible for keeping the global economy running. Ships run the world.”

Yet the shipping industry remains largely out of the public eye. Swaim says she was “floored” to learn how much trade happens aboard a cargo ship. “Everybody knows that we buy goods from China, for example. But how do the goods actually get here? I never really stopped to think about it. If you’d asked me, maybe I would have said, ‘On an airplane. I don’t know.’”

The unseen importance of a ship’s role in the global economy was a compelling enough story already, thought Swaim. “Add in the fact that we’re all so dependent on this trade, and it makes it doubly important to tell the story.”


“The Girl With a Microphone Wandering Around”

So with the Watson funds in her pocket, Swaim set off around the world. Her full route included dozens of ports in countries such as Belgium, Sweden, Spain, Greece, Egypt, China, and South Korea. She passed through the Suez Canal, the Panama Canal, and the pirate-infested waters of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Somalia. Despite the adventure, Swaim couldn’t shake a feeling of frustration that she just wasn’t doing everything right in her reporting.

“Even though I think it’s such an important story to tell and I was trying so hard to tell it, I kept feeling like I hadn’t gotten enough material or I hadn’t done the right interview. That I missed it, somehow,” says Swaim. “And I kept kicking myself. There were definitely a lot of times when I was very unsure about what I was supposed to be doing or what the point was that I was trying to make.”

But as soon as the crew got used to “the girl with a microphone wandering around,” Swaim found that they began to open up to her, and even enjoyed having a new face on board to talk to. When she would explain the purpose of her presence on the ship — “how I thought their life was so interesting and why I thought people should know about it” — the crew showed genuine gratitude.

“People were kind of amazed, thankful, and appreciative that I thought their job was important,” says Swaim. “And having people express that they were grateful that I wanted to tell their story really helped me feel better about what I was doing.”

She was able to record dozens of interviews and talk with hundreds of members of the shipping industry over the course of her travels. From the experience, she was especially taken with one observation: the sheer size of the global migrant workforce. “I started looking at how the economy moves goods,” says Swaim, “and I ended up being struck by how the economy moves people.”

“They do it not because they love the water, or because it’s romantic, or fun. It’s not. People trade time for money, and it’s a huge trade-off. Sometimes the older guys would talk about — I don’t know if it’s with regret, necessarily — how their children have grown up and they barely even know them. But the reason they’re out there on the water is so they can put their child through college and help them have a better life.”


“Such a Rich Place To Be”

Since touching back down in North Carolina this past July, Swaim has been applying for grants, attending radio conferences, and beginning the process of reliving the year she just spent abroad, .jpg by .jpg, recording by recording. Even though the amount of work in front of Swaim may be daunting, it’s also incredibly exciting.

“She has days and days worth of stuff recorded,” says Swendsen. “So even just the process of sitting down and cataloging it is really intense and, in a lot of ways, tedious, because you’re having to relive, say, a two-hour time frame when maybe four minutes were interesting.”

Come January, Swaim will have the help of a few artistically minded Oberlin students, who for their winter-term project will take part in Swaim’s “transmedia documentary residency.” The students will work with Swaim’s material, developing it into their own multimedia work, be it sound composition, video, writing, or installation pieces. The winter-term project will culminate in a group exhibit at the beginning of the spring semester. Any students interested in participating can e-mail by Nov. 21.

“I think she’s in such a great place because she can see the development she’s gone through,” says Swendsen. “This yearlong exercise in gathering and shaping material has really started to show her where her voice is creatively in terms of storytelling, where to place herself in that narrative. But she also has lots of questions and lots of things she wants to explore, and that’s just such a rich place to be.”

While she works, Swaim hopes to be able to find somewhere to stay put for a while. “I haven’t been in the same place for more than a couple weeks for almost a year and a half at this point,” she says. “I’m still in traveler mode now. Packing up my bag is like breathing. It’s not hard, and it’s not exactly wearing on me, but I’m really, really ready to get all the sustenance I can get from staying in one place for a while.”

So no chance she’ll be getting on another ship anytime soon?

“We’ll see,” says Swaim. “I need some time.”

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