Tag Archives: cruise jobs

Molde Fjord – almost a day off

25 May Drizzle and trees in Molde Fjord, Norway

Today we were supposed to suffer our weekly emergency drill, but our masters eliminated that idea over night. Luckily, I did not rely on the drill to wake me up, and went for a late breakfast instead, which is now followed directly by six hours of spare time in Molde. My ten-hour work day will be spent exclusively in the Photo Gallery, so I won’t have to retain any energy or conscience for work tonight. This is as close to a day off as I will ever get aboard this vessel, so instead of morning about my lost time I will share some positive thoughts, and explain why I am keeping the job as photographer with ABC Cruises, at least for the moment.

Photo Gallery aboard the ABC RypMeOff

I’m starting to hate the Photo Gallery. It’s still better than begging for photos, though.

Cruise photography involves a lot of hassle. The work hours are long and stressful, the majority of my coworkers are cranky sociopaths, our managers are delusional slavers, and the food is of such questionable quality that not even seagulls dare circle our vessel. Had I known of the perils involved, I may not have taken this job. I knew that the work hours would be long, but I was not informed that my coworkers were a group of uncoordinated self-centered knit-wits, and that professionalism is as much a conundrum to them as are most other words in the English language. But now I am here, and since I spent some $1500 to acquire the certificates required to serve on a cruise ship, I am eager to stay, at least until the hassle pays off.

Remaining aboard is a challenge for body and soul, so I have to channel positive energy to survive this adventure. The most obvious advantage about joining this cruise business is the availability of beautiful port towns. Our passengers pay at least €900 to go on this two-week trip around Norway, while the crew gets the whole tour for free. Today clouds of rain cover the sky, so our tourist visit to Molde Fjord is tarnished by wet clothes and cold fingers. (It still is early spring in Norway.) Still, the lush evergreen forest, the misty mountain sides, and the view of huge ragged rocks in the long and quiet fjord are more beautiful than any sight of the Central European mainland. Beyond the last line of houses I follow a trail that leads into the woods, and already twenty metres along the path I am surrounded by nothing but greenery, and the sweet drizzle of falling water, intermixed with the occasional bird calling from the tops of majestic trees.

Drizzle and trees in Molde Fjord, Norway

During my first visit to Molde it drizzled all day long. The view was still worth the hike and the cold.

The woods beyond the town of Molde are not just a welcome change from the hectic turmoil aboard the ABC RypMeOff. These forests resonate with a silent magic that fills me with a new will to live, and to succeed on this trip through the gruesome depths of human greed. So I drink in the feelings of wilderness and solitude that I so dearly miss aboard, and I fill myself with that earthen connectivity that vibes through the tree tops like the literal band of May.

In a day or two I will be standing in the bowels of the cruise ship, begging passengers to take a photo that they will never view or purchase. And in the half-hour breaks between restaurant times and theatre shows, when I stand alone in a grey hallway, waiting for my manager to peak around the corner, and check up on me, then, instead of questioning my existence I will look back on this image of a lush green forest. No matter how boring and monotonous my work nights will be, I can always flee to the knowledge that these woods will remain, and will await me on my next cruise. The entire summer will be filled with cruises around Norway and Scotland, enabling me to visit a place like this every week.

This Northern paradise is not something I expected to find, particularly not after the stress-burdened job that I fulfill every day. Thus, I will hold it particularly dear, knowing that these woods will remain for generations to come, and will be here to be enjoyed, for the simple price of me clinging on to my job.

If you would like to envision the same misty Molde, click here to view my photo gallery.

The native language bias

24 May Botanical garden in Tromso, Norway

It’s another one of those sea days, with eleven hours of work lying ahead. I am lucky to start my work at half past noon, leaving the morning to ponder on the meaning of my existence. As an added bonus I wake up just before 9 o’clock, thus having enough time to rush into the Staff Mess, and bag a few bread rolls for breakfast. I do try to return to sleep, but after an hour of rolling around I decide to just pack my laptop and head for the crew bar. Staying in the cabin is out of question, because my cabin mate will start his first shift when I do, and he attempts to sleep until ten minutes before work begins.

Crew Bar aboard the ABC RypMeOff

The Crew Bar aboard the ABC RypMeOff is a desolate place. At least there are two TVs, tuned to different channels, mounted on opposing walls.

The crew bar lies nearly desolate in the mists of late morning. Three figures lumber their way through the depths of the internet-ready computers, shrouded in the fog of late alcohol and early work. They are accompanied by the catatonic babble of an Italian morning TV show. Since nobody is actually watching I manage to reduce the volume of the TV to a manageable level. After about ten minutes the three zombie waiters leave the bar, and I turn the telly off. Now that is a great start!

Apparently yesterday some terrorist exploded at a concert in Manchester, and I realize once more how far removed I am from the happenings of the outside world. It is rather difficult to follow even the most poignant global news, if every TV on the ship is tuned into Italian or Portuguese channels, your cabin mate sleeps all day, and every second of internet usage costs you money that you barely have. And so, instead of chasing after the latest global gossip, I continue writing my blog, because I generally have precious little time to do so.

The Plaza aboard the ABC RypMeOff

A cruise ship is a lonely place, if you have nobody to talk to.

The crew on this ship originates from a few dozen countries, and although the official language aboard the ABC RypMeOff is English, most people continue to talk in foreign tongues. From my Eastern European colleagues, to the Brazilian bar tenders, Filipino laundry personnel, and Italian officers – at least half of the crew prefers speaking in their first language. That starts with watching Brazilian news for breakfast, continues through the conversations at work, and ends in the nightly gym visit, where the TV exclusively plays Portuguese summer hits, and the occasional music video from the 80s Pop charts.

Unsurprisingly, English skills are dearly lacking from most of the personnel aboard. Not a day goes by without me having to resort to charades and spelling competitions in order to communicate to one of the working hands I depend on. It is frustrating and time-consuming to labour through anyone’s bad language skills, but it is particularly annoying when I see that person turning to his colleague and discussing my problems in Farsi, and after several minutes condensing the entire conversation to the words “Is OK”. Maybe if you didn’t spend your entire work day talking in your mother tongue, you would actually be able to communicate with me directly!

Vigo, Spain, a view of one of the many narrow back alleys

Even the shop personnel in the cities we visit usually speaks better English than much of the crew aboard the ABC RypMeOff.

I know that my English is better than that of some of our Bristish guests, and I understand that not everybody gets the opportunity to study at a Canadian university, especially if they are straining for a career in mopping floors. But the blatant unwillingness of this crew to assimilate even the smallest specks of English is really taking the piss. Barely any of the officers speak English well enough to hold a conversation, and the lower-ranking crew members fail accordingly in their own feeble attempts to communicate. Since every department predominantly hires new personnel from their own home country, the situation has no internal drive to improve. Most Photo Managers are Rumanian, and almost only Rumanian photographers appear to ever make it into the management program. There is no way of changing this country-based recruitment bias without making vast changes to the cruise company itself, so it is not likely to ever happen.

However, ABC Cruises could take at least one simple step towards improving the language skills of all crew: remove non-English TV. By allowing the kitchen personnel to chose Portuguese breakfast TV for the Staff Mess you exclude everyone else who eats there from understanding the program. Yes, it would be beneficial for me to improve my Portuguese language skills, but the need for that is far smaller than that of all other staff to learn proper English. Crew should not have to learn Italian to communicate with their officers, Rumanian to advance in the Photo Department, and Farsi to get their laundry done. First and foremost we should all be able to form complete sentences in English. That can only be achieved by challenging everyone to speak that one language, and by removing the needless use of all others. And the simplest way to do that is by eliminating non-English TV channels from the menu.

The people I share this boat with have stopped asking whether my cruise experience differs from what I expected. Maybe that’s because they know that with every day the broken expectations keep accumulating. I have to get up before nine o’clock to avail myself of breakfast. I have to pack up my equipment, and arrange it in the crew bar, in order to be able to write. I have to battle Italians and Brazilians for access to English TV and/or silence. This is definitely not what I expected. And that’s not even counting the terrible management, the less than average food, and my blatantly profit-oriented job description.

Maybe I will learn some Spanish curse words, just to properly complain about the food aboard.

Tromso, and the greed in cruise photography

23 May Botanical garden in Tromso, Norway

The Norwegian town of Tromso has a beautiful botanical garden, which is just starting to bloom. Mind you, we have reached the end of May, making it a bit weird to see flowers erupting that, over in Central Europe, already lost their last petals six weeks ago. The garden must be quite a sight once all the snow has retreated, so I am already looking forward to our return to Tromso, which is scheduled for early June.

I was actually supposed to spend the first three port hours on the gangway, dressed up in some ridiculous templar costume, and posing for photos with our cruise passengers. Fortunately, the port of Tromso was engulfed in light drizzle and wind, so our manager decided to cancel that shooting. Sometimes the photo manager almost appears humane in nature. Then you recall that eight hours ago he called you and all of your team mates “a shame for photography”, and you decide to wipe him from your memory, and discover Tromso instead.

Tromso, Norway. A port view.

Tromso in early spring is still cold, but already pretty.

In the botanical garden I met a German couple who recognized me as one of the cruise photographers aboard the ABC RypMeOff. First the man and I nerded out about the rock outcrops and the geological exhibition just uphill from the botanical garden. But within three minutes the conversation steered unstoppably towards my position as cruise photographer, and the perils that the job entails. It is the very first cruise for this couple, and even though they only have been aboard for four days, they have long since realized that the photo department is more focused on selling pictures than on providing any kind of service. And when they realized that the Photo Gallery was solely focused on making money, they immediately zipped up their wallet.

So, the secret is out. Cruise Photography is a business, just like anything else aboard. Our passengers refuse to become costumers, because they feel the greed that blatantly surrounds every photographer aboard this vessel. And I mean EVERY photographer, including myself. Before the start of this particular cruise our fleet supervisor personally instructed us to push for great numbers, both in photos taken, and in merchandise sold. “These passengers have paid up to €5000 for this two-week Norway cruise. They have the money, so let’s find a way to take it from them.” That instruction leaves little ambiguity as to what the primary objective of this department actually is. We are to create revenue, and drain every last dollar from those pesky passengers.

Botanical garden in Tromso, Norway

In May the botanical garden in Tromso is still a hodgepodge of rocks and shrubbery.

It is only fitting that our manager starts our work day with a training session, in which he explains the company philosophies. The official training slides of ABC Cruises proclaim that the “external guest comes to enjoy himself, and spend money”. The added commentary of our fleet supervisor leaves little ambiguity as to which of those two passenger goals we should assist with.

When I signed up for this job I knew that my position was part of a business plan. Every company makes money by selling a product, and I am happy to assist with that effort, as long as all parties agree willingly to the deal at hand. However, photographers with ABC Cruises are pushed to sell, not to assist, which puts the complicity of our costumers into question. Greed is the primary value that drives this company, and German tourists appear to be allergic to it, which explains the disaster of the North Cape excursions. You can’t fool the Germans. And you can’t convince me to try.

 

For a gallery of cold Tromso, click here.

North Cape Photo Excursion

22 May North Cape near Honningsvag, Norway

I have been to the North Cape, and back. For free, because I work here. Like most of the previous stops along this journey as photographer for ABC Cruises the Nordkap excursion was an interesting experience, in more than one way.

The North Cape adventure itself is already a swirling enterprise. Whoever came up with the business plan for that tourist trap deserves a medal. The set up literally consists of a big building with three restaurants and an atrium, standing on an otherwise deserted cliff along the Northernmost coast of Norway. Outside of the building are a few concrete pillars and a globe monument. Apart from the rocky cliffs and the vast ocean beyond there is absolutely nothing to see there, and those few features are available to the same extent, and with better weather in any other town along Norway’s coast. And still, people pay actual money to hop on a bus, and spend ninety minutes at the North Cape, up to $100 each.

Globe Monument at the North Cape, Norway

The Globe Monument at the North Cape doesn’t look like much. Still it draws in thousands of tourists evey day.

Obviously, I was only allowed aboard the excursion so I could take photos of the unwilling passengers. The result was somewhat underwhelming, as I produced approximately five shots at the first stop, and forty at the second. And that is already counting the photos where people just looked vaguely in my direction.

The first stop was a Sami village, where about two hundred tourists were struggling to take a photo of a Sami aboriginal, and his valiant reindeer. Last night we had a preparation meeting in which our manager advised us in our approach on the Sami shooting. “On first stop, you will see this Babalu. [Babalu is his general term for any male humanoid.] You can take one hundred, two hundred pictures easy.” Instead of the targeted 100 photos I shot five, which really puts me behind on the numbers. We were given ten minutes total at that stop, and I was simply unable to organize the crowd in that time frame. Given the high expectations of our manager, and my complete inability to come anywhere near them, this first stop put me in a lot of distress.

More sparkling was the second stop, the actual North Cape, and associated Globe Monument. Again, every tourist wanted to have their picture taken at the globe, which is a great set-up for me as a photographer. However, nobody wanted to have their photo taken by me, which is rather problematic for the official ABC Photographer.

North Cape near Honningsvag, Norway

The North Cape offers a great view on ocean and rock, but there really isn’t much else, even in late May.

It is no secret that passengers who have been on more than ten cruises with this company are quite annoyed by the omnipresent photographers. Now it seems that they have found an unsubtle way to fight back, and annoy us in turn. They all gathered around that Globe Monument, smiling in three or four directions, handing their own portable cameras to other passengers, and asking them to shoot. In due time every one of those five hundred tourists that were milling around the monument got their picture taken, and very few of them smiled into my camera. Out of the forty-odd photos that I shot merely one quarter belongs to people that actually wanted to be shot by me. All the other pictures come from people who accidentally looked in my direction. I only shot those out of necessity – the lower my numbers are, the greater my trouble with our delusional manager will be.

At least part of this set-up is born from blatant hatred against the photographers. And who would blame them for it? Why would anyone pay $20 for a single photo, when the only exciting aspect of it is a three-meter tall steel globe? That question only loses in subtlety when you realize that the latest generation of smart phones has photo qualities that are barely distinguishable from our professional SLR efforts, at least not for the average tourists. And thus, our cruise passengers have made it a sport to either stand in our way, or at the very least show us how very superfluous and irrelevant our job has become.

It is rather fitting that the first excursion that I was allowed to join was one to the North Cape. I doubt that any other place along this cruise will be more of a tourist trap than the steel globe on frozen rock. I only had about ten minutes to myself on this trip, for the remaining time I was under constant stress to perform. In those ten minutes I still managed to exhaust all the photo opportunities on that barren rock, so there is no reason for me to return there. And my low performance might just convince our manager to never send me on any photo mission again.

Click here to infuse yourself with some photos of beautiful Honningsvag.

The job of a Cruise Photographer

21 May The Plaza aboard the ABC RypMeOff

It’s another sea day! [Sarcastic Yay!] Once again our cruise ship wobbles across the featureless North Sea, while we poor photographers try to create revenue by selling old photos and shooting new ones. However, that’s not to say we would suffer from boredom. Not only is our department graced by the visit of the fleet supervisor, but our schedule is also designed in a way that minimises our rest time without exceeding the daily work limit of eleven hours.

Vegan breakfast for cruise crew

A hearty breakfast is a great way to start the day. Unfortunately, I rarely get one.

My day starts three hours before my first shift with a “training session” with the crew purser. He is supposed to hand me my ABC credit card, so that ABC Cruises can start paying my salary. In a slight plot twist the purser does not actually hand me the merchandise, but instead asks me to select one out of three dates on which he will host the training. A quick visit in the afternoon would have sufficed for that interaction. But at least I am awake now, so instead of wasting my morning on sleep, I can roll around on my mattress, and occasionally drowse off into a light slumber, only interrupted by my bunk mates’ snoring and episodic messaging on his phone.

Similarly, the one hour break that follows my afternoon shift does not quite suffice to achieve any feeling of rest in me. And thus, after being awake for eight hours I am nearly exhausted enough to perform at my best when we start shooting cruise guests in the restaurant. Luckily, the guests don’t like us anyway, because they want to have a quiet meal instead of posing for pictures. Thus, my general tiredness has little effect on the outcome of my shooting efforts.

Goemon5 aboard the ABC RypMeOff

This is approximately the minimum photo quality that we try to achieve. It’s hard to do when you’re exhausted.

Advertisement for cruise jobs usually states that you have to be flexible and hard working to succeed in the job, and considering that I have two university degrees I would like to think that I fulfill those requirements. But after six hours of uneasy sleep and eight hours of wake time in the sterile belly of a ship, I am not able to achieve seven hours of peak performance. This would be alright, if I was tending a bar, or waitressing a restaurant table, because general service personnel only has to smile, and perform their duties. Cruise photographers, on the other hand, have to be creative, interact with the guests, and entertain the visitors while simultaneously representing company philosophies. Everyone else on this ship either has a set task to perform, or a predefined product to sell. Cruise photographers have neither; we must create our own product, together with its future consumer.

According to our training it is our job to “create memories”, a task made more difficult by the fact that we create those memories in order to sell them, and our costumers know that. After experiencing ten cruises with the same company the guests understand that the photographers are not aboard to entertain them, but to shoot their portraits, and then sell them their own face on photo paper. Surprisingly enough they don’t want that anymore. And while there are psychological arm twisters that help in convincing the guests to comply with our task, I am too tired to successfully apply that psychology after staring at empty walls, and chewing on salty bread rolls for eight hours.

The Plaza aboard the ABC RypMeOff

Even guests get tired of this view after two weeks aboard.

Yesterday was the Golden Wedding Jubilee of my parents. I didn’t even remember that circumstance before dinner, but I congratulated them just before midnight, so I am well in the time limit. My sister and I prepared a digital poster for our parents, commemorating the years since their wedding. Unfortunately, they won’t receive that gift before I return from my cruise job, because the internet connection aboard is so bad that I can’t even send a 5 MB attachment. And yes, I have been trying for over a week. It is emblematic for my issue with ABC Cruises that every individual crew member is held to high standards, while the sub-standard management is incapable of tending to individual problems. If you don’t live for your job, you have no place aboard this vessel. In other words, you either enjoy to be permanently exhausted, or you love to be underperforming.

I am fine with feeling sleepy, but I also wonder if this ship really is a good environment for that. Right now I could sit in my back yard, and munch on fresh strawberries. Instead I am forced to deal with the unrealistic expectations of a company that seems fixed on maximising my wake time. My payment better be what I was promised, or I won’t have enough reason to stay for the whole seven-month contract.

Alesund, and the power of friends

20 May Alesund, one of Norway's card fjord towns

Tonight I will roam the Photo Gallery again. I spend two out of three days in the gallery, whereas most of the other photographers only get that duty about once or twice a week. While the rest of the team has to stand in their studios and lure in passengers, I merely have to wander around, assist costumers, and apprehend thieves. Yes, thieves! The photos that we take in our department are genuinely great, but also expensive, so many guests try to steal the paper prints from the gallery, or at least snap a picture of their picture on a smart phone. Every one who succeeds in his criminal activity costs us revenue, so my job of Gallery Watch really is one of importance.

Photo Gallery aboard the ABC RypMeOff

The Photo Gallery is normally full of passenger portraits, and a few passengers trying to take pictures.

Still, gallery duty is not nearly as exhausting as shooting portraits, so my coworkers start to dislike the fact that I spend considerably more time in the gallery than they do. Already I expend little time socialising my colleagues, mostly limited to the meals and the occasional chat in the hallway, while we are collectively waiting for the daily debriefing with our manager. The only real spare time I have happens in the morning, at a time when they are asleep.

My coworkers finish every work day by smoking cigarettes, and drinking cheep beer in the Crew Disco. There are various reasons why I never join them there; my need for sleep and my inability to breathe in that smoker’s den being the most prominent ones. According to my photographer friend Mateja I am expected to show up there at least once or twice a week, and people have started to spin rumours about potential reasons for my absence. But I am not a disgruntled teenager – I genuinely can’t be bothered to care what my coworkers think of me. Having a smoking parlour in my bathroom is bad enough for my health and attitude. I really don’t need to visit another one; thank you very much. If my colleagues would value my company, they would congregate in a non-smoking part of the ship, or join me in my port visits, as Mateja does. But they only care about their nightly smoking party, a hobby that I do not share, and therefore do not participate in.

My shared non-smoking toilet aboard the cruise ship

My shared bathroom still looks like this, so I still don’t want to increase my time of passive smoking.

Since it appears to be impossible for me to become friends with the majority of my colleagues (not without massively devaluing myself), I have formed social bonds with other crew members. For example, almost every morning I meet the German entertainment couple at breakfast. They play dance music in one of the bars until 1 A.M., so they get to bed around the same time as I do. They both smoke, but barely ever visit the Crew Disco, because getting to bed late means missing day light. And oddly enough they both value the sight of Norway’s scenery higher than a puff among sociopaths.

Until now this cruise adventure has featured short days and drudgingly long work nights. But my job as cruise photographer is markedly gaining value now that we start to visit the postcard section of Norway. And the acquisition of actual friends among the crew makes my work more bearable. After work I regularly visit the late night section of the crew mess. Not because I long for piles of French Fries, but because talking to real people helps me calm down after spending seven hours in the company of problem children.

Anyway, my new German musician friends sent me on a quest for Alesund’s peak. Like many other Norwegian tourist towns Alesund is situated in a fjord, so the view from the ship is already worth the trip. I was advised to hike the stairwell to the greatest cliff on that peninsula, and in retrospect I agree that the view was worth missing lunch at the cruise buffet. For me as a geologist the view adds a particular educational bonus, because I get to reminisce on the processes that formed these mountains, and the abrasive workings of glaciers that grinded them down. But even without that knowledge Alesund looks gorgeous from above. To view my gallery of inspirational Alesund photos click here.

Alesund, one of Norway's card fjord towns

Alesund, one of Norway’s post card fjord towns

I do not share many common interests with my cruise friends. However, we have enough overlap to support each other on stressful days, and point out interesting hiking paths or food opportunities. I guess the point of my ramble is this: if you feel stuck at work, get a friend. It doesn’t have to be someone who shares your office. Just a few encouraging words every day will go a long way to preserve your outer calm, and pave the way for a scenic future.

Breaking the cruise rules

19 May yellow fields in Invergordon, Scotland

“No-one is allowed to carry food or drink in hallways.” That message is posted every ten metres along the crew corridors, and is reinforced by our manager at least once a week. However, it creates a mysterious conundrum: if neither food nor drink are allowed to be carried through the hallways, how do they ever reach the cabin?

yellow fields in Invergordon, Scotland

One of my friends once bought a bread in port, and was not allowed to take it aboard. He stood in front of security, and ate the entire bread in one go.

The only acceptable way of transporting beverages and food items aboard the ABC RypMeOff is in sealed bottles and other containers. Said containers are to be carried in closed bags, which is why half of the crew constantly has a paper dangling from their arm, if they are moving between shifts. Those are the rules aboard our swimming hotel. So, whatever, let’s just pretend we are all too incompetent to carry a bottle of water without spilling its content over our guests.

Similarly, food is only allowed to exist in your cabin, if it is sealed. The masters mean “sealed by its maker”, so once you open a package of biscuits, you better finish them all. That would put all the weightwatchers aboard into deep trouble, if the cruise meals were not making them fat and unhappy already.

Fruits and vegetables are not allowed to visit our cabins at all. Again, those are the rules of society. Because some people keep mouldy peaches until fruit flies darken the sky, the rest of us are not allowed to store fruits at all. Every day I feel a bit more constrained by the plethora of rules aboard this vessel. A frustrating majority of those regulations are attempts to overcompensate for sleights of previous crew members. Filipinos and Asians in particular used to brew hot curry in their cabin, and toss the leftovers under the bunk bed. And because they had no concept of hygiene we now have to suffer that silly no-food rule, regardless of how inedible some of the mess food actually is.

Breakfast buffet for cruise crew

We wouldn’t need to bunker food, if the meals in the mess were tasty or healthy. Unfortunately they are neither.

Today the company added a novelty item to our lunch buffet in the Staff Mess: the green banana. Now, everyone knows that the perfectly ripe banana is brown like the average inmate of a US prison. But since such degree of ripeness requires the investment of time, and since ABC Cruises rarely spends any of that on its crew, I don’t expect to find ripe bananas aboard this vessel. But these green sticks are really taking the piss. I saw one of the crew members trying their teeth on it, and after initial struggle over the tough peel, and resentment over the stale-tasting interior he actually managed to consume it with a straight face. His taste buds have probably been sufficiently dulled by the amply supplied green apples that the company graced us with in these past weeks.

Once more I am happy that my dress pants have relatively deep pockets, which allows me to store two green bananas on the left, and a few bread roles on the right. Nobody else really seems to care about the ABC Code of Law, so I don’t see why I should. Back in my cabin the bananas go into the cupboard, where they will fester for a week. Room inspections are usually announced one week in advance, so in case of an emergency I would have enough warning to hide the green sticks somewhere in the common area. And thus I eat bread, and catch up on my writing. Yes, in my cabin. Take that, ABC Cruises!

CRUISE – Handling stress in coworkers

18 May

We are in Hamburg, and you know what that means: we shoot embarkation photos. Lolek, and Bolek, and me. And Henry, if he can be asked to stop rambling, and start contributing. By now you know what scheme the events will follow: I get shooed around the canvas, and due to being held to impossible standards I get verbally abused every half hour. That’s life as a rookie photographer. It’s no longer news, so instead of continuing to whine I will discuss my thoughts on work stress and human intervention.

Hamburg town hall

This is my third port day in Hamburg, but once again no photographer has time to leave the cruise ship.

Embarkation shootings follow a very repetitive scheme. The incoming passengers line up, we ask them to pose for a photo in front of a canvas, we shoot, and the crowd slowly moves on. I am supposed to “crowd control” the passengers, i.e. keep them in line, and push them in front of the canvas. And whatever I do, my Macedonian colleagues usually perceive it as wrong, because approximately every ninety passengers we get a rude Italian couple that just stalks right through the photo studio, dragging at least a dozen other passengers behind them. And although that happens to every photographer who “crowd-controls”, it only is worthy of comment when I do it. And even when my “team mates” make me switch positions with them, the problem remains: whatever I do is wrong, even if I do the same as everyone else.

This type of harassment of coworkers fits snugly into the definition of “bullying”. If this happened in any regular office job, you would go to your boss, and ask for an open discussion with your colleagues. Unfortunately, that option is off the table, because our boss is a lunatic. We all avoid talking to Manager Mihai, because we rarely receive answers that are less than offensive. Constructive criticism is not part of his repertoire, so asking him to mitigate a dispute is like asking a ferret to pick a chicken.

Cruise Photography during embarkation

Cruise Photography: embarkation shootings usually get two teams of photographers, because picturing 4000 passengers takes a lot of time.

Option #2 is this: I talk to my coworkers, and ask them to extend their criticism to other photographers, or stop picking on me. In order to do so I would need to pull them aside for an hour, which I cannot find the time for. In the morning I get up early, while they stay asleep. (Yes, even on port days.) During work hours they are totally stressed out, and the manager forbids us to speak to each other anyway. The meal breaks are about thirty minutes long, which is enough time for everyone to gobble up some pasta with ill-defined meat bits, and type a few messages on their not-so-smart phones. After work I am tired enough to fall asleep, while my coworkers go to party in the smoker’s den. Since that place is loud and smelly it does not appeal to me as a place for an honest discussion of work ethics.

And before you inquire about free time – we don’t have much of that. Nine to ten work hours a day (plus two hours preparation and clean-up) leave little time to spare. On port days I go outside to conjure up motivation for the job; on sea days I launder clothes and try to catch up on sleep. That is literally the life of a cruise photographer – work, and eat, and sleep. No wonder everyone is so stressed out all the time! Maybe by the end of my contract I will also become a verbally aggressive workaholic. I think I’d rather quit the job, though.

It is difficult to understand what makes their positions so stress-inducing. After all, I have to fulfill nearly the same tasks that my coworkers do; and despite having fewer years of experience I approach my work with the same professional attitude as they do. My coworkers just take this whole situation way more serious. On embarkation days in particular they are very vigorous, and utilize a wide variety of gestures and multilingual phrases to pose unwilling passengers in front of the photo canvas. They spend a great deal of energy on maximising their performance, and at least half of them require energy drinks AND a pint of coffee to push through the embarkation shooting. In turn, they expect me to also jump about like a crazed frog, and are massively disappointed when I refuse to do so. My coworkers are constantly on the edge; they think I am underperforming, and therefore try to push me towards being more Rodeo Clown, and less professional photographer. Since none of us really has time to think while at work, they can’t develop a comprehensive concept of how to teach me their way of “cruise photography”. And so they just build up anger, and release it in episodic bursts.

Goemon5 aboard the ABC RypMeOff

Maybe people with more facial hair are just more relaxed. Most of my male coworkers are pretty rancid, though.

One of my best friends aboard is Mateja, a young Lithuanian photographer who started her first photo contract just three days before me. The same hostility that makes my job so difficult is also extended towards her, and every other day we have a brief talk between breaks regarding these issues. Mateja is a wonderfully energetic photographer, and you can just see the passengers brightening up in her presence. But barely a day passes on which she doesn’t complain to me about being bullied. Every other day I have to reassure her that this job is worth keeping, that her coworkers are not being particularly mean, and that they are not targeting her directly. The stress level of our “team members” is just so high that they cannot be argued or reasoned with as long as they remain on the cruise ship.

In my experience it won’t be possible to maintain that kind of mental exertion over weeks or months. So Mateja and I intend to sit it out, ignore the unintended harassment, and stay strong for ourselves. We both had to spend valuable resources to gain this position, and we won’t let those ignorant egomaniacs destroy our efforts. Neither of us is willing to become a photo bully, so instead of socialising with our coworkers in a dusty smoker’s bar, we sleep one hour longer, and channel positive energies for the next day.

I cannot see a way to calm down our coworkers, so instead of submerging myself in pointless argumentation I will continue to ignore them. Short-term it may anger them more, realizing that I am not actually listening when they try to “teach” me. But in the long run they should be able to see beyond my mistakes, and focus on a more organised approach to their own jobs, and the world around it.

CRUISE – Rules are enforced, or obsolete

17 May The Plaza aboard the ABC RypMeOff

It is “$$ALE$$ DAY”! (Don’t blame me – that title is actually written on our daily schedule.) Today ends another cruise. Technically it ends tomorrow, but this is the last day we see most of our current passengers, before they all disembark tomorrow morning, and immediately get replaced by a new load of Italians, Germans, Spanish, and other cruise veterans. So, today we try to sell whatever is not glued to the walls of the Photo Gallery, in the vain hope that it will please the masters, and grant us a pay bonus. I am awfully content with my position as makeshift counter clerk, considering that the whole consumer mentality of this cruise business goes against everything I believe in. It’s just part of the job, and I always try to excel at my duties. That’s just German, I guess. My actual troubles are of a more human nature.

Goemon5 aboard the ABC RypMeOff

The job and attire give me the look of a car salesman.

My ignorant cabin mate, (my “buddy”, as he is referred to by ABC regulations) has purchased a new torture instrument – the vaporizer. For the past few days he has been entertaining me not only with his rancid cigarette smell in the bathroom, but also with the stench from his small electronic pipe. Last night he went farther than usual, happily vaporizing away in his bed. Since I sleep on the upper bench, and the elemental laws of physics cannot be ignored even on cruise ships, I was nicely enveloped in his grand puff, kept awake by a sour-bitter smell of burning herbs. Knowing that an immediate complaint would not eliminate the cloud of nicotine vapour, I took a long walk around the crew corridors, taking deep breaths, and looking for a decent bathroom.

The contract of my cabin mate Pancho terminates in two weeks, at the end of this very cruise to Norway. In the recent past I have kept telling myself “only two more weeks”, just to prevent myself from strangling Pancho in his smallclothes. However, this time he has gone too far, and I can no longer avoid talking to him. Although my store duties don’t require much intellect, it is genuinely advantageous to sleep for more than four hours every night. It doesn’t help that my hours of slumber are kept short by a “buddy” who snores more often than not, smokes in my bathroom, and now also stinks up my bed.

When I confront him with the effects of his deeds he seems genuinely surprised. I don’t even doubt that reaction. He appears to be the kind of person who is startled by simple occurrences, such as smoke rising, or apples falling. Pancho is not an idiot, but he often is wrapped up in his own world of misconceptions and dreams. In many ways he represents the perfect crew member of ABC Cruises – he does not complain publicly, performs his task with invisible reluctance, and spends a good part of his salary on snacks and liquor aboard the cruise ship, guaranteeing that at least part of his pay remains in the family.

My shared non-smoking toilet aboard the cruise ship

The toilet in our shared smoking parlour (bathroom) usually smelled the way it looked.

On the other hand regular rules are meaningless to Pancho. Crew members have always been smoking in the bathrooms, and the Security personnel has always been complicit in this. The issue is not likely to be resolved by me, because it is far greater than I am. Before taking new crew aboard ABC Cruises sends out a 20-page rule book, which provides a guidance for what life aboard should look like. It provides a virtual safety net for new crew members, as it lays out all the rules that the crew must abide by. However, what the book does not tell you is that “some rules can be bent; others can be broken”. For example, security personnel smoke in their cabin, even though smoking aboard is prohibited anywhere but in the disco or the casino. This disconnection between rule and reality destroys any guiding effect of this document; rendering it just another deception of the company that now runs my life.

I am not a confrontational person; I try to avoid conflict whenever possible. That also means, if I do complain, I want to be taken serious. I don’t see that happening on a cruise ship where the captain personally scrutinises my facial hair, while security does not care about elementary health concerns like smoking indoors.

Pancho and I have come to an agreement – I will try to be quieter when I get dressed for breakfast, and he will not vaporize herbs when I try to sleep. Resolving this incident took another forty minutes of sleep time that I barely have. Luckily tomorrow is embarkation day. One reason why I love embarkation shootings, despite the stress it induces: I’m constantly moving around, so there’s no chance of me falling asleep on the job.

CRUISE – Community wins

16 May Exterminate!

As I read through the blogs of these past two weeks I cannot avoid noticing a certain negativity attached to them. The life of a cruise photographer is filled with trouble and strive, and most of my colleagues seem to stay in it only for the money. But cruise life is not the ghastly black-and-white picture that you may see painted in my writings. Otherwise I would have left some time ago. So today, instead of disputing additional perils, I shall focus on one of the things that keep me here: the cruise photo community.

Old and new industry at Dublin, Ireland

Cruises offer a variety of positive angles, one being the beautiful view.

Most cruise passengers are repeating costumers. A cruise can be an exciting adventure or a relaxing form of luxury travel. Either way you get to explore a big boat with thousands of passengers, and you visit a new town every other day, without the troubles of packing, checking in, or confining yourself to a smelly car seat for five hours. The cruise is a great way to travel, and I access this fine experience for free! That already is a marvellous point to get a job aboard.

Today we are anchored in Southampton, England. And although this is my second visit to this town (and I was not impressed the first time around), I still have a nice long walk around town. Four other members of our department are shooting passenger portraits on the gangway this morning, so I feel obliged to enjoy the spare time that they don’t have. One day we will be in a port where I shoot Gangway, and they have the time off; I would be disappointed if they spent that time asleep.

In a way, these are the challenges that bind us together as a team. No matter why we chose this job, or what our communication problems may be, we all are plagued by the same crappy manager, work with the same photo-shy passengers and outdated equipment. I know; those are terrible reasons to form a team. People should be bound together by their common interests, not by common enemies. But what worked for the Avengers also seems to project well into the realm of cruise photography. It is due to our common challenges that the members of the photo department cooperate, teach each other, and slowly seem to form a semi-coherent team. We all have to work hard for it, and we never get credited for our efforts, except by each other. But every day we collaborate a bit better, and we generally excel at our duty. We need one another, and our common efforts make this department a place that the passengers fondly remember.

Cruise Photography during embarkation

Cruise Photography is a rough job, but in a way those many challenges bind us together.

As a team we overcome various cruise challenges such as unwilling passengers, hostile managers, and stressful schedules. We all work towards a common goal: creating photographic memories, mostly for passengers that don’t even know yet that they want those memories. Only together we succeed. As team members we feel that our efforts are valued, and our labour is worth more than just a flimsy paycheque. As in life, so in work – community wins.

PS.: I updated the Southampton photo gallery with some fresh images of British architecture from between the great wars. Click here to view.