Photographer Colin Delfosse was looking for a way to wrap a two-year project with Julie David de Lossy. After concentrating on Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kirghizistan, they wanted to continue exploring the legacy of the Soviet Union.
He ended up going to the remote Russian city of Murmansk to spend a month following naval cadets learning the traditional basics of naval navigation, with half of that time spent aboard one of the largest sail-driven ships in the world.
“A Black Sea-White Sea project regarding the Russian navy in northwest Russia and south Crimea-Ukraine seemed to be the right way to conclude our Soviet legacy project,” Delfosse said. “I randomly chose north to Murmansk; (de Lossy) picked Sevastopol in the south of Crimea-Ukraine.”
Delfosse found that in Russia and Ukraine, little of the Soviet infrastructure had been abandoned. He focused on the cadets who were training at Murmansk State University and on board the STS Sedov, a nearly 100-year-old ship.
“When I finally got there, and discovered this gray post-Soviet city,” Delfosse said, “I thought I was at the edge of the world.”
It took several days for him to gain permission to photograph the cadets. “It’s like a tradition. They test you through patience.”
When he was finally given access to the university, he followed the cadets for two weeks. He then spent another two weeks aboard the Sedov.
“I had a really spontaneous relation with them,” Delfosse said of his time with the cadets. “In Murmansk I spent a lot of time with them outside the university, drinking beer and debating about life. Some of them became friends.”
The Sedov was built as a cargo ship and launched in Kiel, Germany, in 1921, by a German shipping company. The four-masted ship was given an auxiliary engine after the shipyard overcame the owner’s objections, making it the first modern sailing ship with an engine.
Germany gave the massive vessel to Russia as part of war reparations in 1945. It’s now used to train the cadets of Murmansk and billed as the largest training sailing ship in the world, at 385 feet (117.5 meters) long.
Three teams of cadets spend six months each aboard the Sedov during its 18-month tour, learning the basics of sailing in their unique classroom.
“On board of the Sedov, there was less free time,” Delfosse said. “The boat management is very demanding, so the crew and the cadets were definitely less available.”
Delfosse, who suffers from vertigo, spent most of the time on the deck while the cadets were working and climbing along the ropes and sails.
“The main challenge is definitely to shoot on such a small area and try to keep it varied in a story,” Delfosse said. “I was also worried about my camera, regarding the greasy salt in the air when at sea.”
He had also never sailed before.
While the cadets are kept very busy with learning to pilot and maintain such a vessel, Delfosse says there are opportunities for diversion.
The ship, which was modernized in 1981, offers Internet access, movies and a gym. The crew holds table tennis tournaments in the banquet hall and gets to explore a bit of the world when the ship docks in various cities during its tour.
“It teaches sailing techniques and discipline facing the wind, seas and oceans,” Delfosse said. “According to the captain, once you can deal with such a boat, you are ready for any.”
Delfosse says this project isn’t a call for advocacy or debate.
“The idea is simply to invite the viewers in another universe, the far-north Russia and the world of cadets,” he said. “This topic expresses the way I work through my several projects – shed another light on a country, without necessarily talking about the same old problems.
“When you talk about a country through a prism that no one has heard of before, you go beyond stereotypes and start fresh, giving the chance to the viewers to inform themselves.”
- Cody McCloy, CNN