Two theatres, one skating rink, eleven swimming-pools, twenty restaurants… Excessiveness rules aboard the Symphony of the Seas, the biggest cruise ship of the world. French photographer Didier Bizet spent a week on this gigantic boat to capture a floating American dream. Interview with the author of Make cruise (still) great again.
Fisheye: How would you describe yourself in a few words?
Didier Bizet: After graduating from fine arts and art history, my convictions and expectations let me to Prague, during the Velvet Revolution (protests against the one-party communist government). I have worked in marketing for western brands on Central Europe’s new markets. In 2015, I decided to focus solely on photography. I photographed old soviet countries where melancholy is easy to capture. Mastering the medium has truly been a learning process. It gives me answers to my own questions on societies. It is vital to my own life experience. The world around me is constantly evolving, modernising, surprising. I seek curiosities in our modern world.
When and how long have you lived on one of those ships?
In March 2019, I boarded the Symphony of the Seas (Royal Caribbean society) for a one-week cruise on the largest ship in the world – 9000 people on board. I got on in Miami.
What option did you choose?
The classic option: a window-less cabin, on the 8th floor.
How did you get the idea to document this particular topic?
Mass tourism especially interests me – it has become unavoidable over the last 20 years. It is dangerous for our planet and it is doing inconsiderable harm. It smooths out travels, destroys local customs and make the rich even richer – to the detriment of poorer communities. A tourist’s brain must be always available. The solution to make it so? Entertainment and relaxation… This might be reminiscent of some TV channels, don’t you think?
How do you prepare, to embark on this American dream?
Flower shirt, shorts, flip-flops, and your camera in your back pocket!
How would you describe this “largest ship in the world”?
This is a monumental building, containing 16 bridges, 2,745 cabins, a 24-metre-zipline, 2 climbing walls, 2 surfing simulators, 11 swimming pools, 10 jacuzzi – 2 of them being suspended over water – 5 aquatic slides – 2 of them are more than 30-meter-long – 2 theatres welcoming more than 3000 people at once – one of them is aquatic and set outside – 2 spas, a casino, a natural park (Central Park), a mini golf, sports fields – including a basketball court – an ice rink, a carousel, 20 restaurants, 35 bars, one Bionic Bar (100% robotised), a water pit (5,4 meters deep) to dive, without forgetting a mall and other stores. 2,394 crew members, 6,314 passengers, 362 meters long. This ship holds 520,000 square meters of steel plate, 5,000 km of wires and 90,000 square meters of carpet.
What is a cruiser’s profile?
90% of cruisers are from America, Canada or China, with some Europeans among them. They are not necessarily from the upper-class. We find, there, the holiday club’s clientele: few single people, couples without children, and families of four.
What do they eat?
Five restaurants are included in the classic option. You must pay extra for the other 15. The most popular restaurant onboard Symphony of the Seas is the Windjammer, serving more than 5000 breakfasts, as many lunches and up to 2000 dinners. 65,000 dishes are served every day. The ship has more than 20 gigantic warehouses containing freezers and fridges, whose temperature is verified every 6 hours. The Windjammer is a surprising three-floor-place. Service is quick and impeccable. The lobster, the duck and the beef fillet are the most popular options, potatoes are the most eaten aliments: more than 2267 kg per day. Each cruise is provided with more than 300 tons of food and drinks. Over the course of each 7-night-trip, clients eat 4399 kg of chicken, 60,000 eggs, 6800 kg of beef, 2100 lobsters, a ton of salmon, 2600 kg of bacon and 2400 kg of fries. More than 40 different varieties of fruits and 80 sorts of vegetables are offered, while around 3200 pizzas are eaten each hour. The restaurant Hooked Seafood serves more than 2200 oysters, while bartenders prepare 124 specialty cocktails and empty 450 boxes of champagnes. There are 161 types of bourbon served on Sugar Beach.
What is a photographer’s routine, onboard?
My aim was to follow the passengers and attractions closely. I needed to be the most credible tourist. The idea was to circulate on the ship’s 16 bridges from morning to evening, trying to cope with the intense and packed programmes each day.
Were you welcomed?
It was a traditionally American welcome: professional, efficient – as in the American society. Made-in-USA cruises are the reflection of our consumer’s society. The programme is rich and dense, the American entertainment machine is well-oiled, precise and always on time. The Hollywood-like settings made of pasteboard turn 6300 tourists into captivated holiday-makers. An absurd journey for some, a dream holiday for others.
What was your biggest surprise?
The American ship is supposed to be a mix of shopping malls, adventure parks and fake-Broadway with a simple strategy: content tourists will spend more. The entertainment marketing is always present on the ship, 24/7.
And the craziest thing you have seen?
The SEA. The cabins from where you can see it are rare. It is actually quite difficult to get a glimpse at the horizon. Only the 3 last bridges allow us to see the sea. Unbelievable for a ship, isn’t it?
Can you comment these two images?
What strikes me the most is the way people act like “sheep” at each halt. Between 4500 and 5500 passengers get off the boat in record time. The same people will wait in line for another ship-excursion, hoping to see the Caribbean cetacean – once again in record time.
Which picture are you most proud of? Why?
I would not talk about pride, but rather of photographic interest. This image was taken on the main bridge during Saint Patrick’s Day. Several distinct scenes can be observed. On the left, a dressed-up couple posing for a picture – the man is proud like a ship’s captain. On their right, a group of Irish tourists – irresistible in their beatitude. And on the far right, a couple’s argument we can’t help relishing.
How does one feel after a week on one of those ships?
Relieved, relaxed, liberated and healed.
Is Make cruise (still) great again a critique of our consumer’s society’s excesses?
Of course, just like a safari in Paris would be. Mass tourism is a drift of our societies, an act often irresponsible – and I am not even talking about the trip’s monotony.
And the ecological impact…
People have fun but are careless: on the ship’s bridges, we relax, drink our mojitos next to the carcinogenic fumes of the chimneys. While no passenger seems to be concerned about the pollution generated by their embarkation, associations of locals and defenders of environmental causes demand heavy sanctions against these sea giants. The ships – which now use the inexpensive heavy fuel-oil HFO which is 3500 times more harmful than diesel – are the main cause of pollution. A docked cruise ship produces emissions equivalent to around 30,000 vehicles, and when sailing, 5 to 10 times more. Besides, the cruise ships – true floating cities – must let their motors turned on at every halt (usually a whole day) because of their many equipment (AC, elevators, casinos, swimming pools etc).
What would you say to a family hesitating to join a Royal Caribbean cruise?
“Welcome to a better world, welcome to a world of freedom, serenity and security. Welcome to a purer, cleaner, more responsible world”. I am quoting the advertising published by Rhône-Poulenc, in 1988.
How, do you think, has Covid-19 impacted the company?
From what the company says, the boats will resume sailing by mid-July, for the great pleasure of millions of tourists. The American dream will be available with strict restrictions, such as a mandatory quarantine beforehand. Guests arriving with a fever, or a weak pulse oximetry during medical exams will not be allowed to board.
Is the project finished or are you planning on experiencing a cruise again, post-confinement?
I have not seen or heard everything. Mass tourism still has many good days ahead. My Hawaiian shirt better watch out!
© Didier Bizet