If you’ve spent enough time in New York City—or New Orleans, San Francisco, or Boston—there’s a good chance you’ve run across a crew of sailors who have disembarked and are enjoying a rowdy night on the town. There’s also a good chance you did whatever you could to avoid their antics. Unless of course you’re photographer Kathryn Mussallem. For the last four years Mussallem, who is based in Vancouver BC, Canada, has traveled around America chasing sailors. The resulting series, “Hey Sailor! New in Town?”, provides intimate glimpses into the humorous, nostalgic, and cliché adventures of the sailors, and by doing so, reverses the male gaze.
“The idea of a sailor is both romantic and sad,” she says. “These young men, and women of course, go out to sea for months at a time leaving their loved ones behind, or sail into port and hit the town running desperate for drink, love and shenanigans. They work hard and play even harder.”
What inspired Mussallem to join the mayhem? To start, she was raised on musicals and old movies from the 1940s and noticed there was always a sailor in a Crackerjack uniform on stage or on screen. The first time she actually laid eyes on an American sailor, she couldn’t believe they still wore the same uniforms, bell bottoms and neckerchiefs and all. “It didn’t seem real, I expected them to grab a mop and tap out a number,” says Mussallem.
She’s also a self-described nostalgist, so to witness the young sailors at play in a uniform that essentially has not changed since the 1800s was incredible, and, she asks, “what lady doesn’t like a man in uniform?”
Mussallem came into the project loving the aesthetics of the sailors, the handsome young men hitting the town, but along the way she’s discovered the humanity behind their uniforms. Rather than finding overly patriotic characters and “tough, hard headed, narrow minded ‘military’ types,” she found that the “Navy is a microcosm of the world, everyone is doing it for a different reason, people are from so many diverse backgrounds, politics, and points of view.”
“I have become closer with these sailors and the marines than friends I have had my entire life,” she says.
Over the years Mussallem has also learned to speak sailor. She can converse with them about their ships, their ranks, and their ratings. She uses this skill to make them comfortable with her and her camera. Plus, like many of the sailors, she’s covered in tattoos and isn’t afraid to show some skin so she and the sailors can compare ink. Once, when a sailor offered to add another tattoo to her collection, she blew him away by answering “YES!” A few days later she was on the receiving end of a tattoo machine aboard the USS Wasp.
“In the tradition of street photography,” she says, “I am on the hunt for salty tales and shenanigans.” Yet unlike many street photographers, she doesn’t hesitate to stand out and get involved, or to be photographed. “I am pretty obvious. I don’t blend in and there is no escaping my big smile or my off-camera flash,” Mussallem explains. “I strike up conversations about anything I can, I get hit on, I dirty dance on the dance floor, I get slightly tipsy, I am a sailor at heart. I put on my bright red lipstick and bright red high heels and with a giggle and a smile I say ‘Hey Sailor! New in Town?'”
Through September 20, 2015 “Hey Sailor! New in Town?” is on display at Photoville.
A Coney Island Summer