The first time Kathryn Mussallem saw uniformed American sailors walking around New York, she got a little excited. Scratch that: a lot excited. In fact, she squealed, yelled out “Sailors!”, and bolted across the street to meet them. The exuberant scene was too much for her friend, who actually ducked into a doorway to hide.
But Mussallem was entranced: grown men, in the 21st century, strolling through Manhattan in bellbottoms, neckerchiefs, and caps. Had she walked into a 1940s dream?
The Vancouver-based photographer has “always had a thing for sailors,” she says. “I think it came from growing up on old movies and musicals: there was always a sailor in the background of a scene of every 1940s film, or the main player in a musical dancing around in their iconic white bellbottomed uniforms, steeped in tradition and a little ridiculous.” Five years after that first “hello, Sailor”, Mussallem still reacts the same way when she encounters them. It’s an endearing and surprising anecdote, considering she has spent the last number of years chasing them around the United States—taking photographs, of course. “As a Canadian, my interest may have started with the kitschy retro uniform, but also as a fascination with this exotic brand of hyperbolic American patriotism,” says the Emily Carr University of Art and Design instructor. “It is definitely different than the world I came from of arts and academia in Vancouver.”
Recently, one of her photographs received international recognition. Mussallem’s “Sailor in the Spotlight, New Orleans LA, April 2015” was given the Canada National Award as part of the Sony World Photography Awards. The international program received a whopping 230,103 entries from 186 countries across its categories. Mussallem’s image will be on display at Somerset House in London from April 22 to May 8 as part of the Sony World Photography Awards Exhibition, and will also be included in the organization’s annual keepsake book.
The winning photo was taken during New Orleans Fleet Week, when, in maritime cities across the States, the navy brings sailors into port and the streets are washed in white (a scene overdramatized in a memorable Sex and the City episode, naturally). “I was in this typical sticky night club and climbed up on the stage to photograph a wide shot of the packed dance floor sailors, marines, and civilians below,” Mussallem recalls. “It was just one of those perfect moments where the spotlight hit this sailor in the perfect way, and he had the perfect expression on his face that was contemplative and not like the faces of any of the others in the sea of revellers around him.” And while the romantic visions of red lipstick on white collars has its moment in the American Navy discourse, Mussallem’s photos show what happens when you plunge beneath the inky surface. “I figured that I would run across tough, hard-headed, narrow minded ‘military’ types—the kind you see portrayed in movies,” she explains. “What I found was the Navy was a microcosm of the world. Everyone was doing it for a different reason—people from so many diverse backgrounds, politics, points of view—it was amazing.” There’s more to a sailor than a wink and a sly smile, although those charms can still make a woman run across the street.
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