Tom Fowlks Interview on Panama Canal Expansion Photography | Popular Photography
Tom Fowlks

Tom Fowlks on six years of photographing the Panama Canal Expansion

How a photographer turned a "delusional" self-assignment into a multi-year documentary project

When photographer Tom Fowlks started what would become a multi-year project documenting the expansion of the Panama Canal, the future of his photographic career was uncertain. “I knew very much what I didn't want to be,” he says. “And it was some of those more popular pathways of celebrity and fashion.” After reading a news item about the Canal Expansion project around 2007 he packed up his 4x5 film camera, booked a flight and assigned himself a personal project to work on during his time there.

Miraflores Locks Panama Canal

Looking towards the Pacific Ocean from the middle lane of the Miraflores Locks while a ship lowers in the last lock to begin passage for the Pacific.

Tom Fowlks

“I lied to myself and pretended that I was doing a 12 page portfolio for the back of Wallpaper,” he says. On that first trip Fowlks captured beautiful images of massive ships, tropical swimming pools and other elements related to the upcoming Expansion Project, but without any official media contacts his access was limited. “I bought into my own delusion and created a big assignment that I was down there covering.”

Panama Canal expansion site

Left: From the first visit to the Expansion site on the Pacific side in 2012 for Fortune Magazine. They told me I had 4-5 stops and an hour to execute. The ground was shaking beneath my feet during this 4x5 film exposure, sweat was dripping down my face and dirt was flying everywhere. I watched that little man conducting the whole show and when he looked just iconic enough, I depressed the shutter. When it was all over, I looked like I’d been pushed into a swimming pool—completely drenched with equatorial sweat.
Right: Taken during my first visit to the expansion site on the Pacific Side in March 2012. Shot on 4x5 film.

Tom Fowlks

Fowlks’ “delusional” self-assignment eventually ballooned into a six-year project where he dug into all aspects of life related to the nearly decade long construction project. He is currently raising funds on Kickstarter to self-publish a 268 page book on the subject called This is Panama. The project has already hit its funding goal, but still has four days to go. A $100 pledge will get you a signed and numbered first edition copy of the book, which Fowlks expects to be ready to ship by Fall 2018.

Port of Balboa at night

View of the Port of Balboa at night from the Chines Monument. The Port of Balboa plays a key role in Canal Operations as ships that are too large to transit the Canal (Post Panamax), and are likely coming from Asia, offload here for the containers to either make the 44 mile crossing via the Panama Canal Railroad, or by a Panamax vessel that can fit in the locks, and then continue on their way to the east coast of the US or Europe. With the opening of the Canal Expansion In June 2016, more of this cargo can transit the Canal directly, which makes for a more efficient operation.

Tom Fowlks

We caught up with Fowlks to learn more about his project.

Pop Photo: You started this project shooting film with a large format camera— when and why did you make the switch to digital?

Fowlks: At the beginning of this I was approaching it with 4x5, because I thought it had to be done at the highest level—that I had to treat this like it could one day be in a museum. And that kind of broke my back. I never had an assistant down there and it was way too much to be carting all of that stuff. The first trip I probably shot 50 sheets of film, the next trip probably 30 or 40, but eventually, I was shooting two or three sheets on a two week trip. I just realized that it was not worth it anymore. I was getting more access and the pictures were feeling more spontaneous and more organic—it made sense to go in a digital direction. I needed to head in a direction that really got me on the ground, got dirt on my face, and got me right next to these workers. I had to evolve my style while I was doing this and it was the best thing that ever happened.

Panama Canal expansion site

A lone guard walks his rounds before a set of the new Canal doors, which would soon be installed on the Caribbean side of the Canal Expansion project.

Tom Fowlks

dugout canoe on Chagres River

View from inside the dugout canoe as a Palanquero navigates the Chagres River. The Palanquero are from the indigenous tribes that are employed by Canal Authority to work with the Canal’s Hydrology Division to offer their knowledge of the river systems and skills with navigating them. The Hydrological Division is concerned with all the waterways that feed Gatun Lake and account for nearly all the water involved in Canal Operations, approximately 52M Gallons per lockage for each vessel.

Tom Fowlks

Pop Photo: On your first trips, you didn’t have a media contact and there was only so much that you could photograph. What happened that led you to work in a deeper way?

Fowlks: I sent an email to Octavio Colindres from Canal Authority. I pictured a pencil pusher at a desk that was going to be very rigid with me about getting in there. I worried that he wouldn't approve of my credentials. When I got down there and met him to get access to the construction site I realized he was a half a dozen years or more younger than me. All he wanted to talk about was what it was like to see Metallica in concert and if we could we meet for a beer when this was all over. It wasn't an intimidating meeting. He granted me access and orchestrated visits to construction sites on one side or the other of the canal. At the end of one of those trips he said, ‘You know I think that we need to expand your perspective here.’

Aerial view of the Port of Balboa Ship to Shore Cranes

Aerial view of the Port of Balboa’s Ship to Shore Cranes and rows of containers awaiting dispersal. Taken from a helicopter trips I made over the Canal to document the expansion.

Tom Fowlks

worlds largest floating crane

Left: My host on a visit to the Titan, the world’s largest floating crane, as he clambers up the 75 year old ladder and beckons me to follow him to the top of the crane. I declined.
Right: A conversation across the bow, from one tugboat to another, while assisting a vessel (seen in the background) through the Miraflores Locks.

Tom Fowlks

Pop Photo: What parts of this story was he able to direct you towards that you might not have found on your own?

Fowlks: The access he was giving me, it was like an amusement park for me. I couldn't believe all of these places he was taking me to. He was able to get me on tugboats, the dredger, into the hydrology division. Octavio said there are so many other operations of this canal that I want you to see, he brought me into them and I went everywhere with open arms.

Portrait of Captain Gibson

Portrait of Captain Gibson in his quarters doing what he does best, telling illustrious stories about his 45 year career on the Panama Canal. This turned out to be the best way to make his portrait, let him be himself in his natural habitat.

Tom Fowlks

panama canal expansion ceremony

Left: The Titan Crane holds one of the original Canal Doors while workers make adjustments to the hinges for this enormous Mitre Gate--which opens in a “V” formation during operation.
Right: When they opened the valve to begin filling the locks on the Atlantic side (the Agua Clara Locks) many of the workers who had spent years working on that site were invited to attend the day’s ceremony and be part of the moment. While the crowd of journalists mobbed the suits and sashes, I found this quartet and went for something more personal.

Tom Fowlks

nearly completed Agua Clara Locks celebration

They may not have drank champagne last night, but these workers have reason to celebrate as they watch water begin to fill the nearly completed Agua Clara Locks on the Atlantic side.

Tom Fowlks

Pop Photo: When did you decide to pull all of this into a book?

Fowlks: I had friends and peers from the world saying you need to do a book on this. I kept saying, 'How? How can I do a book on a project that I missed the first three years of? I'm missing the front half of the book.' I decided instead that I was going to do a project about what's happening in Panama during a time of transitional development in their history. That was a pretentious way and saying I'm going to come down here for five or six more years because look at what great access I have, and I'll figure out what the book will be then. That really wasn't a very mature or intelligent idea—it’s kind of an escapist idea. This is what I can say I'm doing so that I don't have to come up with something. And I believed in it.

I carried that idea for several months. Eventually I ended up meeting Josh Paul from Lollipop Magazine on a Formula One Shoot and he could see right through what I thought was an intelligent and clever idea. He said you have it now. you need to do the book now. That kind of turned on a switch in me.

Fowlks' Kickstarter campaign for This is Panama is raising funds for four more days. Check it out to pre-order your copy of the book.

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