Christopher Pereira remembers his annual childhood trips to Chinchinim, Goa. His family would fly down from London to see his grandparents, and as everyone got busy, he would spend most of his time inundating his uncles, who worked on ships as engineers, with questions about their time at sea.

“When I was 15 or 16, the conversation with kids in Goa my age became about what we were going to do after school,” said Pereira. “Many would talk about going and working on ships, and getting the tag of a shippy. That was interesting to me since I was thinking about attending university.” A shippy’s job paid better than most jobs in Goa, he was told, and raised one’s social status. Through friends, Pereira also discovered the downsides to the profession. For many, the months spent at sea, within the confines of the ship, resulted in a sense of loneliness and being trapped, sometimes leading to depression.

In 2014, Pereira began photographing shippies – some friends, some acquaintances – for a project titled The Shippy’s Paradise. “I wanted to talk about not only the profession, but the impact it has on their mental health, a subject not often discussed in India, especially among the older generation,” said Pereira. A selection of 10 photos was exhibited in January at Tatva, a mental health awareness centre in Goa, and is now being collected in a booklet titled The Shippy’s Paradise.

Photo credit: Christopher Pereira.

The brochure features the portraits of the seafarers with the name of their hometown. “I deliberately omitted names and their deeply personal stories of struggle and hardships,” said Pereira. He wanted to focus on the pervasiveness of mental health problems, which can afflict anyone, “no matter how well they might be doing in life or what their social status…might seem like from the outside”.

In some images, the men can be seen smiling.“The photographs are not overtly depicting what mental health pictures usually look like,” said Kripi Malviya, a psychologist, counsellor and co-founder of Tatva. “The photographs don’t show them struggling or pulling their hair. Christopher is depicting a small part of their life here while they are home and feeling happy about being around their family, but behind all that, there is this feeling of sadness and anxiety that they will soon be leaving again.”

Photo credit: Christopher Pereira.

Pereira was exposed to the debilitating effects of depression when he saw a close friend in college battling with it. “That relationship really changed me and got me reading extensively about mental health and depression.” He learned about the addictions that can follow depression and the sense of loss. “When I returned to Goa for a visit, I started identifying traits in a shippy friend’s behaviour that were similar to what my college friend had gone through.”

In the introduction to the The Shippy’s Paradise, Pereira writes about the time he visited his sailor friends on a vessel. In the beginning, he “felt excited to see them and their work environment”, but then the harshness of the place – “a small cabin with two portholes” – struck him. “I saw lots of empty alcohol bottles scattered around with a strong, almost sickening smell of cigarettes.” This experience prompted Pereira to think not just about the physical demands, but also about the mental and emotional strain of being a sailor.

Denver Alexio Dourado Rodrigues, from Margao, has been working with a shipping company’s navigation department for almost two years. Rodrigues’ father was a seaman and the inspiration for choosing the profession. “The first few weeks on board go by easily in trying to learn the work and getting into the groove of things, but after that first month, you start thinking about home,” said Rodrigues. “Once you get into the routine and you have more free time you begin to miss home, and especially those who have been doing this for longer, their mental health takes a hit.”

Photo credit: Christopher Pereira.

For many sailors, quitting is not an option. Some are scared they will not find another job, while others don’t want to be seen as “failures”. “The biggest thing for them is to provide for their families,” Pereira said. “There’s a lot of pressure on them.” The whole issue, he feels, boils down to a lack of acknowledgement of mental health problems in India, something that Malviya agrees with. “There is such glory and pride associated with this profession in Goa…that there is no conversation about their struggles,” Malviya said. “We live in a culture where being depressed is not seen as a real clinical problem, so shippies too are usually told that since they are doing well in life, there is nothing to be upset about.”

One of his friends, says Pereira, described the loneliness best. “I commented that shippies must see some cool views while at sea and he said ‘imagine just looking out and seeing the horizon, like nothing else but horizon’,” Pereira recollected. “That really put things in perspective for me. It might be a cool view for me to look at in a photo perhaps, but seeing that day in and day out… nothing else, not being able to see your family or go down the street and chat with your mate, or pick up the phone and call someone, that must be incredibly difficult.”

The 'Shippy's Paradise' by Christopher Pereira.