This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
The Wednesday before last marked the fourth anniversary of the Costa Concordia shipwreck. On January 13th, 2012 the Italian cruise ship, which was carrying 4,200 people, collided with rocks just off the coast of the Mediterranean island, Giglio. The impact tore a 70-metre gash into the ship's hull, eventually making it capsize. Thirty-two people died in the disaster, while the others were successfully evacuated. On February 11th, 2015, the ship's captain, Francesco Schettino, was sentenced to a prison term of 16 years and one month for, among other things, negligent homicide. He's currently appealing the sentence.
The Costa Concordia disaster and the complicated legal mess it left behind captured the media's and world's attention. So did the costly salvage of the gigantic wreck, which could only be brought back to the surface with the help of a complicated maneuver involving a custom-built platform, air-filled tanks, and months of sustained labor. It wasn't until the end of July 2014, more than two years after the disaster, that the wreck could actually be moved. Since then, it's been docked in the port of Genoa, where it will now be gutted and sold for scraps over at least the next year.
Photographer Jonathan Danko Kielkowski snuck onto the ship to have a look around when it was resurfaced. He brought back a series of intriguing pictures from the Costa Concordia's interior, in all its beautiful devastation, and told us how he got the idea climb aboard – and what it feels like to be on a ghost ship.
VICE: How did you get the idea to photograph the Costa Concordia?
Jonathan Danko Kielkowski: I've been fascinated by it since the disaster happened – how such a giant thing could be taken down by a stupid mistake and some rocks. And I was also really into the salvage process; the technical effort put into getting the wreck off the rocks and upright again, the manpower and the money that went into it. It cost over half a billion euros. When the ship arrived in Genoa to be scrapped, I thought I'd take a look.
And then you could just walk on board?
It didn't work out the first time. I got caught by the coast guard and had to turn back. I tried again two weeks later, and then it worked.
How did you do it?
So the ship was fixed to a jetty in the sea. It's only about 200 metres away from the shore at one point, so I just swam over. I had a little kid's rubber dinghy that I put my camera and clothes in that and then just swam behind it.
And you didn't get caught?
I swam over at night on a Sunday. Nobody was around. I waited outside for the sun to come up, and then I went in. I thought I would get caught. But nobody came. I was inside the ship until that afternoon.
What was your first impression upon entering the ship?
It was pretty surreal. I was focussed on my photography, since I thought I would only have half an hour to, maximum, an hour in there. I had gotten floor plans of it beforehand and had picked out a few spots that I wanted to see. Then I just went to work on autopilot. After an hour or so I really realised that I was really in there.
What was it like? You weren't scared at all?
No, I wasn't scared. It was really peaceful but it was also extremely nightmarish, because you could sense the panic all over the place. The passageways are really narrow and the ceilings low. You walk down a hall and there's luggage and strollers and wheelchairs thrown about everywhere. People packed up their stuff and headed for the life boats. But at some point they just dropped everything and started running. Just imagine, all the lifeboats are on the deck and 4,000 people are all squeezing onto them. You could sense the panic everywhere somehow.
Did you have any reservations about doing it? You know over 30 people drowned during the disaster.
It was important to me to document the visible traces of the disaster, while they're still tangible, before they're disposed of. I had tried to get official permission to do so before but through the back and forth I was told that they didn't want to have it documented, they wanted it to be forgotten. I thought thought that it needed to be documented. Many questions have yet to be answered.
The pictures document the disaster, but they're also aesthetically pleasing. Do you think the decay is beautiful in a certain sense?
It was important to me to counteract the cruise ship industry's silence. There's always a lot of décor, illusions and glitz. By trying to show it this way, I wanted to expose it as fake by showing this setting that you know from glossy magazines completely wrecked.
Jonathan's pictures have been published by White Press. You can order his book, CONCORDIA, here.