Before shipping containers became common in the 1960s–making shipping cheap, and changing the shape of the global economy–river barges played an important role in transportation. Now, in most places, there are few barges left. In a new photo series, Hungarian photographer Gyula Sopronyi takes a look at what those that remain have on board.
The project started in 2012 with a two-month trip to Paris, where Sopronyi documented the barge traffic up and down the Seine. He stood on a bridge, aiming straight down to show what each barge carried, from loads of gravel or sand to a small playground and a woman on a deck chair.
“I always tried to link together impressions and feelings of what I saw,” he says. “For example, a brand new car, which barely fit in the barge, represents something someone saw as very important to bring because it’s a status symbol . . . Another car was dug up from the Seine after an accident. It is crashed, full of mud, and the whole picture is misshapen. I saw it as a sort of answer to the first image.”
Though barges may exist on the fringes of global transportation now, they’re slowly becoming more common as cities start to recognize their environmental advantages. “Barge traffic is more fuel efficient than other modes of transportation,” says Sopronyi. A barge carrying a ton of cargo gets 514 miles per gallon, while a truck carrying the same amount gets 59 miles per gallon.
In New York City, barges are once again starting to carry city trash across the Hudson River–and will eventually replace 360,000 trash trucks. Three California ports are experimenting with barges to get polluting diesel trucks off overcrowded highways.
In Paris, too, freight companies are starting to bring back barges to make deliveries to the city. Still, as these photos show, the traffic on the river doesn’t exactly look like an efficient delivery system yet.
Sopronyi, who calls the older boats “sluggish giants,” sees them as a metaphor for life. When he started the project, he had recently lost both his parents and grandparents, and had just returned from working in war zones as a photojournalist.
“I’ve had many experiences of loss, fear, soreness, hopelessness,” he says. “But the other hand I have always found hope, bravery, and persistency. I tried to convey our lives in a metaphoric way . . . I saw the river as life itself. Sometimes we drift and it’s easy to move forward, and sometimes we have to move against the grain with heavy things.”