Sustainability, mass consumption, and what he calls "our culture of waste" have long been the backbone of Seattle-based photographer Chris Jordan's work.
For the past four years his creative energy has been focused on a remote group of islands near Hawaii, 2,000 miles from the nearest continent. Yet there, on Midway Atoll, he has discovered a nightmare scenario that powerfully illustrates just how ruinous man's impact on nature can be: hundreds, thousands of dead albatross chicks choked to death on man's detritus, mostly shiny bits of plastic picked up from the nearby Pacific Ocean by their parents, and fed to them mistakenly as food.
The most prominent piece of waste? Disposable cigarette lighters, which float near the surface of the ocean. Glittering in the sun, they are seductive targets. When they are fed to infant birds and swallowed, none of the plastic disintegrates and instead eventually fills tiny stomachs.
Recently, Jordan has turned from photographing the dead birds, and the waste plastic that fills their stomachs and slowly kills them, to videoing. A successful Kickstarter effort ($122,000 from more than 16,000 donors) is funding the documentary film, which he anticipates will require two more visits so that he can capture the entire birth-life-and-death continuum in full.
"For me, kneeling over their carcasses is like looking into a macabre mirror," he writes on his website. "These birds reflect back an appallingly emblematic result of the collective trance of our consumerism and runaway industrial growth. Like the albatross, we first-world humans find ourselves lacking the ability to discern anymore what is nourishing from what is toxic to our lives and our spirits. Choked to death on our waste, the mythical albatross calls upon us to recognize that our greatest challenge lies not out there, but in here."
I reached Jordan by phone late last week.
TakePart: You're just back from your seventh trip to Midway. What is the biggest difference between your first visit in 2008 and today?
Chris Jordan: The first time I arrived in 2008 I was really focused on the tragedy of tens of thousands of dead baby birds out there, their bodies filled with plastic.
I was at first interested in seeing and photographing the Pacific Garbage Patch, since my work is attempting to create visual images of the invisible phenomena of our times. But pretty quickly I discovered that ocean plastic pollution, like ocean acidification and global climate change, are very hard to visualize.
There are 10 million tons of plastic in our oceans, which is hard to relate to, and to feel anything. And if we can't feel these issues it's no wonder we aren't taking more action. I first assumed you could go out and walk on the floating island of garbage twice the size of Texas. As a guy photographing giant piles of garbage, I got fascinated with the idea. But I learned pretty quickly that there is no patch. It's like that old George Carlin joke, that having a smoking section in a restaurant is like having a peeing section in a swimming pool. The floating plastic garbage in our ocean is everywhere and is just as dense a mile off Laguna Beach as it is in the center of the Pacific Ocean.
I was lamenting the impossibility of taking a photograph of the Pacific Garbage Patch when a young biologist told me if I wanted to see the impact of plastic pollution go to Midway and take a look at what's in the stomachs of these dead baby albatross.
TakePart: What is the status of the documentary project Midway: Message From the Gyre?
Chris Jordan: It's going amazingly well. We were just there on Midway and we would come in from long, hot, sweaty days of filming and check our computers and find these notes of encouragement at Kickstarter from literally around the world. Poland, Hong Kong, all over the Americas. You ask what gives me hope after seeing this kind of environmental mess and that was something that really gave us all hope.
TakePart: Given what you've seen on Midway and elsewhere, do you have hope for the continued relationship between man and nature?
Chris Jordan: The environmental news is so bad and getting worse all the time. Plastic pollution is just one of a smorgasbord of horrors, any one of which is catastrophic, any one of which is overwhelming.
Yet in the three years since I first went out to Midway the amount of activism around plastic around the world has been astonishing. Cities and countries around the globe are banning plastic bags, there are a wide variety of plastic activism groups and beach cleanups at work. It's amazing to see how many people care about this issue, and many are spreading the same message that I am, which is cause for hope.
But I'm really starting to wonder about the focus on 'hope' in the first place. I think I fell into the same trap that a lot of people have, which is this desire to feel hopeful. It's like you have to start with hope, then you can begin to act passionately. But if you don't feel hopeful, you collapse into despair. It's as if we need the magic bullet of hope before we can proceed any further.
I've been looking at what hope is for me and it's kind of an empty vessel, a kind of passive wishing that something would happen outside of my control, or our control. It's almost like a form of victimization. In a way there's a kind of impotence in the desire to have hope. "One day I feel hopeful, the next hopeless, depending on what i read in the news." In the end, hoping can become very disempowering.
I think what we need is more action, and less hope.
TakePart: Of all the hundreds of thousands of photos you've taken during your career to illustrate man's impact on nature—from a landscape of toothpicks, each representing a felled tree; a looping maze of plastic cups revealing how many are used each day on airplane flights; and thousands of Barbie dolls representing the number of breast augmentations performed each year—why do you think these images of dead albatross have hit such a nerve with the public?
Chris Jordan: I think it's because I am willing to show emotion in my photographs. So much of photo journalism distances itself from the subject. Here I literally love the work and put my heart into it and I think that comes through, from the moment I click the shutter on my camera to the moment some months, years later when someone clicks on their computer to open the image.
Readers: What are you doing to curb you and your family's plastic usage? Tell us in the comments.
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A six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council, Jon Bowermaster has spent the past two decades circling the world’s ocean, studying both its health and the lives of the people who depend on it. He is the author of 11 books (his most recent, OCEANS, Threats to Our Seas and What You Can Do to Turn the Tide, was published by Participant Media) and producer of a dozen documentary films. His blog—Notes From Sea Level—reports daily on issues impacting the ocean and us. Follow Jon on Facebook. @jonbowermaster | Email Jon | TakePart.com