Travel

Your Plastic Waste Is Killing Tons of Baby Birds

We talked to the photographer who documents North Pacific albatross and their garbage-clogged insides.

by Harriet Renn
May 2 2018, 2:54pm

All photos by Chris Jordan

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Australia.

Chris Jordan began by shooting piles of rubbish. He went to the port in his hometown of Seattle and photographed the big mounds of plastic flotsam that had washed up along the shore. He then hung the images in his studio, where he admired the strangely beautiful forms with a photographer friend. The friend, who also happened to be a respected humanitarian and activist, told him: “I love all those elements, but what I see is a macabre portrait of America.” For Jordan, a switch flicked.

Jordan decided to photograph the giant island of garbage apparently floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But when he searched for it in 2009 he was surprised to learn it didn’t exist in island format. Instead, Jordan stumbled upon something sadder.

The Midway Atoll is located in the North Pacific Ocean—the farthest you can get from any continent on Earth. This cluster of little islands is a sieve for trash and Jordan found the bird life paying for it with their lives. VICE got in touch with him to hear more.

VICE: What are we looking at here?
Chris Jordan: Thousands of dead baby albatross. The nesting chicks are fed lethal quantities of plastic by their parents, who mistake the floating trash for food as they forage over the vast and polluted Pacific Ocean.

Where you the first to discover their littered insides?
No, when I first learned of the island I found there were already maybe 25 photographs of bird bodies filled with plastic. They’d been on the internet for more than 10 years, but nobody was interested, nobody was paying attention.

How is your approach different?
You can always tell when a photographer faces his subject with reverence. You can see it in their photographs. It didn’t feel like the others had done this. I just wanted to go there and see if there was a way to tell the story of that tragedy in a way that honored it.

What’s it like being on the island?
I think the name of the island really says it all, “Midway.” Of all the names that island could have, it's been given a name that’s an entire philosophy of life in one word. I was midway, kneeling over the bodies of tens of thousands of baby birds filled with plastic, and at the same time, in a colony of these magnificent beings who have no fear of humans. It's like being exactly midway between hell and paradise, and it reflects where humanity is at right now. We're midway to our own destruction, but we’re also midway to creating a new world together. And it's up to us to decide.

So there are two sides to this. Do you think you captured both?
Yes. I think of myself as a documentary photographer—my whole job is to accurately document what is in front of me. Everywhere I go, even when I am looking at the most horrible thing, there is almost always a tremendous beauty there. So to only look at horror, or sadness, would not be documentary photography. To really document the reality of our world, you have to show it all, including how beautiful it is.

Are you worried about our future?
Since people first became aware of ocean plastic pollution in 2008, there’s been a massive shift in global consciousness. It’s pretty clear if we stay on the same course we’re on right now, there will be a lot to be afraid of. There's nothing changing the course we’re on but us, so there's simultaneously reason to be hopeless and hopeful. We get to collectively decide what our future is.

Chris Jordan’s documentary Albatross, filmed on the Midway Atoll, will be released live on albatrossthefilm.com on June 8, 2018.

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