Taoudella by Blue Dot Sessions
Midway. That to me is like a whole philosophy of life in one word. Midway between all of the mistakes that have ever been made and the still unwritten story of our future.
Welcome to the Plastisphere, the podcast on plastic, people and the planet. My name is Anja Krieger. In this episode, I’ll bring you a story from an island in the Pacific, thousands of miles away from land. It’s called Midway Island, and it has shaped our image of ocean plastics.
Almost a decade ago, photographer Chris Jordan travelled to Midway to document the effects of plastic pollution. His images of dead sea birds with plastic in their guts went viral around the world. They were quite hard to look at.
It’s the little chicks of albatross, the birds that nest on the island. Their bones are laid bare and their feathers are withering away. But the things they ingested are still very much intact: You can make out a red cigarette lighter, a blue bottlecap, and even an entire yellow toothbrush. In fact, these birds were full of plastic.
Chris Jordan was so haunted by this sight that he decided to go back. The photographer visited the island again and again. And he discovered a new, and beautiful side of the story. That’s what his documentary film Albatross is all about. It’s a message from Midway, and what it can teach us.
Plink – By Dorian Roy
When Chris came to Germany this fall, I got the chance to talk to him. He was working on a new piece of art at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research.
It’s only a half hour from Berlin to Potsdam, so I took the train and hiked up to the campus on Telegraph hill.
Anja: Hey! (laughs) Looks like I found you.
Chris Jordan: Come on in!
Chris welcomed me into his little studio. With its dome and stairs it looked a bit like a spaceship had landed on the woody campus.
They gave me this really beautiful little office, which is the Kleine Photorefraktor. It’s a little tiny astronomical observatory dome, where they had the smallest of the telescopes that was here. And this is the telescope that was used to map the stars. So it’s been a really kind of poetic, symbolic place for me to come and be in this little tiny dome where they made a map of the cosmos.
For the astronomers back then, it was the universe they were trying to grasp. Chris, on the other hand, focuses his lens on the things that happen on our very own planet.
Quite a few years back when I began as a full-time artist, my first subject was these giant piles of the things we waste, that I found…you see them down in the port of Seattle.
And I lived there and back then it was before 9/11, so the port was open, you could just drive right into the port and walk around anywhere and see these lines and lines of train cars and huge stacks of shipping containers in these massive ships coming in and out and unloading all this stuff, and immense piles of garbage and piles of broken glass and piles of twisted metal.
It’s like, I was seeing the machine, the kind of underbelly or the infrastructure that is the machine that runs our culture of mass consumption. And there’s something about that, that’s really fascinating and really frightening.
And so I’ve made a whole body of work, I just focused my attention on mass consumption for, like, 20 years, and I did all different kinds of photography about it.
Chris photographed the silos, containers and pallets that he saw in the port. His early work also depicts big piles of crushed cars, of raw and recycled materials, of cigarette butts, electronics and cell phones, in a series he named “intolerable beauty”.
Then he started running the numbers, trying to make sense of statistics. One of his artworks looks like a dusty cloud of stars. But when you zoom in, it turns into tens of thousands of black plastic spoons – equal to the number of gallons of oil consumed per second.
Chris also created a remake of the famous Botticelli painting “Birth of Venus”. Take a closer look, and you can make out some of the 240,000 plastic bags it’s composed of, equal to what’s consumed in only a few seconds.
So I’m just really interested in like how do we, how do we relate to the global issues of mass consumption and environmental destruction on a personal scale. And I always craved a way to, instead of standing in front of massive pile of garbage, like, what’s something more personal, how can I feel this on a very personal scale?
And that’s when I learned from a biologist friend about this tragedy that is happening on this remote island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Lumber Down by Blue Dot Sessions
Sound of a wave
Sound of albatrosses on Midway by Chris Jordan
What happened was, an activist who is one of my dearest friends now, named Manuel Maqueda, a Spanish activist, he learned about ocean plastic pollution and got interested in it enough, and he’s just this kind of crazy guy, that he decided he was going to personally fund a meeting of everybody in the world who knew anything about the subject.
So he paid for me to fly to San Jose, California. He got a conference room at the Google complex and he brought…There was maybe 15 of us, at his own expense, the world’s leading ocean current person who talked about how plastic flows. And several of the world’s leading scientists who had begun to study ocean plastic pollution.
This was in 2008, when only few people knew about the plastic that ended up in the oceans. Among the people in the room was Charles Moore, the charismatic sea captain who had crossed the Pacific and noticed the floating plastic all the way back in 1997. He had started an organization called Algalita that researched ocean plastics, and he became one of the most well-known activists on the issue.
Then there was Marcus Eriksen, a Gulf War veteran with a PhD in science education, and his partner Anna Cummins, an environmental policy expert. The couple worked with Captain Moore at the time, and later founded 5 Gyres, an organization dedicated to investigating ocean plastic and raising awareness on a global level.
And I said, I’m a photographer, I don’t know anything about it, I just wanna go and take a photograph of it. And these scientists were telling me, you can’t take a photograph of the Pacific garbage patch. It’s spread out over millions of miles…there’s no place where it collects, like, everybody thinks it collects, there’s this huge patch, like an island that you could go and pick it up or go take a photograph of it. But that actually doesn’t exist.
There is no place where it comes together in the middle of the ocean. And it’s breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces all of the time and most of it is so small that you can’t even see it with the naked eye. Millions of tons of plastic and it’s micro plastic, and it’s down in the water column, might be 50 meters down.
And they told me that, and I remember in this moment, I slapped my knee in frustration. And I said “damn, I’m a photographer, I want to take a photograph of the Pacific Garbage Patch!” And Anna was sitting next to me. I hadn’t even really met her, yet. She turned to me and she said, if you want to take a photograph of the Pacific Garbage Patch, go to Midway Island and look inside the stomachs of dead baby albatrosses.
And I said, wait a second Midway Island. Like, I’ve heard of Midway, that’s the super tiny island in the very, very middle of the Pacific ocean, like surrounded by 3000 miles of ocean in every direction? And she said yeah, that’s the place, it’s the place where the battle of Midway happened in World War II.
And she said if you go there now, the island is covered with tens of thousands of dead baby birds. And their bodies are all filled up with plastic. And she opened her laptop and she said look! And she showed me, there were already like 200 photographs of albatrosses whose bodies are filled with plastic on the Internet.
And this problem had already been going on for 20 years. These… some of these photographs were 10 or 15, 20 years old, and no one had… no one had ever noticed or cared about it.
And I remember, I heard a sound in the very back of my mind, that was like a bell ringing in a… in the back of a cathedral, just this whaaaaa! That I’ve only heard a couple of other times in my life and it was… each time it’s the beginning of a huge, expensive, crazy project that takes me years. And I heard that sound in my head, and I just felt this magnetic pull to go to this place.
Because I realized, there’s something about these little handfuls. You don’t have to see Mount Everest of plastic, just a little handful of our bottle caps and maybe my bottle cap, surfacing like, it’s… it’s like… it’s like this giant iceberg. That the tip of it reaches up above the surface and you can only see the tip.
And in this case the tip of the iceberg appears in the most vulnerable and fragile and innocent place imaginable, inside the stomachs of baby birds in their nests. And when you see that, you comprehend the entire iceberg.
The Envelope by Blue Dot Sessions
In the fall of 2009, Chris travelled to Midway, together with his friend Manuel Maqueda, the guy who had organized the meeting. Manuel worked in Silicon Valley and was also a passionate activist and photographer. He would later co-found the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
On Midway, the two friends and their team photographed thousands of dead birds filled with plastic. Chris positioned his camera above each carcass, making that the center of each image. With this frame, he forced the viewer to reflect upon the terrible consequence of our throw-away culture.
His images from Midway soon went viral. But there was more beyond the frame, beyond this static moment. Because when Chris and his crew came to visit, none of the live birds were on the island.
And so that first trip I experienced Midway as this kind of killing field, this silent horrible, tragic place. And I came back from that trip really devastated by what I had seen, and by the symbol, you know, by what it represented for the world. And I came back just in a state of depression and hopelessness.
And I didn’t know what to do next because I put my photographs up on my web site and they went much more…they reached a far larger audience than I ever reached before and emails started pouring in from all over the world from people who were reflecting back that same feeling of hopelessness to me, despair and trauma. And that’s not the effect that I ever wanted my work to have on people.
So I went to my… my teachers and I presented this problem, I said, like, what can I say about my work. Like what artist statement can I write that will make people feel hopeful. And they all said the same thing, independently.
They all they said, these are the most horrible photographs we’ve ever seen. We can’t think of anything to write about it that would make anybody feel hopeful. But you’ve only seen one small narrow slice of a bigger story. And we don’t know what the bigger story is. But you have to go back to that island.
Arlan Vale by Blue Dot Sessions
And I’ll never forget the moment, stepping off the plane the second time, when we arrived on the island, when the birds, the birds were there, live birds were there, and the little plane doors, the little government plane that we took from Hawaii.
And the plane door opened and instead of being met with the horrible smell of death, and this silence of the previous experience, the door opened and this cacophony of sound just hit us! Of a million of these magnificent creatures singing and dancing at the top of their lungs.
Sounds of albatrosses by Chris Jordan
When you sleep there at night, you have to wear earplugs, because they sing and dance the entire night, as well. And to be able to walk out among them, hundreds of thousands of them in the fields. And, not only did they not run away or fly away, they’d show no fear of us.
But if you go and sit down on the ground, they actually come toward us. Until pretty soon you’re surrounded by a whole bunch of them that are all just like standing there just looking at you. And they’ll come all the way up close and maybe like really softly nibble on your, on your ear or nibble on your hand, like, just testing, like, what are you – who are you?
Sounds of albatrosses
Tidal Foam by Blue Dot Sessions
Each of those trips was about two weeks. So, there’s a plane, a government plane that goes back and forth to support the biologists who live there, every two weeks from Honolulu. There was one trip, we were able to stay for three weeks, but basically each time we went for two weeks. And so as we started to have this experience of just the beauty of these creatures who have no fear of us.
Then one of the biologists would go around with us and he would say ‘Dude, you got to come when the babies are hatching from their eggs. Because’, he said, ‘there’s a two week period in February, where at the beginning of the two weeks, there’s 350,000 parent albatrosses sitting on their egg. And at the end of the two weeks there’s 350,000 little silver fluff balls in their nest all going peeep!’
And he said, ‘if you are there exactly in those two weeks, you get to see the most incredible explosion of life. And you can get all the way up to the nest and literally put your face right at the edge of the nest and be inches away and film them that close up’. And so we’re like, ‘oh my god, so OK, so we’re coming in February’.
And then, he said, when we’re in February, he said, ‘if you come back in one month, then you will see 350,000 fat chicks that are all fluffy and super cute and they’re be big by then, like almost as big as chickens’. And so we started this process of returning to the island and seeing them at all of the different stages of their life cycle.
And then each time we also learned more about how to get really close to them. And how to attune ourselves to their level of anxiety, because sometimes we caused them anxiety, if we come too fast. So we would learn how to lie down on the ground and move in really slowly and kind of stay attuned to their level of anxiety, so we could get really close to them and film them in a more natural way.
So we gained this skill, and then each time we also brought better and better filming gear, until finally on the last trip we brought almost a million dollars worth of the best cameras and lenses available in the world at the time so we could film them flying at full speed and shoot super beautiful slow motion of them flying.
Arlan Vale by Blue Dot Sessions
The focus completely shifted, from the plastic to the birds, and from the photographs to film. Within four years, the crew returned eight times. They documented the mating dance of the birds and the hatching of their babies. They saw them depart for long journeys to find food on the ocean surface and return after weeks, to feed their chicks.
And one day, Manuel took a photo of a parent Albatross feeding its child, and right with the shutter, a piece of plastic passed from beak to beak.
Sound of shutter
When they found a dead chick, Chris cut it open with his scissors. Again and again, he found plastic inside.
And so I had this recurring experience of being with the dying birds. And it happened so many times that I began to kind of be able to take a step back and look at what’s actually happening.
And I noticed that in that moment of being with the dying birds, and it especially happened when I was filming that bird that was dying on the seawall, the bird that was right up against the rusty wall. It was an experience of incredibly deep sadness and longing for that bird.
But the… one of the things that I noticed about grieving as they died was that as I let go of the judgment that it was a good experience or a bad experience and just was there in the power of grief, I just noticed what an incredibly vivid experience it is. And I just felt really alive, I felt connected with life in this almost electrically powerful way.
And I also began to realize with each bird that died, I felt so much and I began to wonder like, why do I feel so much? Like why am I not just indifferent to them? And I realized that the only reason that I feel grief is because I love them.
That’s how Chris learned about the other side of grief. It’s the love that we feel for a being that is suffering or that we’re losing. Love and grief are like opposite sides of a coin, like mirror images of each other, Chris told me. He said the feeling liberated him.
It became like a doorway, that the more I would feel it, the more I would step toward my most essential state of being. I think, we all have that essential state of being of being in love with the world and remembering how much we love all living things.
Taoudella by Blue Dot Sessions
So Chris came to the conclusion that this could foster a collective mind shift for the transformation that we need.
If you go all the way upstream to the original cause of the problem, it’s not out there in the physical world, it’s in here inside our consciousness. That’s the headwaters of the problem of ocean plastic pollution and it’s also the headwaters of all of the environmental problems and all of the social problems.
And I thought it was strangely poetic that of all of the possible birds that could be delivering this message to humanity, it’s a legendary creature that already has a thousand-year history in our poetry and our literature as a warning, a carrier of messages – the albatross, you know, it could be the Pacific pigeon filled with plastic or the common seagull. But it’s… it’s this poetic figure.
Chris told me about a poem, called the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It’s by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an English poet who wrote it in the late seventeen hundreds. In the poem, a mariner at sea is followed by an albatross, which is considered good luck.
But then just out of sport, he shoots the bird. The wind stops, and a curse is put on his ship. Over the next weeks, the crew runs out of food and water and begins to starve. And everybody knows it’s because the mariner killed the albatross. So they hang the dead bird around his neck, as a punishment.
The poem goes on to tell the story of a transformation. Because when the entire crew is dead and the mariner is also about to die, he leans over the edge of the ship at night. And then he sees the sea monsters, and he knows they are going to come on board to eat the bodies of him and his crewmen. But as they come closer and closer, the moonlight shines on them.
And suddenly the mariner realizes how beautiful they are. Without fear or judgement, he blesses them. And in that moment, the albatross falls from his neck and sinks to the bottom of the ocean. That’s when the wind returns and blows his ship all the way back to the port.
So that’s the meaning of that poem, the rime of the ancient mariner, is that our salvation, human salvation lies in connecting with the beauty of the world. And that’s what happened for me with the albatrosses on Midway.
I went there to look into the horror of the plastic and what I was met with was the incomprehensibly amazing beauty and majesty and grace of these elegant sentient beings who sing and dance all day and all night for all the time that I was there on the island and fell crazy in love with them!
I really resonate with this thought that beyond talking about straws and bags and bottles what we really need to do is mend our relationship to the ecosystem that we are all part of. The plants, the animals, and the natural cycles on this planet. We’ve definitely lost touch.
But I also can’t help being a realist and wondering how we can achieve this with over seven billion people. After all, we live in a world driven by powerful economic interests and a couple of politicians that do not quite share this mindset of love and care.
In one way you can say we’re all stuck in a physical machine. And when you look out at society, out in the physical world, you can say that’s really hard to change. But when you see our world view, the whole way we see the world, like I have to have a job, I have to make profit. I have to have a house. Like all of those things that we tell ourselves – because I have to live in society.
If you see that as a set of stories, that is something that we can change and that we can take control of and that we have power over. Both as individuals and on a collective scale.
If you can change the story, you can literally change the world.
Sounds of albatrosses
Plink by Dorian Roy
This was the Plastisphere with photographer and filmmaker Chris Jordan. Thanks so much to him for sharing his story. I also thank the organizers of the Berlin Ocean Dinner for helping me get in touch with Chris.
My name is Anja Krieger. The music in this podcast was composed and produced by Blue Dot Sessions and Dorian Roy. Thanks to Susie, Volkart, Sara, Craig, Wicki and James at the Sonic Soirée Berlin for feedback on this episode. And a huge shout-out to my collaborator Ines Blaesius for her indispensable help telling this story.
Albatrosses are really quite amazing. Around the time Chris and I recorded our conversation, an albatross called Wisdom returned to Midway. Wisdom is the oldest known banded wild bird. She’s at least 68 years old, and has travelled millions of miles across the ocean. She’s already had over 30 kids, and just layed a new egg. Fingers crossed for the little chick!
You can learn more about these beautiful birds in Chris Jordan’s documentary. It can be downloaded for free on albatrossthefilm.com, where you can also support the filmmaker with a donation. Do make sure to watch it when you have some time to digest it afterwards. Because it’s really quite graphic and sort of an emotional roller coaster.
For more art and photography on mass consumption, go to chrisjordan.com. It’s really worth checking out his site. And if you look closer, you find another message from an island, in his new piece on climate change.
If you enjoyed my podcast, support my independent production via Patreon or Riffreporter.
And do join me for the next episode. Until then, consider the story – and how we can change it.
Sounds of albatrosses