HONG KONG — A recent typhoon off Hong Kong washed half a dozen shipping containers overboard, and it wasn’t long before the cargo — 150 tons of tiny plastic beads — began washing up on the beaches. Local fish farmers also started finding the plastic in the stomachs of their fish.
Panic is perhaps too strong a word to describe the public reaction, but hundreds of worried volunteers turned out to scoop up the pellets using shovels, dustpans and dumpling steamers. Sinopec, the Chinese oil conglomerate that owned the containers, pledged $1.2 million toward the cleanup.
It was about this time, 4,200 miles away, that the photographer and conceptual artist Chris Jordan was wrapping up his seventh trip to Midway Atoll, a small island group smack dab in the middle of the Pacific. He was completing the filming for his documentary about the millions of seabirds who nest at Midway and the threat they face from oceangoing plastic junk.
“Each time we go out there we’ve gone deeper into the horror,” Mr. Jordan told Rendezvous from his home in Seattle.
The horror resides mostly in the stomachs of young seabirds, primarily Laysan and black-footed albatrosses. The parents feed their young chicks by regurgitating food into their mouths, food they’ve gathered at sea that includes nurdles, bottle caps, pieces of fish nets, toothbrushes, cigarette lighters.
“That’s our stuff there,” Mr. Jordan said. “Our stuff we use every day.”
Endangered green turtles and Hawaiian monk seals on Midway gobble the stuff, too, thinking it’s food.
Even though Midway is 2,000 miles from any substantial piece of land, the plastic finds its way there. The mature albatrosses scoop up the plastic bits off the water, drawn to the colorful pieces thinking they’re actual food or tiny fish. They then unwittingly deliver the regurgitated food mass, called a bolus, into the throats of their chicks.
“Ingestion of debris may cause a blockage in the digestive tract, perforate the gut, result in a loss of nutrition (due to displacement of food), or cause a false feeling of being ‘full,’ ” said a fact sheet from the Marine Debris Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The wider problem of marine debris, especially plastic, is an increasing concern to many ocean scientists. My colleague Bettina Wassener has written extensively about the daunting issue and some of the initial efforts at remediation. Colleagues at the Green and Dot Earth blogs also have reported on oceanic pollution.
“Marine litter currently poses a growing threat to the marine and coastal environment,” said a report from the United Nations Environment Program. “Most marine litter consists of material that degrades slowly, if at all, so a continuous input of large quantities of these items results in a gradual build-up in the marine and coastal environment.”
Midway Atoll is U.S. territory — it was the scene of an important American naval victory over Japan in World War II — and the islands are home to a wildlife refuge administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (They certainly got the name right: Midway sits squarely in the middle of the North Pacific, 3,200 miles from both Seoul and Seattle.) A few dozen biologists, volunteers and support staff are the only inhabitants of the islands, not counting the 3 million seabirds.
It was 2008 when Mr. Jordan, eager for a new challenge, had a great idea for an art project: He had heard about a monstrous, swirling garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, an ungodly vortex of oceangoing junk held together by the tides. “A floating island twice the size of Texas” is how it was described to him. He would venture out to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and take arresting, lost-horizon photographs of the thing. He’d do well by doing good.
Trouble was, the patch wasn’t there. There were no shopping carts, innertubes, oil drums or plastic crud bobbing photogenically on the surface. All that stuff was certainly there, but it was submerged, hidden up and down the water column, sometimes thousands of feet deep.
“Completely invisible,” he said. “There’s no way you can take a photograph of it.”
Nevertheless, still drawn to the issue of ocean pollution and what he saw as a runaway consumerism that helped create it, Mr. Jordan hit on the idea of taking still photographs of dead albatrosses, their carcasses decaying to soft grays and delicate browns with the deadly plastic in their innards remaining colorful. The corpses become arresting and disturbing images that are also perversely beautiful.
A podcast of an interview with Mr. Jordan about his Midway work by the New York Review of Books is here.
On his Web site, which includes images from the whole range of his art, Mr. Jordan offers a statement about his work on Midway:
For me, kneeling over their carcasses is like looking into a macabre mirror. 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.Mr. Jordan, who says he frets over crossing the line between conceptual art and finger-wagging activism, says he does not touch any of the birds or manipulate the pictures. When a plastic toy soldier washed up on the beach a few feet from a dead bird he was photographing, he said he fought off the urge to move it into the frame.
He has given talks and exhibited his Midway pictures all over the world. After showing his early pictures at a girls’ school in Brisbane, Australia, the teacher broke down crying in front of her students.
“When I see this I don’t feel inspired, I feel panic,” she told him. “How do we get to hope from here?”
“That question,” Mr. Jordan told me, “still rings in me like a temple bell.”