The name given to the accumulation of tons of man-made debris in the Pacific, “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” brings to mind a bobbing plastic purgatory. Gulls shift awkwardly on top of bottles like log-rolling lumberjacks, until an occasional freighter churns through, leaving millions of take-out containers, water bottles and molding sneakers in its wake. The patch has been said to be twice the size of Texas.
But these are misconceptions. Pollution is spread out over thousands of miles, and some lurks below the surface. Although it is difficult to quantify, there is one place where the full effects can be seen: in the stomachs of dead baby albatrosses on Midway Island.
Laysan albatrosses mistake floating debris for food, feeding cigarette lighters and fishing hooks to their chicks. The debris can obstruct the esophagus, tear the digestive system or linger in the stomach, giving a false sense of satiation and leading to death by malnutrition and psychological stress.
“My jaw just about hit the floor,” artist Chris Jordan said during a phone call from Seattle. He learned of the pollution’s impact while researching a photo series about the intersection of mass consumption and mass culture. The discovery prompted Jordan to head off to the remote island in September 2009 to photograph the birds.
Jordan had seen activists’ photos of dead birds with plastic still inside the skeletons and wondered if the images were staged. But, he said, when he got to the island he “saw, in fact, there really are that many [decaying birds] and they are completely filled with plastic.” He said the sights were so incredible that he realized that, just as he was skeptical, others might doubt the truth of his photos. “I had to set an incredibly high ethical standard,” he said.
In shooting the dead birds, Jordan allowed himself only to remove an obscuring breastbone or patch of grass. If the tripod so much as bumped the bird during set up and moved the plastic, Jordan would stop the shoot and move on to another subject.
“It’s a pretty stunning experience to go out there and to see so much death,” Jordan said.
The photos are accordingly blunt. The albatrosses’ bodies melt away, leaving a spattering of bones, bills and feathers. As the feathers decay, they wilt into burnt siennas accented by snow white vertebrae, grating against the uncomfortable pastels of the plastics. Softness is still present in many frames, whether in the form of blooming tufts of down or delicate bones. In the most advanced stage of decomposition, the rot leaves a dark shadow around a plastic crater in the earth.
Jordan’s photos have been honored by the Prix Pictet, an award that honors photography that focuses on sustainability.
According to John Klavitter, deputy refuge manager of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is able to clean up about eight of the 20 tons of debris that reaches Midway yearly.
In addition to the photography, Jordan and a video crew are nearing completion of a feature length documentary, scheduled for release in 2014. (See footage from the film, left.)
One night, while shooting the documentary, he rode into the forest on his bicycle to find an abandoned, dehydrated chick he had seen earlier that day. It was dying and ants were already starting to eat its eyes. When he found it again, Jordan fell to his knees next to the barely breathing bird and raged against his own helplessness. Over the course of filming, the documentary has transformed from one centered on cultural activism to one that is as much about the mystery of the cycle of life. Jordan says this is the heart of Midway Island: Even in the deepest horror there is incredible beauty.
He and his crew will make two more trips to Midway Island to finish the documentary: one in September to film the island when it is barren except for the dead albatrosses, and another in December to capture mating dances.