An odyssey of hope
On Midway Island, human trash is killing the albatross population. Seattle photographer Chris Jordan hopes we can save them - and ourselves
An unlikely siren called Chris Jordan to a small island in the North Pacific Ocean covered with dead and dying seabirds. That siren was plastic.
Since 2003, Jordan has amassed a body of photographs in his investigation of the United States’ growing addiction to mass consumption. A river of discarded cell phones, a sea of colored glass bottles, an army of Barbie dolls: all these and more, featured in large-format documentary photos or digital recreations, have pointed to Americans’ propensity to buy goods that end up as mountains of garbage.
But Jordan, 48, said that even though his work has been well received, he’s always been challenged by the enormity of helping people understand the role we play in creating — and ending — our cycle of trash. He knew that plastic was a potent symbol of society’s excess. A group of scientists he met agreed.
When the conversation turned to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that mythic gyre of marine trash that swirls over
an indeterminate area of the Pacific, Jordan lamented there was no way to photograph the entire maelstrom. A scientist spoke up: “She said, ‘If you want to see the garbage patch up close, go look inside the stomachs of dead baby birds on Midway Island,’” Jordan recalled.
Surprised by the woman’s words, Jordan went to the Internet. A search turned up images of dead birds on Midway that showed their guts littered with undigested plastic. Surely, he thought, those images were altered. He could only think of one way to verify the pictures: visit Midway.
Past and present
In one sense the trip would be a journey back in time. In June 1942, six months after the Japanese Imperial Navy attacked Pearl Harbor, the u.s. Navy defeated the Japanese fleet during the Battle of Midway. Numerous military historians consider the u.s. action on the atoll a decisive moment in determining the outcome of WWII.
When Jordan flew to Midway in the fall of 2009, the 2.4-square-mile island still held the former naval air station — and millions of seabirds. The majority of them were various species of albatross. A large seabird, some have wingspans that reach 12 feet.
As he walked around the island, Jordan discovered the images he’d seen on the Web hadn’t been altered. Midway was an above-ground mausoleum of birds. Scattered among their wind-ravaged feathers and sun-bleached bones, were bright, colored pieces of plastic: cigarette lighters, bottle caps, washers, even a plastic teddy bear.
Jordan photographed what he saw, vowing not to add or remove any plastic from the carcasses. Sometimes, he would remove the bird’s breastplate, to better reveal the plastic waste it had consumed, but otherwise he left the carcass alone. Gazing at a once living creature brought down by the detritus of modern human life was a mirror.
“It’s like looking into our souls,” Jordan said.
The photos became part of the collection, “Midway: Message from the Gyre.” He posted the images on the Internet, and they went viral. In response, Jordan said he received thousands of emails, many asking a variation of a question: After seeing such loss of life caused by human waste, how do we find a sense of hope?
The questions were heartbreaking. Jordan didn’t want his work to paralyze viewers, but to spur them to action. So he decided to return to Midway, to tell more stories from the island.
Jordan has now visited Midway six times. Aided by a crew, he’s filmed and photographed the perils of avian life on the island. This imagery will be part of the film “Midway,” the trailer of which can be viewed at midwayfilm.com. He’s started an online campaign to raise $100,000 to finance the work.
Even with the film in its early stage, Jordan and his crew have captured moving images. One video shows a mother albatross that fed her chick a meal which contained fishing line. The line runs like a deadly tether from the mother’s beak to the chick’s. Jordan and an assistant remove the line from the mother, but find the line is wrapped around the chick’s tongue. Eventually, they cut the line in hopes the chick will survive. They later learn the line could be dental floss.
Then there is Miguel, a chick born near a Midway building. Jordan and his crew watched the bird hatching from its egg. Caught on video in February, it’s a sweet moment of emergent life.
But it’s impossible to say what life will hold for Miguel, Jordan said. A study from 1996, he said, found that 54 percent of the seabirds’ stomach contents were plastic, including rubber, foam and fishing line. “Statistically, Miguel has a low chance of getting off the island,” Jordan said.
He plans to check on Miguel soon. On June 28, Jordan and his crew will travel to Midway for three weeks, the longest trip he’s taken so far. He greets the trip with some hesitation, as he calls this time of year on the island “the dying season.”
Fledglings prepare to take their maiden sea voyage, though Jordan said, many don’t make it. Some die of starvation due to stomachs full of plastic, while others lose their lives from exposure to the elements.
Still, Jordan believes Midway is a spiritual place, and he finds the name evocative. “Here we are at this crossroads,” he said, “where everything that has ever happened has led to this moment and everything we decide now will decide the future.”
He believes the albatross, a central figure in the Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Marinier,” plays a special role in humanity. “It’s like this spirit bird, the messenger,” he said.
What Jordan wants the film to communicate is that people can change the way they live and alter the fate of the albatrosses of Midway. “It’s a message of horror, but also beauty and hope,” he said. “And love.”
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