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Plastic is Forever: The Art of Mass Consumption

For International Bag Free Day, an intimate look at American mass consumption through the eyes of photographer Chris Jordan

Statue in front yard, Chalmette neighborhood (Chris Jordan)
smithsonian.com

This July 3 marks International Plastic Bag Free Day, a global event organized by Zero Waste Europe and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives dedicated to the reduction of single-use bags. But for photographer Chris Jordan, every day is an opportunity to spread awareness about the devastating impacts of disposable plastics. For the past decade, Jordan has dedicated his photography career to making abstract stories of environmental degradation visceral.

His perspective was conceived in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, when he saw news outlets disseminating image upon image of dead babies wrapped in blankets, distraught mothers and decimated belongings. “All the news coverage was delivered in that typical, flat news voice,” he says. “I felt nothing. But I had the intuition that there was a photographic story to be told—one of reverence and love.” The result was his seminal work on plastic pollution, which he is now working to transform from still to moving image—all at a time when the environmental impacts of waste are more stark than ever.

I caught up with Jordan to find out the stories behind some of his most moving images, and to go deeper into how he uses his work to serve as commentary on human consumption and engagement.

A gutted albatross at Midway Island

Jordan’s experience in New Orleans eventually led him to Midway, a 2.4-mile atoll in the Pacific Ocean that is home to the majority of the world’s Laysan albatross population—and the end point for tons of plastic debris.

“I first learned about ocean plastic pollution from my friend Manuel Maqueda (co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition),” Jordan explains. “In 2008, when ocean plastic was first coming to public awareness, Manuel personally funded a meeting of scientists from around the globe to discuss the issue. He invited me to attend, and I went there hoping to catch a ride on someone’s research ship to the middle of the Pacific Garbage Patch.” 

About Simran Sethi

Simran is a journalist and educator focused on food and sustainability. She is the author of Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love, a book about changes in food and agriculture told through bread, wine, chocolate, coffee and beer.

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