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
Statue in front yard, Chalmette neighborhood Chris Jordan

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.” 

Most have mistaken plastic for food

In his travels with Maqueda, Jordan envisioned a massive island of floating trash. “I was surprised to learn that the idea of a floating island of plastic is a public misconception that has no basis in reality,” he says. “The plastic in our oceans, which comes out of our rivers and is dumped from boats, always spreads out further and further. It doesn’t collect into a mass in the middle of the ocean, any more than smoke from a smokestack would collect into a mass in the middle of the atmosphere.

"Most of the plastic is microscopically tiny, constantly breaking apart into smaller and smaller pieces. And most of it doesn’t float right on the ocean’s surface like a cork—plastic bags might be 10 feet deep, or 600 feet deep, moving with the currents. One of the scientists at the meeting said, ‘There is no way to take a photograph of the Pacific Garbage Patch,’ and I immediately felt the challenge to visually depict this enormous environmental problem. This led me to make several pieces on the subject and, eventually, the same inspiration took me to Midway Island.”

Nearly all of the 1.5 million Laysan albatrosses on Midway have mistaken plastic for food and ingested it; one-third of baby chicks die from this diet of toxic detritus. 

"They break your heart."

While there are many images of birds whose bodies are swollen with bottle caps and cigarette lighters, Jordan’s are different. They break your heart. He says it is because most of the pictures taken before his were representative of an unconscious level of engagement—an attempt at dispassionate objectivity. “When a person is standing behind a camera taking pictures, he or she is stepping into a relationship with that thing and feeling something,” he explains. “The approach the photographer takes is transmitted into the image.” As the viewer takes in Jordan’s work, something intangible shifts: As we feel what he feels, what is distant becomes close. His grief and care are transmitted from the image into us.

“For a while, as an environmental activist, I tended to focus exclusively on the bad news,” Jordan says. That “carries a particular kind of heavy despairing energy that tends not to be motivating or inspiring. But we also know that if we turn away from the bad news we are living in denial. So I think maybe it is more connective to hold a kind of middle ground—to fully face the beast of humanity’s destructiveness, and at the same time, always remembering that horror isn’t the whole story; our world is still a miracle, far beyond words. Radical transformation of human consciousness and culture can be achieved in the blink of an eye.”

Circuit boards in Atlanta

I learned of Jordan’s work through Intolerable Beauty, his large-scale portraits of mass consumption. He photographed items such as glass, spent bullet casings, circuit boards and sawdust, explaining what they have in common is “staggering complexity.” What they also have in common is beauty: “If you disregard the subject, the pure colors of trash can be as beautiful and complex as the colors in an impressionist painting,” he says. “It wasn’t until I had made quite a few large-format photographs of piles of garbage that it began to dawn on me I was looking at evidence of a global catastrophe.”

Intolerable Beauty was inspired, in part, by documentary photographer and filmmaker Phil Borges, says Jordan: “In my studio one day, looking at one of my garbage photos, he said, ‘What I see is a macabre portrait of America.’ He encouraged me to follow the thread, to study mass consumption. For me, it was like waking up from The Matrix. It marked the beginning of a journey that seems to have no end, into the dark underbelly of American consumer culture.”

Stacks of brown paper bags

Running the Numbers series I and II use duplicated images to create larger ones; in essence, fabricating narratives to get at deeper truths. A forest of trees comprised of the over 1 million paper bags used in the U.S. every hour; a Mayan god forged from 92,500 seeds that reflects a fraction of the 925 million suffering globally from malnutrition; 1.2 million stacks of children’s building blocks that show high school drop out rates in the United States—these images are vast and startling, helping viewers to begin to understand the magnitude of these challenges.

“Conceptualizing these pieces is, for me, like solving a Rubik’s Cube,” Jordan says. “I am trying to build in as many layers of meta-message as possible, to juxtapose perspectives in ways that help us face the multi-dimensional complexity of the issues themselves. I love the power of art this way—it can hold paradox and irony, humor and grief, beauty, horror, rage and love, all together in the same container, to the point where each reflects the other and you can’t tell which is which anymore. And if we walk around for long enough in the hall of mirrors, we can’t help but eventually notice our own reflection.”

The Great Wave, in plastic

One of the most striking images in Running the Numbers II is Gyre, an appropriation of Katsushika Hokusai’s iconic woodblock print The Great Wave. “I chose this image because I wanted to build a bridge between the U.S. and Asia around the issue of ocean plastic pollution,” Jordan says. “And I also thought it would be interesting to turn Hokusai’s yin/yang relationship upside down and show the great power of humans to affect the health of the world’s oceans.”  

Made of plastic collected from the laboratory of Captain Charles Moore of the Algalita Foundation (a non-profit research institution dedicated to the protection and improvement of the marine environment), the work is an 8-by-11-foot triptych of panels depicting 2.4 million pieces of plastic—equal, Jordan says, to “the estimated number of pounds of plastic pollution that enter the world's oceans every hour.”

But, Jordan stresses, “there is one aspect about humanity’s destructive effect on the planet that feels really important to point out: No one intends or wants it to be happening. We are not evil or stupid or bad or mean-spirited. The environmental devastation we are causing is the inadvertent effect of an incomprehensibly enormous and complex society, in which we each feel too small to make a meaningful difference. Many of our worst practices today were inherited from previous generations who had no idea that it would come to this.” 

"Not easy material to be with.”

The world consumes over 1 million plastic shopping bags every minute. Depending on the plastic, it takes between 100 and 500 years for each of those bags to disintegrate. Jordan’s video Camel Gastrolith, what he describes as a “bizarre corollary to Midway,” showcases the plastic debris found in camels’ stomachs.

“I got a phone call from my friend, the plastic pollution scientist Marcus Eriksen, who was in Dubai at the office of a courageous veterinarian who has been opening up the stomachs of dead camels he finds in the Arabian Desert. Marcus said he was standing in front of a god-awful mass of plastic bags from the inside of a camel, and asked if I wanted to make some kind of artwork with it. He mailed me the thing in a huge box, and I opened it in my studio. Beholding the horror of it, my stomach turned and I almost threw up at the sight of it.”

Jordan closed the box. Its contents sat for six months before he determined how to photograph the material in a way “that felt like it might do it some justice.” Jordan then fashioned what he calls “a lazy-Susan-style turntable” and put the plastic gastrolith on it: “I manually turned the turntable in tiny increments while photographing it frame by frame. I assembled 950 frames together into a video, and slowed it down until it took four minutes to make a single rotation. The sound that goes with it is a Nepalese singing bowl that rings like a funeral bell. A few thousand people have watched the video on my website, but so far only 27 people have watched all the way to the end. I recently have the privilege of showing this piece at Telluride Mountainfilm, and someone said afterwards that it was the ‘longest 4 minute film they had ever seen.’ Not easy material to be with.”

Male elephant killed for his tusks, in Kenya

This is the image Jordan selected when I asked what had to be shown. “It was a difficult photograph to take, for the intensity of the rage and grief that I felt in the presence of this magnificent being that had been killed for its tusks by six men with axes only hours previously. For me, it raises an important question: Why look at images like this at all? And my answer is, not as an exercise in pain, or a form of self-punishment, but as a portal into the transformational power of grief. That’s the intention behind a lot of my work.”

He adds, “I think my primary inspiration is simply the desire to fully live. Experiencing the spectrum of life feels more satisfying to me than trying to be ‘happy’ all of the time. But facing the truths of our world—on one hand the horrors that humans are perpetrating and, on the other hand, the world’s immense beauty and majesty—turns out to be a monumentally difficult task. Our heart is challenged to grow in its capacity, far beyond what we might have ever thought was possible.” 

Wildlife friends club wall, Kenya

Jordan explains, “In grief, we find out how much we care about something, because that is what grief is: a felt experience of love for something we are losing, or have lost. When we feel grief for the loss of a creature, or a species, or a forest, or the health of a river or an ocean, we discover something we might not have known previously: that we love that thing, maybe a lot. In my view, that is the missing piece in our culture right now, the bug in the operating system that allows us to keep behaving as we are: We have collectively forgotten that we love our world, and all of the ecosystems and creatures in it—and each other, too.”

Although he spends much of his work life bringing the suffering of the natural world to light, Jordan is never bereft of hope. “What inspires me, and also keeps me up at night, is the potential that we have to change. There’s so much horror, there’s so much bad news of a thousand different kinds on all of these different dimensions, and yet there’s nothing stopping us from changing,” he says. “We could change.” 

A mother albatross and her chick at Midway

“For a long time my work and focus were all about the bad news,” Jordan says. “At the time, it felt like the right approach, because to turn away from all the bad news felt like living in denial. I still believe that, but I have also come to see that there is another side to the story, which is the miracle that is every moment in our incomprehensibly magnificent world. So, lately, I am trying to stand mid-way between those poles, trying to develop the capacity to hold it all, rather than focusing exclusively on all the bad news that humans are perpetrating. In that process, I have come to wonder whether the hardest thing of all to bear is not the horror and bad news, but the immense beauty and miracle we are all surrounded by all the time.” 

Class photo at Naisunyai Primary School, Kenya

“I think there is a powerfully positive feeling that we tend to call hope,” Jordan says. “We are all filled with it, and we want more of it collectively, but we are using the wrong name for it. I believe the feeling we are referring to—but maybe lack the courage to acknowledge to ourselves and each other—is love. Love does not depend on anything happening or not happening in the future. It is active, not passive, and we all have access to it all the time. I believe we all contain a vast ocean of love inside of us, far greater and more powerful than we imagine. What would the world look like if we were to collectively allow ourselves to feel the depth of the love we are made of, and harness its power on behalf of life and each other?

"That’s a doorway I’d like to step through.”

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.