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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)
smithsonianmag.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.

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.”

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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