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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.

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. 

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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