How To Photograph The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

- - Working

I remember several years ago sitting in a meeting talking about “the great pacific garbage patch,” trying to come up with a way to photograph what we felt was an important story. A floating patch of plastic garbage somewhere between twice the size of Texas and the size of the U.S. was out there but couldn’t be seen because it floated just below the surface (WSJ story here) in a loose jumble. That story never happened because we couldn’t figure out how to do it. I was happily surprised to discover this week that Chris Jordan, a photographer who explores the phenomenon of American consumerism, found a way to tell the story.

These photographs of albatross chicks were made just a few weeks ago on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand and coral near the middle of the North Pacific. The nesting babies are fed bellies-full of plastic by their parents, who soar out over the vast polluted ocean collecting what looks to them like food to bring back to their young. On this diet of human trash, every year tens of thousands of albatross chicks die on Midway from starvation, toxicity, and choking.

chrisjordan

See more (here).

There Are 34 Comments On This Article.

  1. Moving photos. We hear about this every few years but then it fades back into the background noise. Hopefully people will take this seriously and use less plastic before this works its way up the food chain and kills us all.

  2. Wow, Good to see that it’s finally getting some attention! CNN had an article on their home page today as well. http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/10/29/ocean.garbage/index.html and VBS.tv filmed a 3 week, informative trip to the vortex. http://www.wanderingpondering.com/2009/08/garbage-island-pacific-floating-garbage.html

    I’ve also heard that there are miles of coast line in the far reaches of Alaska that’s piled high with heaps of garbage, also due to the currents.

  3. Chris Jordan is an astonishing artist. He transformed the camera into a mighty force of environmental justice.

    Seems like cleaning up the oceans could render a lot of jobs. That’s my vote for best use of stimulus dollars.

    What a reminder to manage every spec of trash. Here in Seattle, where Jordan is based, the city trash cans clearly spell out that if you put something in the trash that it’s going in the landfill, or as we see, in the bellies of tiny birds.

  4. Phenomenal in every way.

    In Los Angeles people can volunteer for beach clean up days with Heal the Bay. Nature Conservancy also does a very good job of working to restore many waterways and natural areas around the world. While there’s not a lot of cash to spare right now – they and many other non-profit groups could use our help in the daunting clean-up task. We can also skip buying plastic whenever possible. Steel water bottles work great. Thanks for posting this.

  5. we need to be more responsible…

    the world need to be more responsible

    the word SUSTAINABILITY needs to be translated and shared in every language

    the modern world is a disposable society
    the world is not disposable

  6. Wonderful photo essay.

    Lest we get too uppity, photography related industry.. manufacture, processing and printing.. isn’t especially eco-friendly.

  7. Rob, again a great post! cudos

    I find it interesting that this is coming to the forefront of the media again and it is good! I have spent a lot of time in the wilderness sections of Parks in California and you see it posted often, “Pack it in, Pack it out!” I often pick up a couple extra pieces of trash, and I dont’ remember who said it in their comment, it is about responsiblity! Not just in the parks or at the beach but everywhere.

    Hey, I like getting the money for recyled plastics and glass and cans and… it’s extra gas money and the occasional burger.

  8. Great photos! BUT,
    Ok, first of all yes this sucks and yes we need to do something about it…

    But you need to be properly informed of what is actually the problem. “The great pacific garbage patch,” TOTAL FICTION. This essay isn’t proof of anything but the fact that birds eat garbage from our dumps and that is the problem that needs addressing.

    The supposed location of the “pacific garbage patch” is somewhere near Hawaii not the norther pacific where these photos were taken. I’m sorry but I just get irritated when stupid bad information gets propagated.

    • @Andrew, the problem is that birds eat garbage from our dumps? you are a fucking idiot sir.

      i’ve lost my ability to be cordial on this.

      the problem andrew is not that birds are eating garbage from our dumps. it is the unsustainable desire for cheap, disposable products. it is the consumerism that drives the american economy. it is the idiots like you who fail to see the forest because of the trees.

      stupid bad information- good god.

      • @Lance, yes, become informed, it’s easy to do. The albatross cruise hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles throughout the Pacific Ocean looking for food to bring back to their young. Parents take turns. They have evolved to pluck whatever floats on the surface of the ocean, which used to be spawned squid and other fish, but is now mingled with so much plastic. They do not know how to discern what’s food and what’s not, they just swallow and off they go…to regurgitate it into their fledgling’s waiting beak.

      • @Lance,
        I want it to be clear I do know that there is a problem and that HUMANS are the root not just Americans though. I also realize that this stuff is out there ALREADY, is CONTINUED to be made and will not be stopped for the foreseeable future. So I’m sorry for simplifying the problem because it’s much more complex and complicated than you or I could ever get into in a forum such as this. But I will not get into a shouting match with name callers. It was simply my intention to point out that the pacific garbage patch doesn’t exist. I do so because I know there is a problem and want it to be taken seriously instead of based on make believe fantasies.

      • Unfortunately this can be easily staged and we will not know for sure since there are whack jobs on both sides of the issue..

      • @Paolo Nobile,
        So I’ll continue on about the make believe fantasy…
        Wikipedia, great place to start but not exactly a place for a definitive answer especially one such as this that has so much ideological weight to it.
        Yes there are unacceptable amounts of garbage in our oceans; not an island like its made out to be. That’s all I wanted to be clear and should have done so in my first post.

    • @Andrew,

      really? wow…

      the problem, as usual is the world’s addiction to petroleum ie:plastic. and a good dose of ignorance and lack of caring. (not directed at anyone in particular)

      andrew, you are sort of right. there is, from what i understand, no “island” of plastic the size of texas. but one of the major problems that IS happening is every year, millions of pieces of plastic are floating out to sea, mostly from our rivers and shores (over 85% of the plastic in oceans comes from shore as opposed to boats, etc) which drift around for however long, slowly, very slowly breaking down because of wave motion, UV rays, etc. into smaller and smaller particles until they are about the size of a grain of sand. these particles very closely resemble the food for many small baitfish. these small baitfish eventually get eaten by bigger fish, birds and other organisms all the way up on the food chain including us. i’m sure you see where this is going.

      checked out a pretty cool presentation by a group that’s been studying the effects of this for over 10 years at the Keen office in Portland, OR last year. if you’d like to see what they are doing and get more information about what i’ve been babbling about, you can check out their site at:

      http://www.junkraft.com

      The mayor of portland was at this presentation as well. He’s trying to get plastic grocery bags (which are one of the worst offenders) banned in the city of Portland. would be a great thing if he can make it happen. such a great city.

      i believe what truly is the problem, is the most driving force in this world is money. big business and industry will do whatever it takes to swerve perception and distract the masses in the name of more money.

      until community, health, the well being of our earth and it’s ecosystems become the most important factor for the majority…

      every bit helps. thanks Rob for putting this up.

  9. Great idea, although Iwould never want to hang a huge detailed print of these birds on my wall. His other prints of cell phones and waste would look good on my wall.

  10. I have never commented on this site before but I couldn’t breathe while viewing these photos.

  11. Very Interesting. Now if we could only find a way to photograph that giant blob of oil that is the size of Tribeca thats floating on top of the water table under Brooklyn heading towards Queens……

  12. wonderful, important story. National geographic did a story on it a couple years ago, I can’t recall who shot it but they had an almost identical photo in their story, it still gives me the creeps today just thinking about it.

    • @Doug,

      The story was on the Northwestern islands of the Hawaii chain, by David Liittschwager and Susan Middleton from the October 2005 issue of NGM. In addition to the photograph of the birds and their stomach contents, their images of debris washed up on the shore also illustrated this subject.

      An audio slide show that includes the work is here:

      http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2005/10/hawaii/sights-sounds-interactive

      Like Rob, we’ve tried to find a way to create compelling images of the “eddy of garbage” in the Pacific, but our own investigations on it show that it actually does not look the way it sounds. Statistically there is indeed a concentration of floating debris, but physically the material is all too spaced apart to look as interesting as it sounds. A floating bag here, a tangle of fishing line here, but no solid swirling mass, or at least not one that can be easily gotten to.

      I applaud Chris for addressing this issue and bringing further light to the plight of wildlife affected by this waste.

      David Griffin, Director of Photography, National Geographic magazine

  13. Fantastic you have posted this Rob. Spotted it via a tweet a couple of weeks ago. Amazing shots, poignant, beautiful & frightening at the same time.

    A real wake-up call to the world.

  14. Ignoring content, the interesting thing here is how to frame and make visible something that is not readily visible. I really like Chris’s work (especially his larger images on consumerism) as they recognize the limits of the photographic form and push at that to convey his message.

    As a photographer, I primarily go out in the world and see what it offers me visually. I know when I have something with a bite, and will often work from there to distill meaning from it.

    I’ve also worked starting from an idea and thought about how to represent that idea visually, which you see more in fine art photography and is more akin with painting. This tends to be the way that editors work as they often have a story in place and then generate images. [I'd be curious to know (outside of an expose on an artist) if pieces have been produced where the photographer lays the foundation and then writer generates supporting text - even going out in the field to cover the photographer's tracks.]

    A photo editor (Rob? David?) would probably have better insight as I’m interested in hearing more about that challenge of visual representation (idea = starting point v. the image = starting point) with photography. Pulling meaning from images has helped me develop as a photographer, though I find that starting from an idea/story is really helping develop my work now.

  15. Really really powerful pictures. You don´t need anything more to present how fucked up our nature really is. Just came back from Bali, they pour everything to ocean and all the that garbage will end up back to our stomach…