Bearing witness at Midway Atoll

SUBHEAD: Photographer Chris Jordan on art, grief, and transformation in the North Pacific Gyre.


Image above: Photo of dead albatross on Midway beach stuffed with bits of plastic trash by . From (  

Photographer Chris Jordan is used to working on the large scale. His most famous works try to capture the sheer scope of American consumer culture: discarded circuit boards spread out like a city, teetering stacks of crushed cars, two million plastic bottles (the number Americans use every five minutes) compiled in a single photograph.

But with his most recent project, Jordan is narrowing his focus. Last fall, he led a team of artists to Midway Atoll, a tiny, remote island in the middle of the Pacific where throw-away culture is having a major impact: albatross chicks are dying by the thousands, choking or starving after trying to eat small chunks of plastic carried to the island by the North Pacific Gyre (also called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). The result is a relentless series of photographs of decomposing birds with bright, colorful plastic where their stomachs used to be.

For Jordan, opening himself up to the horror of what’s happening on Midway—all the while recognizing that it’s “just one of the tragedies that’s happening in our world”—was painful and intensely demoralizing. But, together with the writer Terry Tempest Williams, he’s now planning to return several more times to further immerse himself in the island’s hard truths—and to discover whether transformation can be found on the other side of grief.

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