An adolescent Laysan albatross is a ridiculous-looking creature. On most of its body, the dark fluffy down that it grew as a chick has been replaced by sleek white and gray flight feathers. But the fluff clings to its head, stubbornly and comically, giving it the look of an '80s rock star at a photo shoot with a wind machine.
The birds’ parents have left to return to the wild sea, leaving the gangly juveniles alone on Midway, the remote atoll where most of the world’s Laysan albatrosses grow up. They have no choice but to follow—a first flight that will take them away from solid ground for three or more years. They line up in great, teeming crowds tens of thousands strong, stretching their enormous wings across seven-foot spans. They look like both the noble messengers of poetry and, in the words of the artist Chris Jordan, who has spent months photographing and filming them, “teenagers at the 7-Eleven.”
Jordan is a photographer who once referred to himself, while joking with Stephen Colbert, as a paparazzo of garbage. Before going to Midway, he spent years trying to visually represent the baffling scale on which we produce and scrap the materials of consumer society. He explored ports and scrap yards, photographing immense, looming walls of crushed cars and oil drums, shipping containers and pallets, and later began creating digital composites to illustrate statistics too vast for the human brain to compute: a forest made from the cigarette butts thrown out every 15 seconds in the United States; a swirl of hundreds of thousands of cell phones, the discards of a single American day.
He’d created other series in the past—nature scenes, studies of alleys and puddles and urban trees bathed in the glow of neon signs—but nothing felt relevant to contemporary culture until he began trying to make the grand scale of human waste visible. It was his way of hunting the perpetual, elusive quarry familiar to environmentalists: a message that can get people to care.
But over time this work began to feel cold and conceptual, almost numbing. Jordan began to doubt that it could accomplish the breakthrough he wanted. So he started searching for something different: a way to help people make a powerful emotional connection to a broken world.
That’s when he heard about what happens to many Laysan albatrosses on the verge of flight.
Before the teenaged birds can take flight for the first time they must literally purge their infancy, vomiting up the undigested remains of the food that their parents regurgitated into their mouths over the months of their growth. That means squid beaks, bits of wood or debris, and, increasingly, plastic: toothbrushes, bottle caps, cigarette lighters, indeterminate sun-bleached fragments—whatever their dedicated parents innocently collected from the sprawling ocean gyre that has come to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Unburdened, the young birds take long, running starts and rise above the waves, into adulthood.
But not all of them. Each year tens of thousands, it’s estimated, remain behind. They try to purge, dry-heaving desperately, but they can’t get the plastic out and so cannot fly away; cannot search for food. Some die from stomach punctures. Others slowly starve, weak and weighted down, their bellies full but empty of anything to nourish them. Eventually they can barely lift their heads, but they still open and close their beaks, as though trying to retch. At last they lie still. Their bodies litter the ground. Some wash broken in the waves, their great wings trailing behind them. In time their flesh decomposes and their feathers blow away in the wind. In small, colorful piles where their stomachs once were, the plastic remains.
It’s painful to watch and traumatic to film. Jordan remembers how he got the death footage, his camera just inches away from young birds struggling for their last breaths, his glasses almost too full of tears for him to see. “They couldn’t know why they were dying,” he says. “But I did.” His world had inadvertently ended theirs.
This was the image he’d come for, the heart-breaking moment of wretchedness, a truth impossible to ignore. But slowly he realized it wasn’t right. It didn’t create the stirring call to action that he’d come for. The answer felt closer, somehow, in those images of the floppy-feathered adolescents, their wings stretched with hesitant strength against the wind.
In 2009, the same year that Jordan first went to Midway, the American Psychological Association convened a task force to study what psychologists had to say about the most confounding environmental crisis of our time: climate change. “We must look at the reasons people are not acting in order to understand how to get people to act,” the task force’s chair declared, echoing countless strategy sessions at environmental NGOs. Among other findings, the report cited a theory that much of what looks like apathy in people’s response to climate change may really be a defense mechanism, a way to avoid an intolerable reality by denying it or by mentally “splitting”—facing it only intellectually, with emotions not invited. The report cited a 2007 paper by the psychologist David Kidner. “Staring reality, and not least ecological reality, in the face can indeed be unbearable,” Kidner wrote, “and it is therefore unsurprising that many of us engage in mental gymnastics in order to avert the full psychological impact of the destruction of the natural world.”
In 2011, a team of psychologists studying the emotional trauma and anxiety caused by the changing climate concluded that “global change is as much a psychological and social phenomenon as a matter of biodiversity and geophysics.” The Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht, after studying people living in an area transformed by open-pit coal mining, invented a word for the anguish we feel when beloved natural places change beyond recognition: solastalgia, which pulls from the roots of pain and desolation. Though we talk despairingly about how little people care about the environment, we’re now starting to recognize a different problem: Often, we care more than we can stand.
Think of the messaging debates of the environmental movement: For every question about creating urgency—are polar bears the heartstring-tugging faces of climate change, or distractions from the fact that we need to be worried about our own hides?—there are others about managing despair. Does touting recycling or low-flow toilets empower people to make bigger changes by giving them a stake in change and convincing them that environmental problems are manageable? Or does it make them feel cynical and hopeless and insulted, by offering such tiny solutions in the face of crisis? Should we be honest about the losses it’s too late to forestall, or should we plug the things that can still be saved? Hopelessness is the intolerable bogeyman, to be kept away with the right incantation.
Jordan never had much truck with that view. The first time he went to Midway it was for a single trip, in September, a time of year when all the hundreds of thousands of living albatrosses were gone from the island. Only dead young birds, decomposed to the point where the plastic in their stomachs was visible, were present. Jordan chose this time on purpose, believing that it was his job to put the emotional trauma of environmental loss front and center, not to displace it—to “fully experience the horror of just one of the tragedies that’s happening in our world.” The work of artists, he says, is “not to relieve us of feelings of hopelessness, despair, rage, love, but to help us feel those things.”
Jordan returned from Midway with a series of beautiful but disturbing photographs—intimate portraits of innocent victims whose every viewer was implicated in their deaths. He then sank into a depression that it took him months to face. “I’ve realized that the metaphor that I carried with me when I went to Midway was that Dante’s Inferno scenario,” he told me about six months after that first trip. “You walk through the fire, and you come out the other side with renewed energy or perspective. What actually happened, though, is that I felt like I walked through the fire and then just burned up in it.”
People who saw the photos likewise reported feeling traumatized, haunted, hopeless. Jordan remembers showing his photos at a girls’ school in Australia. After he was done speaking, the teacher who invited him stood up in front of the rows of 12- and 13-year-olds in their matching jumpers. Her voice breaking, she leaned into the microphone and said: “I want to feel inspired. I want to feel grief and love and these things you talk about. But what I feel is panic.” She began to sob. “Will you please just tell me,” she asked, “how do we get to hope from here?”
Jordan didn’t know how to answer her. Years later, he can’t tell the story without beginning to cry himself. It was after that talk that he decided he had to go back to Midway and find something else there.
Jordan's second trip to Midway, during which he watched young albatrosses struggle and convulse and suffer and die, was even more devastating. But at least there was another side of the story: the birds who made it, flying away on young, uncertain wings. After that trip, he kept returning, with better equipment, to film different parts of the birds’ lives. Here were tiny, bright-eyed fluffballs, lords of nests built amid overgrown anti-aircraft guns. (Midway is littered with abandoned military installations.) Here were adults seeking out their lifelong partners, whistling and calling and clacking beaks, lifting their graceful necks high until they found the bird whose dance matched theirs. Here were parents carefully grooming each other’s sleek feathers, or taking turns keeping a precious egg warm, or landing after a long voyage at sea with a belly full of food for eager chicks. Jordan filmed it all, with slow, lingering, intimate shots that feel more like dynamic portraits than documentary film. Years later, an artist friend pointed to one of his original shots, the plastic inside the rotting bird, and told him that all the new footage felt like the caption for that photograph. It told the fuller story.
Slowly, the way Jordan thought about his work on Midway changed. His job wasn’t to soak up what he calls the darkness of the world; he could face it, he realized, without taking it in. “You acknowledge the presence of the darkness,” he says, “and you shine your light into it.” And his job wasn’t to be transformed by fire or to find a hidden door to hope: “We have this cultural obsession with hope. I’m not sure how useful hope really is.” When he gives a talk and someone stands up—someone always does—to ask, “But what do I do about this? What’s the solution?” he no longer wants to answer them. “That person,” he says, “may be feeling something uncomfortable that they don’t want to feel. They’re feeling the enormity and the complexity of the problems of our world, and that makes them feel anxious.” To give them an easy answer, he says, would be “like pulling the plug in a bathtub: the feeling all drains out. My job is to help people connect with what they feel, even if it’s uncomfortable.”
David Kidner, the psychologist, posits that we avoid painful truths about environmental collapse at our psychological peril. We blame ourselves for our discomfort and anxiety, instead of recognizing that well-being is tied up with “participation in a healthy eco-cultural context,” and that we’re losing both the health of the natural world within which we evolved and our sense of connection to it. “Such felt but unspoken losses therefore become a tacitly accepted part of the ‘human condition,’” he writes, “a dimly intuited ‘fall’ from which we spend our lives trying to recover, a guilt we can never quite grasp or expiate; and the origins of our emotional distress remain obscure.... As a civilisation, we would do well to listen to the truths hinted at by those feelings we tend to categorise as ‘depressive’ rather than attempting, through medication or therapy, to silence them.”
In a sense, this is what Jordan is up to. He’s come to see his goal as holding horror and beauty in balance. He thinks of the feature-length film he's cutting, which will be called Midway, as a grief ritual. A year and a half ago, he spent the last two months of his mother’s life by her side as she died of pancreatic cancer. It was an experience not of horror but of “ecstatic sadness,” he says, which became a new goal for the project. “I discovered that grief is not the same as sadness and despair,” he says—not a debilitating feeling, that is, to be avoided at all costs. “Grief is the same as love. Grief is a felt experience of love for something that we’re losing, or that we’ve lost.”
It’s been hard to hold the balance. The first cut of his film, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, was, in the words of one of Jordan’s friends, “despair porn.” It was full of somber organ music, dark clouds moving across the sky, shots of birds eating plastic, vomiting plastic, dying and suffering, piled in a dead heap four feet deep. The next version, which Jordan worked on with a nature-film editor, moved more briskly, but he felt it was too simplistic, too much like a standard nature documentary. So now he’s started adding back in all his favorite footage, the moments that stirred him to fall in love with the birds: graceful sun-drenched flight, adult partners leaning into each other, the goofy-haired, awkward teenagers in front of the 7-Eleven. He’s not cutting the painful deaths, but he’s not prioritizing them over the beautiful lives that they interrupt.
How, I ask, does he want viewers to feel after watching the completed film? “Really full,” he answers. “I want you to hold the paradox. If we can contain it all and just be in that space, that’s where the transformation happens; that’s when the key turns in the lock.” What’s on the other side of the door, he says, is still a hopeful mystery: What we might do and what we might change, were we to stop hiding from grief and instead face the profoundly painful, profoundly beautiful truth of all that we’re losing.
Jordan remembers a moment “when the other side of the equation showed itself”—when he at last found something on Midway to rival his depression. It was February, hatching season, and he stepped off the plane into the overwhelming experience of a number as vast as the ones he’d tried to represent in his last series. Some 600,000 pairs of albatrosses nest on Midway, and they were all around him: birds “as big and magnificent as eagles” everywhere, in every direction, so close together it was hard to keep from stepping on them, a wheeling, dancing, screaming cacophony filling what seemed to be the whole world. Over the next two weeks their eggs hatched, adding 350,000 chirping balls of fluff to the flock.
Unused to predators, the birds allowed Jordan to place his camera inches from their babies, right in their nests. Engrossed in the work, his lens focused on a newly hatched chick, for a moment he forgot what was going on around him. The chick’s mother stretched her wings and then relaxed them, leaving one draped carelessly across the top of his head. He felt a click inside—something painful and exquisite and very far from despair.