Midway into grief
Chris Jordan uses his images of Midway Island to reflect upon environmental devastation
Seattle-based photographer/ filmmaker Chris Jordan finds himself grieving, every day—and he is working to make others grieve along with him.
Jordan’s sorrow is palpable in his latest work, Midway: Message From the Gyre, a film based on the Layson albatross, a massive seabird that nests on one of the most remote places on the planet. His journey with his grief has been ongoing since 2009, when he first visited Midway Island, where the birds nest, and where he discovered thousands of dead albatross chicks.
Soon after that trip, Jordan—who is one of the keynote speakers at Chico State’s annual This Way to Sustainability conference—released a set of photos of the corpses of the albatross chicks, each bird’s feathers and bones curled around the colorful pile of plastic that the chick had ingested. The baby albatrosses had been fed lighters, plastic bottle caps, and miscellaneous debris by their well-meaning parents, who had scooped up the plastic from the heavily polluted Pacific Ocean near Midway Island, more than 2,000 miles from the closest continent.
The heart-wrenching photos quickly went viral. The public’s response was, as Jordan put it in a recent emotion-laden phone interview from his Seattle studio, one of “trauma—people were feeling devastated and hopeless.”
In his art, Jordan strives first to quantify and understand each environmental issue he addresses—often a daunting task considering how large many of the world’s environmental problems have become. He hopes our emotional response as viewers will get us in greater touch with “what we feel about what’s happening to our world as a way of reconnecting with ourselves,” which guides us into a space where we are ready to take “passionate action” to heal ourselves and our world.
“When my work had this opposite effect [making people feel hopeless],” he continued, “it was really heartbreaking to me, but I could understand why—I could feel it myself. That’s when I decided to go back to the island and go more deeply into the tragedy.” Jordan, along with a film crew, returned to Midway Island six more times. He plans a final trip this month, after his appearance in Chico on March 8.
Jordan is a fitting choice as the closing speaker at the conference, which kicked off today (March 7) at Chico State. The estimated 1,100 to 1,400 participants in the annual student-led conference will be immersed in a vast range of environmental issues and proposed solutions, from “ethical” meat consumption to community micro-grids, as well as keynote addresses from noted water conservationist Heather Cooley and water-rights activist and filmmaker Shalini Kantayya.
But Jordan’s talk, like many of the photos he’ll be presenting, will be different. It will be jarring, transformational and lacking the typical list of solutions that environmentalists are used to receiving.
After witnessing the tragedy on Midway Island, Jordan found himself grieving, as if he had lost a loved one. “To feel the depth of our love, it’s not so easy to connect with it. And there’s maybe no other time when we feel it so directly, so physically, so viscerally, as when we lose something or someone that we love,” offered Jordan.
“To discover that we love our world, because we grieve what’s happening, is a transformational discovery. To discover for myself that I love a bunch of birds on an island that I never thought I would visit, that I feel grief for them, is on a level that’s far deeper than I thought that I would feel…” Jordan trailed off.
Jordan doesn’t necessarily find the albatross “more lovable, more beautiful, more magnificent, more miraculous, than any other creature,” he said. “To discover that I contain this vast reservoir of love for the albatross, it’s like a cascading experience of discovering, that, well, I must have that much love for all creatures, and for humans as well, of course.
“And I don’t think there’s anything different about me that way. I don’t have any more love in me than anyone else has. I’ve come to believe that our fundamental state of being is in a loving relationship with the miracle of our world, and the incomprehensibly beautiful gift of our own lives.”
Jordan contends this “innate sense of reverence” for our world is buried below our grief. “I believe that if we can collectively grieve what is being lost, if we can really face what’s being lost, let our hearts be broken into a thousand shards by the thousand tragedies that are happening around us every day—the loss of species, the destruction of our forests, the pollution of our oceans, and so on—if we can really have the courage to feel what we feel, on a collective level, and really process it, make it a cultural journey together, then I believe that can be a doorway back into a collective reawakening that could change everything.”
Environmentalists are typically defined by their actions: Sign this petition, recycle, buy organic. But Jordan’s photographs lack the actionable to-do list. They are the naked images of Earth’s fragility—birds choking to death on humans’ cast-off plastic—that he brings, without solutions.
Jordan’s presentation of the story of the albatrosses can be uncomfortable, even painful, in ways most environmental campaigns are not, by taking the viewer out of her or his busy life, unbutton the hypnotism of mass consumerism, through the birds’ tragic story—and then remain with the emotions that arise.
To allow ourselves to see that our emotions, based in love, are an innate part of being human on our planet in this moment in history—just to recognize that we can grieve what is happening to our planet—is what Jordan requests us to do through his art.
But, as expected, Jordan does not provide the how-to manual on grieving, either, just as he doesn’t tell his viewers how to clean up Midway Island or save the albatross. Instead, he hopes his movie will inspire our human community to step up and explore grief at every angle, through art, music, psychology and the sciences, which will assist us in building the awareness of our grief that will move us toward helping heal worldwide ecological devastation.
“I’m hoping that the Midway project will be a collective stepping of our toes into the water, into the ocean of grief,” said Jordan, “because it’s not something we can do in one film, or in one hour, or in one day.”