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The photographer who showed the world an environmental crisis now wants to give us hope

Chris Jordan captured iconic, disturbing photos of birds dying from eating plastic. Now he wants to use the beauty of nature to add some calm to the panic about environmental crises.

When artist Chris Jordan first photographed the bodies of dead albatross chicks on Midway Island a decade ago—creating the now iconic images showing bottlecaps and other plastic fragments that filled the birds’ stomachs before they died—the images helped catalyze growing public awareness of the problem of plastic pollution. Jordan has also visualized stats like the number of plastic bottles used in the U.S. every five minutes (2 million, as of 2007) or the number of cigarette butts discarded every 15 seconds (139,000). But Jordan’s newest work is starkly different.

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“For many years, I’ve been pretty much exclusively focused on the dark underbelly of mass consumption of our consumer culture,” he says. “And something happened for me out on Midway Island that really changed my whole worldview.” He’d gone to the island to document plastic, but as he kept returning to take more photographs, he realized that he was missing the beauty of the natural world. His new photographs, part of a show opening July 6 at the University of California-Riverside, include expansive shots of forests and the ocean.

Pacific #6, Kauai, Hawaii, 2016. [Photo: Chris Jordan]
“I discovered that I had been immersed in a pretty dark worldview for a very long time,” he says, and he argues that the environmental movement is in a similar place. “The whole movement is kind of stuck in what I now think of as being a profoundly broken paradigm.” Activists tell the public that it’s time to panic about climate change, and that we’re on the verge of catastrophe—but the solutions will take years. “We’re being told that we have to basically be panicked for the whole rest of our lives,” he says. “There’s something really unhealthy about that entire approach to environmentalism. And it doesn’t mean that there’s not bad news. We still have to face the facts. It’s just, how do we escape from this bubble of darkness?”

If people are bombarded with messages about everything that’s wrong, Jordan believes that it can lead to paralysis—or to a focus on issues that may not be very strategic, like the call to eliminate plastic straws. Focusing on the awe and beauty of nature, he thinks, could draw in more people to want to protect it. “It’s kind of an untested idea, but I think that it might be that love is a more powerful inspiration and motivation than fear and shame,” he says.

He hopes to see nature photography regain recognition as a legitimate art form rather than be seen as cliché or irrelevant. “If you take a photograph of the living world, but it has the nuclear power plant showing through the trees in the background or a set of bulldozer tracks, then you can make your way into the art world with it. But the way I’ve come to think of it lately is celebrating the beauty of the natural world is no more naive and overly idealistic as looking at the horror of our world is overly cynical and negative. So if the aim is a healthy balance and inspired stewardship, then I think an important part of facing the reality of our world is acknowledging immense beauty that surrounds us in every moment.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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