Chris Jordan, the photographer and conservationist, has spent his career exploring the harmful consequences of our thoughtless consumption and the pollution we create, while also making images that are often eerily beautiful. At the Society for Photographic Education (SPE) National Conference in New Orleans on March 13, he showed a trailer and clips from “Midway,” inspired by his years photographing the albatrosses of the Midway Atoll, located in the north Pacific 2000 miles from the nearest continent. Jordan and a film crew have documented the birds mating, laying eggs, and also dying as a result of having consumed plastic garbage from the ocean. Many choke to death, gasping for air on the shore; others die from toxicity or from starvation when their stomachs become full of indigestible materials.
The theme of the 2015 SPE conference was “Atmospheres: Climate, Equity and Community in Photography,” and during his talk, Jordan shared his approach to activism and the reactions he hopes his film evokes. He doesn’t want simply to highlight a problem, but to change the way people feel and act.
Until “Midway,” Jordan said, he had never made a film, and he wanted to do justice to the qualities that he admires in the birds. He explained why he and the film crew have been able to get so close to the them: “They have no natural predator, and they have no fear of humans.” They often walked right up to him to examine his lens. “They come closer and closer,” he said, sometimes so close he had trouble getting a close-up in focus.
“In experiencing their curiosity, I realized that curiosity is the deepest of all feelings, deeper than love or anger. There’s a deep primal desire to encounter the other, but curiosity is fragile in the presence of fear.” Fear is what typically divides us from other people and anything unfamiliar. Albatrosses demonstrate a way to bridge that divide, he said. “What if collectively we could contain our fear and remember our curiosity? ‘Yes, I’m afraid of you, but I’m also curious about you.’”
Sitting with birds as they died, he said, taught him not to fear grief. “Grief is not the same as despair. It’s an experience of love,” he said. “What if together we could grieve for the forests and species we’ve lost?”
After showing footage of the albatrosses feeding their young, and the young preparing to make their first flights across the ocean, Jordan made it clear that he hopes people seeing the film share his sense of wonder. “No matter how much bad news humans create,” he said, there are signs of beauty and grace. “Life is a miracle.” Working on “Midway,” he said, he sought “to be in a midway place where we don’t turn away from the bad news. We see it.” At the same time, he said, “We see the beauty of the world.”
He noted, “All those problems out in the world, they’re only a symptom of the problem that lives in here,” he said, pointing to his chest. “As an activist, I’m trying to shift the consciousness.”
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