The Story of ALBATROSS

By Chris Jordan

Chris Jordan is a photographer known for his stunning photos of the plastic-filled corpses of young albatrosses on Midway Island. Jordan is a Plastic Pollution Coalition founding advisor and notable member.

The Midway Project

The journey of ALBATROSS began in 2008, as a collaboration with activist/photographer Manuel Maqueda [a co-founder of Plastic Pollution Coalition.] Studying the newly-emerging issue of ocean plastic pollution, we learned of a stunning environmental tragedy taking place on a tiny atoll in the center of the vast North Pacific Ocean.

We immediately began planning an expedition there, and on our first trip to Midway Island in September of 2009, we and our team photographed and filmed thousands of young albatrosses that lay dead on the ground, their stomachs filled with plastic. The experience was devastating, not only for what it meant for the suffering of the birds, but also for what it reflected back to us about the destructive power of our culture of mass consumption, and humanity’s damaged relationship with the living world.

On our second trip to Midway, the project’s focus began to evolve, as we met the live albatrosses singing and dancing by the hundreds of thousands all over the island. Returning to Midway a total of eight times over four years, we experienced the birds’ beauty, grace, and sentience more and more vividly with each trip. We learned to attune ourselves to their body language, so that we could film them up close without causing them anxiety. They allowed us to witness their most tender moments at astonishingly close range, as the mated pairs snuggled and built their nests together, their babies hatched from their eggs, and the fluffy chicks waited alone for their parents to return from their foraging trips to sea. The poetry of the albatross revealed itself layer by layer, as my team and I were gifted with intimate footage of every stage of their cycles of life, death, and birth.

Through this journey, I held to a principle of emergence that served as the creative foundation for the project. I wanted to experience the birds on their terms, imposing as few human judgments or preconceptions on them as possible. With this intention, I avoided scripting any aspect of the film in advance. The trips were approached as open-ended creative explorations, with no story or agenda in mind. Each day on the island, my team and I filmed and photographed whatever felt most interesting and beautiful, without judging our subjects’ relevance. Usually we focused on the albatrosses, and we also turned to different subjects: fairy terns, the sea, the forest, a passing storm, or the island’s omnipresent crumbling military infrastructure, never knowing whether that day’s work would be used in the final film. I saw my directorial role as being the steward of an empty vessel, into which a yet-unknown story would arise spontaneously. This approach was challenging for everyone, including the project’s financial supporters, who maintained intrepid patience with my non-linear and unpredictable process. Ultimately this philosophy allowed something to birth itself that could not have happened any other way.

The Making of ALBATROSS

To shape our 400+ hours of footage into a film, I initially worked with three different editing / writing / production teams over several years. Each of these experiences brought valuable learning, but ultimately I needed to take full creative control of the story, editing, writing, narration, and music choices, as a solo artistic effort. So in June, 2015, I discarded all previous iterations of the film and started over from scratch with the raw footage. I spent more than two years in my Seattle studio learning to edit, working with the footage, experimenting with sound and music, and writing/recording the narration. My close friend and collaborator Jim Hurst, who served as the project’s lead cinematographer and sound recordist, played a major role in the final editing/polishing stage, as well as joining me full-time for the several-month sound design and audio mix down.

From the beginning, I could feel my editing style departing from the traditions of documentary filmmaking. My wish was not only to tell the factual story of the albatrosses from an observational standpoint, but to convey the intensely vivid sensual, emotional, and spiritual experience of being with them on the island. My time with these magnificent beings was an internal experience as much as an external one, infused with often-overwhelming levels of beauty, lyricism, mystery, reverence, grief, and joy. And both the birds and the island resonated with richly poetic layers of symbolism, archetype, metaphor, and spirit. Midway felt to me like a kind of acupuncture point on the globe, emanating a transformative healing energy that if honored in its full depth and breadth, could reach far out into the field of human collective consciousness. I felt it was vital to integrate all of these elements as a holistic approach to the documentary art form.

ALBATROSS as a Public Artwork

As the time approached to release ALBATROSS into the world, I realized I could not treat it as a commercial product. To do so would tacitly endorse the same destructive machine of mass consumption that had filled our beloved birds with plastic in the first place. And the experience of Midway had come to me as a life-changing gift that I felt should be passed along in the purest form possible. I also believe that now is the time for radically creative action by all of us on behalf of life, in whatever big or small ways we each have the power to do. One thing I can do is to give my eight-year labor of love as a gift to the world, as a gesture of trust in doing the right thing for its own sake.

With these principles in mind, ALBATROSS is offered as a free public artwork. Starting on Earth Day 2018, ALBATROSS has been made available for individuals everywhere to host a free screening for their families, friends, communities, organizations, churches, etc. Thousands of people are already signing up to join in this collective-consciousness raising experience. 

Our “hosted screenings” campaign will culminate on World Oceans Day 2018 (June 8), when ALBATROSS will be screened at the United Nations, as part of the official World Oceans Day Program hosted by Parley for the Oceans. On that day, ALBATROSS will be made available for free permanently.

Spreading the Message

The most important ways that ALBATROSS will spread is personally through word of mouth and hosted screenings, and via social media. Please consider hosting a screening, and share ALBATROSS with your networks. And in the reciprocal spirit of the gift economy, I invite you to contribute financially to our project. All incoming funds will be applied to help carry ALBATROSS further out into the world, including to other countries and in multiple languages.

With my warm regards, and those of my team, we thank you for your engagement. This has been a long and challenging journey, made with the support of many generous, creative, and steadfast friends. Now we are thrilled to let ALBATROSS take off into the world as an offering of love, beauty, and hope for our times. 

Learn more about Chris Jordan and his work.

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“We absolutely didn’t set out to talk about plastic pollution,” says filmmaker, author, and conservationist Ian Shive, of his new film on Midway Atoll, Midway: Edge of Tomorrow.

Shive, a noted photographer known as the “leading chronicler of America’s national parks,” journeyed to Midway Atoll to document the national wildlife refuge in honor of the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Midway, which proved to be a turning point of World War II in the Pacific.

“You can’t go to Midway and not be immediately aware of the plastic issue,” says Shive. “We called it the next battle of Midway. It’s an invasion of plastic. You see the historic structures from the Battle of Midway, and then you see all the plastic: old items, like toys from our parents’ generation, clear plastics, and fishing gear, all washing up on this island that’s only 2.4 square miles.”

Midway is 1,300 miles from the nearest city (Honolulu) but because of its location, the island collects plastic pollution and other debris from across the globe. See also: Midway Through Cleaning Up Midway Island.

More than 70 people were involved in the creation of the film, which takes viewers on a journey through the history of the island and current conservation efforts. At one point, Shive shows a dissection of a dead albatross that had multiple plastic bottle caps and other pieces of plastic in its stomach.

All photos by Ian Shive, courtesy of Tandem Stills + Motion. 

After working in both the film industry and as a photographer on assignment, Shive created Tandem Stills + Motion, an environmental film and photo company based in Los Angeles, California, where he works to connect viewers with the natural environment.

“We’re trying to bring issues home to build connection, and to get people to understand public lands,” he explains. “The ocean doesn’t divide us, it unites us.”

Midway: Edge of Tomorrow is available on iTunesGoogle Play, and Amazon Prime

Take Action to stop plastic pollution.

Join our global Coalition. 

The NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center (PIFSC) Coral Reef Ecosystem Program’s (CREP) removal mission in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, is already halfway through! The removal team has finished its work at Midway Atoll and is headed to Kure Atoll for the next phase of the effort. 

Story by Ryan Tabata and Rhonda Suka, NOAA Coral Reef Ecosystem Program. Photos: NOAA

We were greeted by Bonin Petrels flying in the night like shooting stars and were shuttled in stretch limo golf carts to our rooms. The following morning, a brilliant orange sunrise unveiled all that is Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. The air was dense with the calls of millions of nesting seabirds; the fuzzy brown Laysan Albatross chicks were begging for food between the elaborate dances of the adult birds.

This year, Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is one of the locations where the NOAA CREP has sent their marine debris team to remove tens of thousands of pounds of debris, funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program and the NOAA Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Our first day began with a Laysan Albatross slalom course on bicycles. We dodged the chicks on the ground as swooping adults practiced their crash landing techniques.

RELATED: Midway Albatross an Icon of the Plastic Pollution Problem

As we arrived at the boat ramp, we found a cute monk seal snoozing, so we adjusted our plans and launched the boat in an alternate location. Being in a national wildlife refuge means we have to change our plans for the sleeping natives. Being so immersed with the local wildlife can have its perks though, and a large pod of spinner dolphins would occasionally play alongside our boat and escort us out of the harbor.

Upon arriving on the powdery white sand beaches, we found fishing nets, floats, and an assortment of plastics that had preceded our arrival. Our hearts sank as we painstakingly removed each piece of debris that had washed ashore on this remote island. Although our muscles ached and faces and lips got charred from the sun, our hearts lightened with each 50 pound bag and 500 pound net that was removed, knowing that we were fortunate enough to find and remove these wildlife entanglement hazards before more damage was caused.

Check out NOAA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram for daily updates on this effort, as well as CREP’s interactive daily map.

Have you ever lost a shoe, an umbrella, or a baseball? Maybe a water bottle, swim fins, or even a bowling ball? They all float and can all end up on shorelines in faraway places. Midway is 1,300 miles from the nearest city (Honolulu) and has collected debris from across the globe. The most harmful debris are the fishing nets that wash up on the shorelines because they are great at catching monk seals, turtles, sea birds, and sharks. These indiscriminate killers can range from hand-sized fragments to behemoths weighing over 20,000 pounds!

During our eight days of marine debris removal on the beaches of Midway, we collected 15,206 pounds of debris. More than half of that weight was from derelict fishing gear. While the animals may not know why we are stealthily working around them, we are committed to our work, knowing that we can make a difference for the nesting seabirds and 1,300 critically endangered monk seals.

Last week we left Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Our next stops include various islands in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to continue our mission. We can all do our part and we hope we have inspired you to make a difference.

NOTE: This story originally appeared at NOAA’s Marine Debris Blog, and is reprinted with permission.

All photos courtesy of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration