I made this photograph on Midway Island a little over eight years ago. Since then not much has changed for the birds, but they taught me something that has shifted me internally forever.
On this tiny atoll an astonishing tragedy is taking place: tens of thousands of baby albatrosses lie dead on the ground, their stomachs filled with plastic. Their parents mistake floating trash for food as they forage over the vast polluted Pacific Ocean. Carrying shards of plastic back to the island inside their bellies, the adult birds unknowingly feed lethal quantities of it to their chicks.
Midway’s remoteness makes this phenomenon particularly iconic: The island lies near the center of the Pacific, surrounded by 60 million square miles of open sea in every direction. It is the furthest you can get from a continent anywhere on Earth.
For me, kneeling over these scenes is like looking into a macabre mirror. Midway reflects back to us one appallingly emblematic consequence of the collective trance of our culture of mass consumption. Bloated with emptiness and dying of excess, we humans, like the albatross, find ourselves losing the ability to discern what is nourishing from what is toxic – to our bodies and our spirits, our politics and our culture.
In my eight trips to Midway I lost count of how many birds I witnessed choking on cigarette lighters, toothbrushes, bottle caps, and other plastic junk. I held the softness of their still-warm feathered bodies in my arms as feelings of sadness, rage, and shame washed over me in waves. And in that experience I received a transformational message: the true nature of grief revealed itself.
I had always thought of grief as a bad feeling, like pain, not to be embraced but to be minimized and gotten over. Grief seemed to be part of the darkness, a bad drug to be avoided. I had held it off for my whole life, fearing it like a slippery slope that could lead to depression and anxiety, and overwhelm.
The albatross showed me that grief is not the same as sadness or despair; grief is the same as love. It is a felt experience of love, for something we are losing or have lost. We feel grief for the suffering of other beings because we love them. In grief the bottom drops out and we fall, not into an abyss of hopelessness, but into a clear blue sea, the infinite ocean of love that we each contain. Grief is a portal to the deepest part of ourselves, where our wisdom and compassion reside.
Grief and love can be seen as inseparable twins. When we hold grief at a distance, our love becomes inaccessible; and when we embrace grief, we reconnect with the essential aspect of our being that has gone missing lately. I believe that if we could summon the courage to grieve together, on a collective scale, for all that is being lost in our world, then our love would return and, along with it, our generosity, joy, and peace. And if we were to step through that door together, there is no knowing how many of the world’s problems we could solve, and fast.
In this way the message of these birds is not only one of horror and tragedy, but also of beauty and renewal. The legendary albatross guides us to take a moment and grieve together, not as an exercise in shame or pain or punishment, but because in this act of surrender a doorway opens that leads home.
Artist/photographer Chris Jordan is director, editor, and writer of ALBATROSS, a film made from footage he and his team filmed on Midway Island over several years. ALBATROSS will be released as a public artwork this spring. More info: www.albatrossthefilm.com