27 Sep

A visit to Eastern Island

Midway Atoll is actually composed of two small islands, Sand Island -which is the largest and the only one inhabited- and Eastern Island, slightly over one mile long, and separated from Sand Island by a narrow channel that provides access to the interior of the lagoon.

Matt Brown, Manager of the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, took us on a tour of Eastern Island as he and two volunteers inspected three fresh water ponds occupied by extremely rare and endangered Laysan Ducks.  Eastern Island is entirely crisscrossed by abandoned runways dating back to World War II, today almost unrecognizable under a layer of vegetation that grows through cracks in the pavement.  While nature slowly triumphs over dilapidated asphalt, iron and cement, Eastern Island has not escaped the onslaught of plastic pollution, which is present everywhere.

Video by Bill Weaver. Cinematography by Jan Vozenilek. Voiceover by Chris Jordan. Interviewee: Matt Brown. Music by Vanessa LeBourdais.

24 Sep

Trailside encounter

Early one morning I was out photographing along a meadow trail strewn with decaying albatross carcasses. The sun had just risen, and my camera was set up to photograph the exposed body cavity of an albatross chick filled with multicolored plastic.

I heard the sound of a motor approaching, and looked up to see one of the carts that the Thai maintenance crew uses to get around the island. The cart pulled up and stopped right next to me, and a Thai man stepped out. He was wearing canvas work coveralls and looked to be about fifty.

He smiled and made a slight bow, and after a short pause he pronounced two Thai syllables: “Kham… Wang.” Not sure what he meant, I repeated “Kham, Wang.” As I did that, he pointed to himself, and I realized he was telling me his name. So I pointed to myself and slowly said “Chris Jordan.” He repeated my name in a strong Thai accent: “Chizz Johdann.” I said “Kham Wang” again, trying to match his pronunciation of the nasal syllables.

Then Kham Wang noticed my camera, mounted on its tripod and aimed at the ground. He looked down and saw what I was photographing, and he gestured toward the bird with his hand. “Bebe,” he said in a quiet voice. “Bebe.”

It took me a moment to understand, and then I nodded and replied: “baby.”

We both stood there for a moment, looking down at the dead bird at our feet. Then Kham Wang looked back at me, and placed his hand on my shoulder, and said “Chizz Johdann.” I put my hand on his shoulder and gave my best “Kham Wang” once again. And with gentle smile, Kham Wang got back in his cart and drove on down the path.


22 Sep

From here forward…


I’m confused by the abundant life and abundant plastic pollution here.  It’s easy to slip into a fantasy that a sort of balance has been achieved on Midway Atoll.  Birds nesting amidst plastic cigarette lighters, bottle caps, toys, umpteen bits and pieces of plastic; turtles pulling up on the beach to rest among plastic buoys and ghost nets and fuel containers; seals frolicking under the pier with discarded shampoo bottles – all of it getting along, or so it seems from a cartoon view.  But then you begin to encounter the decaying bodies of albatross, almost all of them containing some amount of plastic, and some completely choked with it that there’s no mystery how this bird died.

How can I possibly continue to contribute to the stream of plastic into our waterways and oceans after seeing the albatross stuffed with plastic?   Matches, people.  Glass, metal.  Re-use!  Forget recycling, it’s not happening, and when it’s plastic it’s called down-cycling, anyway.  What happens when we are up to our eyeballs in fleece and carpet and plastic decking?

I will go home a changed person after this trip.  I’ve been an uber-recycler for most of my adult life.  But now I can see that recycling is not the answer.  We just need to stop making so much plastic.  From here forward, my own consumption of it, especially disposables, will be under a high-power microscope.  I’ll be considering every way in which I use plastic in my life, examining my wasteful habits more deeply, and asking myself what’s really important – a quick, disposable convenience or something with enduring value?  It’s a good lesson for me on how to use stuff, and also how to enrich my life.

Consider joining the discussion about plastics on our Facebook group by clicking on the Discussion tab.

~Victoria Sloan Jordan

22 Sep

A Glimpse of the Tragedy

Until now, we have not shown the carcasses of the albatross chicks that Chris Jordan has been photographing, stuffed with plastic beyond belief.

So much plastic, and in such bizarre combinations of objects and colors, that we recently posted a video in which Chris explains his photography ethic: no plastic is added to any photo, and the plastic is never rearranged.

It will be more than a month before Chris’ photos are processed and released. This morning Chris decided to offer a glimpse of what these carcasses look like.

21 Sep


In the middle of the Pacific lies a sandy island, where seabirds and humans mingle in a process of renewal and soul-searching.  A place where the middle of nowhere becomes not only the middle of somewhere, but the heart of everything.

Midway Atoll is a place of ancient power. A revered elder in a long dynasty of fire that once stretched from Kure Atoll to Kaua’i.  Flowers of molten lava that bloomed and decayed with the long seasons of geology, and left a marine landscape strewn with exquisite petals of azure.

In the Hawaiian tradition, the rosary of atolls that form the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands represents a long lineage of Kupuna, ancestors, that live a solitary life, like hermits, in the heart of  Papahanaumokuakea,  the place where the union of Papa, the mother Earth, and Wakea, the paternal sky, “gives birth to the islands in the vast expanses”.  For the natives, this long line of small islands is not only the umbilical cord to their past, but also a series of stepping stones along an ancient route that leads their souls to the netherworld.  Leaping from island to island, the spirits of the dead advance westwards towards their meeting with Po, the great darkness, where they reunite with their dead relatives.

Understanding the significance of Midway in the Hawaiian tradition has added many layers of meaning to our journey.  Layers that fit together perfectly, even if we look at Midway from a literal perspective.  After all, the Hawaiian view of this island as an old elder has been corroborated by geology; and the notion that this place is a living organism fits perfectly with James Lovelock’s theories.

MidwayJourney_Manuel_Maqueda_day3 1As for the souls and spirits that inhabit this place, they are present in every decaying building, in every trembling blade of grass that breaks through the tarmac of an abandoned runway, and in every glorious sunset over the turquoise waters of the lagoon.  Even those who don’t believe in the supernatural often feel a chill going down their spine when a white tern flutters and swoops over their heads, so close that one can feel a delicate whiff of warm wind with every flap of their wings of pure white.

And yet Midway is a land raped and tortured by man. A land destroyed, rebuilt, exploited, deformed and, these days, covered with rotting carcasses of albatross chicks full of plastic.  It is a hub for an intricate web of messages and  symbols that we came here to explore.  A place for witnessing, a place for learning, and a place, perhaps, for redemption.

I write these lines as we leave behind the middle point of our journey, and enter our final week on the island. By degrees, the pressure of accomplishing the tangible goals of our expedition is subsiding. And simultaneously, I feel the urgency to pursue and share the intangible.

I hope that sharing with you the significance of Midway in the Hawaiian tradition is a good place to start.  After all, who would have thought that here, where the union of Papa and Wakea gave birth to a tiny island in the vast expanses, the middle of nowhere could become not only the middle of somewhere, but also the beginning of everything?

-Manuel Maqueda

20 Sep

Midway through the lens of Kittipong Janthasang

A large percentage of the permanent residents of Midway are Thai workers, hired by a company called Chugach which provides many services to the island, from maintenance, to food and lodging.

kittipong_1Kittipong Janthasang is a Bangkok native who has lived on Midway for three years. We can find him pulling invasive weeds from the fields and also bartending at the island’s only pub during its brief hours of operation. Kittipong’s passion, however, is wildlife photography. In his spare time, he goes out with his camera and patiently and delicately captures intimate portraits of the natural beauty of Midway. Amazing photos that, until now, were confined to his laptop, and shared only with his friends on the island. It has been an honor for us at Midway Journey to discover the excellent body of photographic work by Kittipong, and to have the opportunity to post a selection of his images online for the first time, in the form of this slide show.

Kittipong’s photographic work conveys a contagious, heartfelt reverence for nature, and offers the viewer a rare and invaluable look into the immense natural wealth of Midway.

Photography by Kittipong Janthasang. Slide Show edited by Jan Vozenilek.  Music by Christen Lien.

Those interested in Kittipong’s photography can contact him at kittipong-p at hotmail dot com.

18 Sep

Reflections from Midway

Dear friends,

I thought I’d check in at the halfway point of our trip. First of all, greetings! I wish I could snap my fingers and you would all appear here with us.

In terms of my photographic work so far, my primary feeling is one of anxious urgency. What I am seeing through my viewfinder is amazing—everything I had hoped for, and much more. The albatross carcasses are astonishingly beautiful and visually complex, each one offering a slightly different view into the intricate architecture of these magnificent creatures. The pieces of plastic in their body cavities—cigarette lighters, bottle caps, pens, toothbrushes, and lots of other brightly colored plastic chunks, juxtapose like colors in a painting against the rich palettes of neutral tones in the birds’ decaying feathers and bones. Aesthetically, I hope that the images I am capturing will carry the same kind of uncomfortable desolate beauty that my other work has explored.

The part that makes me anxious is that I have no idea what is actually being recorded on my memory cards. I feel clumsy working with my new digital camera system. My hands lack fluency with the knobs and buttons; the menus don’t come naturally to my thought process; and I don’t know if I am getting the fine focus and the exposures correct. What I do know is that this equipment will produce outrageously high quality images if I get the settings right. Fingers crossed!

A couple of days ago I discovered a huge pile of several thousand albatross carcasses sequestered in a remote meadow. We figured they must be all the birds that had died around the living quarters, moved to a place where they can decompose naturally, away from the island village. The pile is a couple of feet deep and about twenty feet square, with thousands upon thousands of wings, skulls, rib cages, feathers, and bones, all mixed and permeated with a shocking amount of plastic junk.

It is a horrific and moving sight, evocative of images of mass graves from wars, more visually intense than anything I had expected to find here. I devoted a whole day to photographing the pile, and plan to return several times more. In terms of experiencing the depth of the tragedy we came here to witness, this is the heart of darkness of our journey. I feel overwhelmed and numbed by it, and I also sense that if there is any kind of breakthrough in our process to be attained on this trip, this pile represents the portal through which we must pass.

This Monday, September 21st, marks the autumnal equinox, a middle place in our yearly circuit around the sun, halfway between the days of longest darkness and longest light. On that day, at noon Midway time (four hours earlier than Pacific time), our team will return to the pile. Our shared intention is to connect as deeply as we can with the profound story that these birds have to tell. Please remember us on that day, and hold our process in your thoughts, as we will hold you in ours.