“Describe heroin. What’s it like?” he asked Wendy.
“Oh it’s euphoric,” Wendy answered. “It solves all your problems…Except it kills you.”
Sometime in the 90’s, Australian television personality Andrew Denton conducted an interview with Wendy Whiteley, widow of the Australian artist Brett Whiteley. Both Wendy and her late husband had a very well documented addiction to heroin. That simple exchange is eerily familiar to our own abuse of plastic. Plastic is a convenience that solves a lot of our short-term problems. Except it is starting to choke us.
In December 2016, I walked across the road for a swim in the sea. It was school holidays and the beaches were packed with families, tourists, and locals alike. I saw a group of about 15 children with their parents and friends laughing and playing in a section of beach they’d roped off. They had a collection of buckets filled with small water balloons that were being ferried over to the kids from the closest tap at the surf club, so the kids could have a water balloon fight right there on the sand.
In essence, this was simple, outdoor fun. Kids with the sun on their backs and the sand between their toes, laughing as they threw exploding sacks of water at each other. Unfortunately, every single one of those balloons bursts on impact, fragmenting into pieces that were being trampled into the soft sand or carried into the sea by waves on the high tide.
Even with the best of intentions, cleaning it all up was not likely.
I returned home and did a few Google searches for “environmentally friendly” balloons, hoping I could wander back down and suggest these were used instead, if they weren’t already, in which case I would gladly eat my words.
Claims from some manufacturers, that their products are made from latex and therefore 100% biodegradable, turned out to be nothing more than “greenwashing.” However, there was a much larger problem at play here and I didn’t want to get caught up in the detail of one particular product. I started thinking about things that had appeared in my life and connecting a few dots.
Working as a photographer has taken me to the Maldives, Fiji, PNG, Chile, Mexico, Belize and many more places. Mostly, I was there to photograph the natural beauty of each location for travel companies and tour operators to use in their marketing material. And at every destination, I was struck by the massive issue of plastic pollution. It wasn’t a case of which location, it was the degree of how bad it was in any given place.
Instead of speaking out publically, I chose to support causes that were working toward a more sustainable future with the profits from my gallery. I made a decision that I would funnel all of our philanthropic efforts back into environmental causes. It’s my way of giving back. My criteria are they must be actively doing something positive, rather than simply “creating awareness” alone. Awareness is important but, for me, actions speak louder.
So I went back to the internet and did some research on how bad this issue of plastic pollution really was, then continued my hunt to see what action was already being taken about it. I found that there were hundreds (probably thousands) of grassroots organizations and some big business involved in reduce, reuse and recycle programs. There were also stats on just how much plastic is being produced, how much is being recycled and how long it takes to break down (which, truthfully, it doesn’t). Plastic tends to break up rather than break down and eventually ends up in the ocean and the food chain anyway. The simple maths say this is a losing battle. The human population on the planet is producing so much plastic that no matter how strong our attempts to reduce, reuse or recycle are, production is simply going to outweigh these efforts.
Most people don’t know that at the turn of the century the US War Department had delivered the largest budget in its history to a team of people led by engineers and befriended by some of the greatest inventors of the day to come up with a viable solution to powered, manned, flight. With all the resources available to them, with an unimaginably large budget, they failed.
Meanwhile, in Ohio, two brothers, Orville and Wilbur, using the profits from their bicycle business and their own workshop, spent years tinkering away and through trial and error, successfully solved the problem. It was a classic example of garage level thinking solving a hugely complex problem.
I was onto the idea for my first photograph. I wanted the photograph to link the garage level thinking of the Wright brothers to one of the most complex problems of our time. “How do we come up with a product that is as versatile, cheap and reliable as plastic, that can be absorbed back into the natural world when we want it to?” Once we solve that, we are more likely to have success cleaning up the mess that decades of plastic manufacturing and careless disposal has created.
I hunted around for people that were trying to find alternatives. I found a girl in Turkey who has synthesized a plastic like product from banana peels. I found university students trying to engineer bacteria that eat plastic waste and a rare Amazonian mushroom that feeds on plastic, turning it into an edible product. Additionally, there were countless people attempting to recycle discarded plastics into viable products.
With the first photograph conceptualised and sketched out (I had no idea how I was going to pull it off at this point), I knew that I wanted to have an underwater scene that looked like a backyard shed or garage with balloons above the waterline and a young boy below, working on solving one of the world’s greatest pollution problems. I knew I wanted to include a prominent clock in both images, signifying time as critical.
Then, I started thinking about the second image to represent the dream scenario, the silver lining, and the way we want our world to be.
For a few years now I have had a concept floating around like a crouton in my brain soup (thanks for the line Paul Carter) for an underwater enchanted garden. Actually, I wanted to produce a whole series of underwater garden shots, but I hadn’t had the overlying theme; the story behind the images wasn’t there. Now it was. I could use the same plastic theme to float balloons above the surface and create this enchanted garden below to show that if we get this wrong, we are destined to a world filled with plastic waste. But if we get it right, we could be destined for a world filled with the beauty of the natural world. The subtle significance of the balloons was perfect.
But how do you create an underwater garden, with a child model, to look like a fairy tale?
I looked for a public swimming pool we could rent, but the costs were prohibitive. We needed a warehouse to build the sets, but then having to disassemble them and re-assemble at the pool location was doubling the amount of work required. I also needed to figure out how to light a 3.6m cubed underwater set. There was nothing commercially available for this purpose. I was going to have to build the lighting rig.
I needed costumes, hair, and makeup, models, catering, shoot days, communications schedules, shot lists, call sheets, behind the scenes video and stills, carpentry (and a carpenter that could work underwater), safety crew, assistants and just grunt labor to help with everything.
I needed all of this with no client, no commercial guarantee and no reason for doing it other than I really wanted to share this message with the world. Sure, the images will be available in some format, sure if an advertising agency takes note of what my team and I are able to pull together we could benefit from this but, right now, it’s all come straight from my own pocket. Call it a self-imposed tax on making a living for so many years from the natural world.
Plastic is a convenience that humanity is addicted to, its mass production has been around since about WWII. That’s only 70 odd years, yet in that time its careless disposal has been documented in every part of the planet from the poles to the bottom of the Mariana Trench to trails of litter on the highest mountains.
Birds and sea animals are mistaking plastic for food and feeding it to their chicks, who die before they take their first flight. Sea mammals are found dead with stomachs full of plastic. The fish you buy from the store are being dissected and, in increasing numbers, are found with plastic in their stomachs. This leaches plastic compounds into their flesh, which we eat. Don’t believe me? Watch this.
Simply put, we are essentially feeding ourselves plastic and that, my friend, is just plain dumb. Plastic is everywhere and not going away on its own. We make more every day than we can ever dispose of. We can only recycle a percentage and a small one at that. The only real solution is to stop making it.