“Describe heroin, what’s it like?” he asked Wendy.
“Oh it’s euphoric, it solves all your problems… Except it kills you.
Sometime around 1994, 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.
The analogy stands. 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 good, 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 being carried into the sea by waves on the high tide.
Anyone who walks along a beach and looks down at the tide line will see humanities euphoric addiction to plastic ending up in the ocean and will realise the analogy of Wendy’s heroin addiction is a harsh reality.
I stopped and watched for a minute at the gleeful game, with parents watching on and children ecstatic. I said, out loud, but not directed at any individual, ‘You’re kidding aren’t you? All that plastic is literally being thrown straight into the sea.’ I received a sharp “piss off mate, it will all be picked up”.
The reality was that a lot of the plastic / latex shrapnel was being trodden into the sand, soon to be carried out to sea. Cleaning it all up was not likely…
I returned home and did a few Google searches for ‘environmentally friendly’ balloons in hope that 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’ what is a disaster of a product for the environment, particularly for bird and animal life.
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 countries including the Maldives, Fiji, PNG, Chile, Mexico, Belize and many more… Mostly I was there to photograph the natural beauty of each location for travel companies and tour operators to use in their marketing material.
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 location.
I wrote a few articles and blogs about it but was unable to publish them. The people that were paying me to be there wanted to see tropical perfection, not trashed paradise. 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 is that they must be actively doing something positive, rather than ‘creating awareness’ alone. Awareness is important but, for me, actions speak louder.
To all the humanitarian causes that reached out to us where I said no, it was mostly because I believe that overpopulation is the cause of most humanitarian issues and that the planet is more important than the humans currently on it. I know that’s a bold statement that is likely to ruffle a few feathers… that’s what the comments below are for. Start bashing your keyboard and I’ll answer any questions about this line of thinking.
Return to Christmas 2016 and the reason I was walking slowly with so much time to observe children playing is because I had injured my knee. This also meant that I had not done any paid travel work for several months. I had no commitments to any other companies and could say and do whatever I wanted. So I went back to some of the articles, notes and photographic concepts I had about plastic pollution and decided that now was the time to action them.
Then, the week before Christmas, I got Man Flu. Not the kind that any female would understand, the kind that you can barely survive as a man. Thankfully I made it through and, out of semi-delirious days sweating and shivering in bed, I was able to come up with a concept for a few images that I could use to tell the story of what I saw and hopefully get people thinking about the root cause of plastic pollution, which is, we need to stop making the stuff!
I went back to the internet and did some research on how bad this issue was, then continued my hunt to see what action was already being taken about it.
There were hundreds (probably thousands) of grass roots organisations and some big business involved in ‘reduce, re-use or recycle’ programs. There were also stats on just how much plastic is being produced, how much is being re-cycled 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. The simple maths say that it’s a losing battle. The human population on the planet is producing so much plastic that no matter how strong our attempts to reduce, re-use or recycle are, production is simply going to outweigh these efforts.
The Man Flu was strong, but I was stronger and my head was starting to clear. I picked up a book on the Wright Brothers and the story of powered manned flight.
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 gradually, 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 Plastic from banana peel who has synthesised a plastic like product from banana peels. I found Canadian students trying engineering 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 which was going to be the ‘ideal solution’ 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 labour 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. The fact is, I was doing it and I wasn’t going to let a budget get in the way…
So I did the only thing I could do to reduce the biggest expense of pool hire and warehouse space. I asked a friend if I could use his house and newly renovated swimming pool. When he said yes, this project became viable. Everyone else would either give their time for free or for a reduced cost just to be involved in the project and for that I am eternally grateful.
Two weeks of hands on carpentry, electrical and plumbing work got the job done. Things that were meant to be complex, like waterproofing the lights, were easy. Things that were meant to be easy, like the lighting electrics, proved to be a nightmare.
Props were sourced from second hand stores and the tip. As much as possible, we used and re-used old materials.
Once the sets were built it was onto the shoot days. The first set, which was given the working title ‘The Thinker’ was slightly more complex to build due to the weighting down of each of the props. The second shot, titled ‘The Dreamer’, had infinitely more man hours to create the floral walls.
Firstly, all the greenery and foliage had to be collected (and by that I mean scavenged from the neighbourhood) then it all needed to be attached to wire mesh. The flowers had to be purchased from the markets as close to the shoot day as possible (a market that you need to arrive for at 5am, thanks Liv!) then they all needed to be kept alive and attached to the wire mesh at the last possible minute.
Once the floral arrangements were lowered into the pool we were on a very tight schedule as they were then immersed in salt water and would start to die, fast… I remember asking whose idea this was again…
The other thing I had to contend with was young children as models. I had them weighted down so they could sink into position, but this meant they couldn’t swim. They were also fully clothed, one in jeans and a Sea Shepherd t-shirt, the other in a full flowing dress. I had a safety diver on hand with instructions to do nothing except watch the models, and make sure they didn’t drown…. seriously what could possibly go wrong?
The two shoot days were a huge success.
The team of people around me were exceptional and we produced two images that I am exceptionally proud of, images that will hopefully inspire people to take some action in their lives: Reduce the amount of plastic they consume (especially single use); encourage their children to think about the world they want to live in, or leave behind; realise that plastic does not break down, it breaks up into ever smaller pieces and eventually ends up in the food chain.
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 on 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 the 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 to have plastic in their stomachs. This leaches plastic compounds into their flesh, which we eat. Don’t believe me? Watch (this).
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.
Simply put, we are essentially feeding ourselves plastic and that, my friend, is just plain dumb.
For those interested in the post production of these images, I have included the screen recordings of the complete edit of both images below. ‘The Dreamer’ took about 5 hours and ‘The Thinker’ around 3 hours to complete, I’ve compressed each to about 1:30sec. If you have any questions about my editing workflow please comment below and I will do my best to answer.
About the Author
Joel Coleman is a photographer based in Sydney, Australia. From photographing nature’s most elusive species at the ocean floor to documenting human interaction with the landscape through aerial photography, Joel’s approach stays true to his soul; that of an artist, conservationist, waterman, mentor and adventurer.