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THINKING PLASTIC

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If you’re the kind of person that loves the full story, read on. If you are the ‘show me the video’ type, consider signing up to my email so you won’t miss out on the next one…

“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.

My emails are entertaining, thought provoking and beautiful. I hate relying on Facebook or Instagram to reach you, it’s just not as beautiful as a nicely crafted email. Sign up and enjoy!..

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 plastic waste and a rare Amazonian mushroom that 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.

Given you have read this far, you obviously have an interest in what I do, so if you haven’t already, sign up so I can let you know about my future projects. Trust me, they will be epic!

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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.

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I would love to send you the occasional email about my upcoming projects… They all come from me, not some ‘Marketing Strategist’ and are always entertaining and thought provoking. Sign up and enjoy!..

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.

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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.

Enjoy your day,
Joel Coleman…

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Editing | Process

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.

23 Comments
  • Jason Hammersmith
    Posted at 12:00h, 30 March Reply

    Wow! This has totally blown my mind on what can be done on an underwater shoot, and for such a great cause! Nice work.

  • Stuart
    Posted at 23:17h, 30 March Reply

    Hi Joel,
    Just got your post about plastics. I agree wholeheartedly with your horror at the amount of plastic in the water and the careless attitude of our fellow Australians, we really are a bunch of tossers!

    We live on 5 Dock Bay and see how much rubbish gets into the water and my wife regularly drags rubbish from the recreational boat people off the beach and into a bin.

    A couple of years ago we were in the Solomons and it is in the islands where you see the tragedy of plastics.

    Best Regards
    Stuart

  • Michelle
    Posted at 23:18h, 30 March Reply

    Great to see you are doing this Joel!

  • Frank
    Posted at 23:19h, 30 March Reply

    Great initiative Joel, If I can help in any way, returning from a trip to Tonga, you start to be aware of the size of the disaster in the whole Pacific region…

    Happy to contribute in anyway.

    Cheers,
    Frank

  • Pete
    Posted at 23:21h, 30 March Reply

    Hi Joel,
    I cant agree more.

    On the morning of 1 Jan 2017 my wife and I walked along Long Reef beach to Dee Why where the night before an offshore barge had been used for launching the fireworks. As we walked we collected handfuls of burnt, melted plastic waste which had washed ashore due to the onshore breeze (the reason I wasn’t surfing).

    I contacted NB Council and sent them photos of the debris.

    They followed up and presented lame excuses from the fireworks contractor about the waste being “operator error”. I highly doubt this to be true. I suggested they ask Sydney City Council how they prevent 20,000 fireworks shot from the Harbour Bridge from dropping 20,000 plastic bags into the water. So far no satisfactory response has come. I have kept the plastic waste thinking it may be useful for lobbying against the continued use of fireworks and the environmental vandalism they represent.

    Pete

  • Ronald
    Posted at 23:23h, 30 March Reply

    Hi Joel
    I am a ” metal man ” ….
    Unlike ‘plastic ‘ I know no one who will throw metal into a natural environment, as metals carry intrinsic value , accordingly are recycled indefinitely!!
    Example – plastic drink bottles hold NO value so should not be in the market place . Drink should be in Aluminium cans as Aluminium carries value , and will always be recycled , especially in Third World countries where mass unemployment is a massive social issue ….Etc.
    Keep up the good work
    Ronald

  • Kat
    Posted at 23:23h, 30 March Reply

    Loving seeing all of your new creative projects and initiatives come to life!

  • Kevin
    Posted at 23:24h, 30 March Reply

    Hi Joel,

    I am delighted you are tackling the issue of plastic and the environment.
    At Dive 2000 we do not issue plastic bags to our customers, one small step to save the lives of some of our valuable sea creatures at least.

    Good luck with your project.

    Kevin

  • Shaun
    Posted at 23:53h, 30 March Reply

    Hi Joel,

    I’m with you, people using the beach carelessly throwing away their rubbish infuriates me. Beeped a guy throwing a cigarette down a drain today, he gives me a strange look, like I did something wrong. I am happy to see the “tosser” adds hopefully educating people now.

    Glad to see you in the water again today, keep to your rights and I will stick to the lefts.

    Regards Shaun…

  • Angelo
    Posted at 00:21h, 31 March Reply

    Great work!
    Cheers
    Angelo

  • Chris Eyre-Walker
    Posted at 00:21h, 31 March Reply

    Fantastic project Joel! Love the concept, planning, preparation and execution and post processing. That’s what a good shot is all about!
    Great job on the videos too! Really enjoyable content.

    • Joel Coleman
      Posted at 00:35h, 31 March Reply

      Cheers Chris, it was a huge project with a lot of people involved. It has been epic making it all come together.

  • Kel
    Posted at 00:39h, 31 March Reply

    wow amazing Joel. Sensational.

  • Sandy Reid
    Posted at 00:57h, 31 March Reply

    Amazing stuff Joel……so thought provoking on a topic we all need to focus on. Loved the photographs. Keep them coming.

  • petegee
    Posted at 01:10h, 31 March Reply

    Wow, all stops out, Joel. Plastic Fantastic!
    beautiful but not pretty stuff.
    Alice in wonderland.
    Well, NOT … in the gyre of our plastic-blighted reality.
    Still taking your photographic work to another level.
    Congrats and encouragement on this further step into the artistic surreal with an ecological/environmental message and practical philanthropy.
    From my initial writing and photographing for the world’s last century surfmags (see BURY MY HEART AT BROKEN HEAD, Tracks 1980) and thereafter (Surfing World, Surf, Euro Surf Scene, Underground Surf, et al), I always tried to hold the line in a predigital/prephotoshop age.
    You will always feel like the boy with the finger in the dyke of rampant exploitation, but any hope for the future really still has to start with the cumulative effort of individuals and those few who can inspire the many.
    The Planet IS more important than us, but only because it WILL survive without us if it has to.
    If we do not solve our problems, IT will kill us!

    • Joel Coleman
      Posted at 01:23h, 31 March Reply

      Cheers Pete, “the planet will survive without us…” There might be an idea there for another photograph! 😉

  • M
    Posted at 02:15h, 31 March Reply

    Whooohooo! Far out man! Love your article and the pics! Great Work. Thanks for doing this!

  • Sam Bradley
    Posted at 08:27h, 31 March Reply

    A beautifully crafted email and message that had my attention (whilst cooking dinner and toddler wrangling) from beginning to end. If my life was not so hectic I would love to drop everything and be your disciple. When will Gaia turn against us? God Willing never, and as a Christ follower I really mean God Willing ( coz looking at who humans elect as leaders and what humans take to distract (drugs and Netflix) and what drives humans to make counter-survival decisions ($$$ and greed) if it is really up to us we’re screwed.) every little bit counts though and it’s better to be on the side of right regardless. Thank you Joel. Awesome example and effort

  • Olivia
    Posted at 10:18h, 31 March Reply

    Great work Joel, no doubt you already “take three”.
    Olivia

  • Susie Thompson
    Posted at 01:08h, 01 April Reply

    Simply awesome! Inspirational on many different levels 🙂 PS – love the videos on how you worked your images in Photoshop

  • Nicole crabb
    Posted at 21:06h, 03 April Reply

    Inspiring project- thank you for raising awareness on this important issue.

  • Phil Baxter
    Posted at 02:09h, 04 April Reply

    Great worthwhile job Joel and lot of hard work cheers Phil

  • Jodie McQueen
    Posted at 03:50h, 05 April Reply

    I am glad I am not the only one who tells off parents for letting their kids spread water balloons all over the beach…. with the same response- oh and apparently they are somehow biodegradable. Here in Australia there are no excuses- but the issues in places like PNG and the Maldives are complex- where recycling exists its part of a global commodities market the excludes small island nations where it is not economically feasible to run recycling programs using existing models. A few dive trips in PNG and Solomons highlighted this for me. In 2013 I came up with an idea for a possible solution- which I called “Bottles to Boardwalks’ and entered it into a competition run by travel company G adventures sadly I didn’t have the time or the energy to pursue the what it would take to get the idea happening in at least a pilot stage- but its there if anyone does.

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