Portraits of Plastic Pollution in the High Arctic

In Aquamess, Cleaning the Top of the World, Canadian writer and activist Carol Devine documents domestic refuse that has accumulated in Svalbard, Norway, contaminating previously pristine waterways and landscapes.

© Carol Devine, from the series, Aquamess

Climate change and marine pollution have been named a double-thread by the United Nations. And, looking at their consequences, there is no doubt that the environment and global health are closely connected. “We are becoming plastic”, humanitarian activist, Carol Devine says. “We are poisoning ourselves by poisoning the oceans because we are a part of the food chain. Seeing how nano-plastic is killing seabirds and fishes enables us to understand how toxic these particles are for our health”, she explains.

A few years ago, she participated in the Cleanup Svalbard Program – a scientific mission that aims to collect garbage from the Arctic regions, while simultaneously drawing attention to environmental issues, and especially the conditions for polar bears. She had previous led a Clean Up in Antarctica and embarked on the Arctic adventure with two ideas.

© Carol Devine, from the series, Aquamess

First, on the giant icebreaker ship, she curated an exhibition of artists who are using garbage in their work - it was a way for her to open a discussion about what type of images we are sensitive to when talking about the environmental crisis. She also compiled comparative research of the situation facing both the North and South Poles – plastic pollution may be less visible in Antarctica, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. And, at the last minute, she was asked by the Canada Science and Technology Museum to collect and bring back a few garbage samples.

Triggered by the paradox of garbage becoming precious, she decided to photograph them in a portrait style, over a neutral monochromatic background. “Visualising climate change and marine pollution is necessary because we have been so slow at dealing with this topic in the fields of science and writing. I keep writing but I found myself attracted by visual elements because the truth is moving”, Devine says. Moreover, she wanted to show how we are choking our own lives. “When I saw such mundane items like a lighter or a shampoo bottle in such eerie, beautiful landscapes of the Arctic, I thought it was necessary to photograph them”, she explains.

© Carol Devine, from the series, Aquamess

Her choice of visual language, cold yet inescapable, turns each photograph into a tangible, unquestionable proof. Associated with the precise location where the object was found and sometimes accompanied by a short sentence, it forms an inventory – one she calls “archaeology” – of the human impact on our planet and ourselves. “Vel cleaning gel, Denmark. Irony”, one text reads. “I always see the value of showing and looking at things in different ways. The more we put out there, the more conversations we have. This is crucial in a context where we still have to learn and be pushed by others”, Devine concludes. And soon, she will launch the Antarctica chapter of the series.

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Carol Devine is a Canadian writer, researcher, explorer, adventurer, and humanitarian activist. She is a member of the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists, Humanities and Social Sciences Expert Group (HASSEG) of Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, Linking Tourism & Conservation, and Society of Women Geographers. Follow her on Twitter.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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Getting Closer presents photographic works, mainly in a documentary vein, that speak about the causes and consequences of environmental degradation.

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