By Ashley Yeager

A baby albatross carcass full of plastic “food.” Credit: Chris Jordan.

When artist Chris Jordan works on a photograph or film, he doesn’t think about his audience. He said he thinks the phrase “target audience” is a disrespectful, manipulative business concept.

“I want to be as authentic as possible with my work,” Jordan said, explaining that each of his pieces instead taps into that “universality in us that we all carry, a deep appreciation for the abiding beauty of our world and the miracle of our own lives.”

An environmental activist as well as an artist, Jordan is challenging others to target that universality too as they convey messages about the issues that affect the planet.

Jordan spoke March 1 as part of a working group to discuss questions about how environmentalists, neuroscientists and artists can work together to better communicate about issues affecting the planet. The Nicholas School of the Environment and the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences sponsored the discussion.

Duke ecologist Nicole Heller moderated the discussion, opening it with the idea that scientists are frustrated with their inability to communicate with politicians and the public about the environment.

“In the ’70s, yucky or scary images might have worked, but now they don’t. That’s no longer appealing. We need different kinds of imagery to reach across people’s biases,” Heller said. She invited Jordan to speak because of his reputation for being able to move audiences from diverse backgrounds and education levels.

“Second graders are some of the most passionate and responsive to these issues,” Jordan said, adding that perhaps the best thing we can do is to appeal to an individual’s inner child – that curious spirit we have to understand how the world works.

One example of this approach is the film Jordan is working on to explore the mating dance of albatrosses on Midway Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. He’s photographed dead baby albatrosses, whose stomachs are full of plastic trash their parents fed to them because they mistake the plastic for food. The work was to make people aware of the plastic vortex, or Great Pacific Garbage Patch, swirling beyond the horizon and therefore beyond our conscious concern.

Jordan decided to capture the wonder of the albatrosses as they mate, rather than just their rotting carcasses, hoping to feed his audiences — no matter their background — with life, rather than depress them with death.

“Like the albatross, we first-world humans find ourselves lacking the ability to discern anymore what is nourishing from what is toxic to our lives and our spirits. Choked to death on our waste, the mythical albatross calls upon us to recognize that our greatest challenge lies not out there, but in here,” Jordan writes on his Web site.