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Waste Not

Highlighting the emotional impact of ocean pollution

It’s unseasonably warm as a group of Suffolk friends gather at Duxbury Beach for a photo shoot. Courtney Bouchard touches the water. It’s numbingly cold, and she’s going to be plunging in on this early-November day.

But these photos aren’t about comfort. Quite the opposite.

The oceans are awash in human-produced pollution, and student Christian Morris aims to show what that means to birds and sea creatures by representing a human in dire straits. He drapes Bouchard in a necklace of plastic bottles, has her twist plastic rings around her hands and neck, and simulates an oil slick with black body paint.

beach pollution photo

Trading places

Morris, an avid photographer, is inspired by the work of Chris Jordan, whose camera has captured the deadly effects of plastics pollution on the albatrosses of Midway Island.

“I thought that showing a human in a polluted environment would make a more emotional connection,” says Morris, an Environmental Studies major.

albatross photo
Stomach contents of a dead albatross chick include plastic marine debris. Photo by Chris Jordan at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarter

Eight million tons of plastic pollute the oceans annually, and more than 10 million gallons of oil are spilled each year, according to Morris’ research. “I want to put pollution in perspective for people who don’t understand the seriousness of the problem.” So he has designed plastic props and staged a pollution scenario at an otherwise pristine beach south of Boston.

Art brings eco-challenges to life

“I really love Christian’s idea of humanizing the plight of organisms in the ocean,” says Professor Patricia Hogan, director of Suffolk’s Center for Urban Ecology & Sustainability. “It’s so exciting when a student has a really great idea and you can help.”

Morris’ project goes to the heart of the Center for Urban Ecology & Sustainability’s interdisciplinary approach to environmental studies. The Center brings together science, business, social sciences, and the arts as it prepares students to tackle some of the most critical policy and societal issues of the 21st century.

His “An Affliction” photo essay supplements the research and paper required for Hogan’s entry-level Environmental Studies course, elevating it to the honors level.

Woman lying on sand surrounded by plastic refuse

A mentor’s support

“Students have serious concerns about what the future holds, but we don’t want people to be paralyzed by the challenges,” says Hogan. “An artistic perspective allows people to engage in ways that seem to make the issues more approachable.”

Hogan found Morris to be thoughtful about the logistics, technical, and safety needs of his project, which offered her a chance to step beyond the instructional mode.

“It’s more like you’re serving as a consultant than leading them by the hand as a professor,” she says. “This is really fun for me, too.”

A crush of plastic bottles would be all too familiar in the marine environment.

No humans were harmed…

At the beach, Bouchard’s acting skills come to the forefront when Morris asks the theatre major to show the distress she imagines sea creatures would experience from ingesting plastics or choking on oil. Meanwhile Morris’ roommate, Chris Gordon, an advertising major, pilots his drone to capture bird’s-eye video footage of the scene. All three students are from the Class of 2020.

The drone buzzes overhead as Bouchard and Morris plunge into the bitterly cold water for 30-second photo sessions, warm up, and repeat.

aerial of student photographing plastic-strewn model, both in water

At the end of the session, they review the photos, wrapped in warm blankets, and Bouchard says the end result is worth the interludes of discomfort.

“You could tell Christian was very passionate about this idea from the start. He had a vision, and he brought it to life,” she says. “It was great to be part of it.”

Credits
“An Affliction” photos by Christian Morris
Drone footage by Chris Gordon
Model: Courtney Bouchard