The Moral Pleasures of Discarded Plastic Floating in Distant Seas

September 2019

On page 46 & 47 of the June 2018 issue of National Geographic, there is a page of text next to a photograph of a seahorse. The ochre colored seahorse radiates against a fuzzy teal backdrop of the ocean. It is a tiny creature. I can tell it is tiny, because wrapped around its curling tail is a fluorescent pink q-tip with bits of cotton still clinging to each end. The common single-use, ear-cleaning device, is twice the length of the entire seahorse.


This is a moment of Earth in 2018, where the production of human garbage is at the point where it is now simply washing up on the shores of the world. Over the image, in small white text there is a description and quote from the photographer, Justin Hofman, saying that it is “a photo I wish didn’t exist”. And yet, it does. It is right here before me, and for all, who care to pay a subscription, to see.


Upon beholding this photo there arises in me, an internal fury. Though if anyone were to be actually observing me reading the article, the expression on my face would likely remain passive (with the exception of some quiet brow-furrowing, which I am known to do).  My suppressed anger looks towards someone, or something. Yet finds nothing. Nothing concrete. I want to yell at someone that allowed this cotton swab to be tossed into the sea. For the facts given about the transgressor are strictly vague. Even if it were that the name of the person who used and disposed this cotton swap were given, this would be a facile answer, and anyway, it likely won’t be my neighbor down the hall so that I might confront this antagonist of sea-life.


The disappointing and not-subtle-at-all revelation of the photo is of course that it is my q-tip. One of the pack of 50, in my medicine cabinet currently. For the photograph is intimate in so many ways. It depicts a very small animal, at a slightly magnified, but no doubt human, scale. So human that the q-tip, an unmistakable object of humanness in the anthropocene, is visible to remind us of our hand in the photograph. Our presence there, in that distant sea. That impossible zone of life, that–I’ve just learned through this photograph today– really exists.


Through this clear, and what I might call, objective, photograph, I have every reason to feel the gravity of what is occurring on Earth. Yet as I see myself in the Indian Ocean killing this highly complex and unique conscious being, I still do not rise up and organize a boycott of the company selling deadly q-tips. Imagine how exhausting trying to organize all that would be? And though I will likely stop using q-tips ; it is a prerogative of my own privilege.


What the experience of this seahorse offers is a perverse peace-of-mind. The photo that a man, who I believe is not from Sumbawa Besar, went and retrieved off of the reef there and that National Geographic has cleanly provided to me and america (at least), is a validation of an environmentalist superiority. Hard evidence of our crimes, with the assuredness, that there is nothing I (one against 7.7 billion) can do about it along with the allowance to complain that others are not more conscious of seahorses off the coast of Sumbawa Besar.


In fact, it is not only the photo, that I am reflected in. The pages of the magazine are a reflection of my cool outrage. There is perverse satisfaction that I get in seeing the photograph embedded in these pages. It is easy to admit. The image is beautiful, the typography is beautiful, the use of space is beautiful. The meticulously designed image and words and space, brought to me by the steady hand of an 130 year-old media publication, owned by a mass-media conglomerate. This is entertainment. The empirical evidence of humanity’s immolation of seahorses and the Earth itself, to sustain our materialism. Entertainment via the provision of satisfaction to the self-righteous.


Yet intentions aside, this is an image of pure horror. It is the same horror in knowing there are bits of plastic inside microscopic creatures living at the bottom of the sea, To understand why I am so content and comfortable with this brand of horror, it is necessary to examine the frame, that is, the designed communication strategy that is being implemented here.


It is pretty easy to not be worried or afraid when something is presented in a familiar form. Even if it is horror. It is only under close scrutiny and translation that things start to become downright disturbing. National Geographic itself, as a medium, provides us with a comfortable delusion. If what is contained in National Geographic is nature and time on Earth, then what is clear to me here, is that humans have mastered them both. Or mastered America has mastered them? Or the Fox corporation? It is unclear who exactly has captured the Earth, controlled it, and redesigned to fit snugly into a delicious little magazine that we can keep on our coffee table. But surely if the Earth is on my coffee table, it couldn’t be on fire. Not really, anyways.


I try to imagine a different presentation of this image. Perhaps Indonesian authorities come to my door, showing me this image and then putting me in handcuffs for crimes against their ecosystem. Reading this picture, that seems like it would be the more appropriate communication of this message that my trash is filling the ocean. On second thought, that’s not quite right, is it? Because though I was definitely party to the process, it wasn’t actually I that made the path for the plastic to be tossed into the sea.


There were actually quite a few steps on the line from the local Duane Reade to seahorse in Sumbawa Besar, and a lot of other somebodys  who made bigger decisions to design that road. That there are a lot of agents of this global horror, that are omitted from this photograph. Which reveals the limit of a photograph like this, because it contains one aggressor (my q-tip) and one victim (seahorse/ocean) and that can only ever serve as a twisted comfort for the morally masochistic, while villains and victims are left to dwell in dark shadows behind this photograph.


Thus this image of an ochre seahorse, in the teal ocean, with their tail wrapped around the pink q-tip, is a sterilized image in this context. If this message was designed with the intent to communicate the horror of this photograph to all the world, what we would have is a highly complex unravelling of text and image, that would stretch far, far past the borders of the 13 3/4" x 10” spread. A photograph presented in this dimension struggles to illustrate the trauma of non-human lifeforms. A media company selling this product with any other intent than to commodify the environmental crimes of those that have gone unimpeded and unnamed in the last century, simply cannot be imagined.


Why can I go into a Duane Reade here in New York, find this image within a magazine on a shelf, and see this image, that yells at me, “q-tips are bad!” And yet I can walk, not 20 feet away, and buy as many q-tips as I’d like without any actual repercussions in my life. To be honest, I am much more convinced of the fact that q-tips are ok by the reality that they are sold to me without any trouble, in any drug store in the city, than I am convinced that they are bad, by some photo, of a creature I’ve never seen in my life, in some faraway place, where I’ll likely never go, in a very pleasantly designed magazine. It is not for lack of empathy, but a surplus of experienced reality. Thus the publication, the page, the photo, all of it is set up for failure, if it has any other intent than selling a pretty picture.


As for the seahorse, it is as a beautiful painting that somebody is taking a blow-torch to. One edition of a limited quantity. The seahorse, a pretty-faced victim of a mindless monster. If there is a conscious mind, or any real being, to this animal, it is nowhere to be found in this article. Like many forms of wildlife photography, and documentary, it attempts to sentimentalize the cuteness or innocence of this creature in the hope that it will be enough for me to care. Enough to make me say, “wow, look its even in this ocean where these weird, cute, things are.” This is a gentle middle-ground of suffering. Not so bad that it is humans suffering but it is enough to be a little pissed off about because it is indeed an adorable little seahorse. It is no more than a colorful prop. Justice for no being, and unfair to all.


Of course I might be more compelled to feel and act, if I was shown a more dimensional image of this seahorse to understand the complexity of this being. This leads us to questions of why is it necessary to publish the experience of this particular seahorse in a story about how plastic is effecting the planet.  What appears to be true is that there is nothing special about how this seahorse is living amongst the byproducts of our free-market, only that it is. It would be a great discomfort if a more complex image of how this creature is suffering.


Yet the biggest relief of this photograph, is that it is not my experience. And when it comes to swallowing the very brutal truths of how human industry is affecting life on Earth, its so much better when it isn’t in my neighborhood. It is out in another world, happening to something that I have no real relationship with. I am vindicated in my comfort, when a media authority on nature or the world, or climate change, or plastic pollution, or anything, tells me that there is a big problem and then shows me a picture that has on so many ways nothing to do with me. Yes it may be a q-tip I use, but I remain reassured in my apathy with only a light sprinkling of guilt.


This photo gives me 2 pieces of a massive puzzle: my q-tip, and that seahorse. Even if I were a professional detective with all the time in the world, it would be a likely impossible struggle to untangle the whole chain between us. As a visual designer, I am asking who this photograph for. In truth, I might look at this photo and on some level, and have the time and mental space to wrestle with this problem. To be meaningfully stressed out by the experience of this seahorse, and its relationship to that q-tip. Yet I am obviously not everyone, and I have too much time that most don’t.


The irony is that this issue that this photo is working to represent, effects all of us in our homes and spaces, it is everywhere on this Earth. The photograph is an important depiction of a time, and a place. Yet it cannot for me, who lives on land in Brooklyn, hold up the very real troubles of plastic pollution and climate change.  All must see the crime, but what is more is that I must see the links of the chain between myself and this ochre seahorse.