And so do photographers.
I have a confession to make. I’ve just been to Indonesia and more specifically the Island of Bali. I had never been there before and so I was keen to record my impressions. I posted a daily diet of those first visual impressions to social media. The soft tropical light, the carved Hindu deities, the cocktails, the incredible flowers, smiling and seemingly happy Balinese people and all that intoxicating ‘difference’. These are the things that stand out immediately for any visual artist, so those are things that you record. And it’s true, it IS a beautiful place.
But after a while it became harder to ignore the gorilla in the room.
Bali has a trash problem. And we’re part of it.
At first I noticed the small piles of rubbish lining nearly every street and ‘gangway’ but I didnt think too much of it. I’ve been to developing countries before – indeed lived in them – so I wasnt unfamiliar with what can sometimes appear ‘dirty’ to western eyes.
But then I noticed the waterways. And all the trash that was ending up in them.
Nearly every main street has an open drain running along side it. We would call it a gutter. But Bali has a system of waterways essential to irrigating the rice fields that appear all over the lower lying areas of the island. Indeed, some areas of Bali have been awarded World Heritage status because of this age old system of irrigating the rice paddies and the system of inter-village management that has arisen around it. It’s called Subak. You can read about it here.
So the Balinese have recognised the importance of their water supply for hundreds of years.
Why then, is their water supply now treated so poorly? What would motivate the Balinese people to show such disregard for such an important and – for them – spiritually significant resource?
I couldnt work that out. So I assumed it must be the tourists doing the damage. And it’s true, we are a part of the problem. The drinking water in Bali has a bad reputation so most tourists are told well in advance not to drink it. But they’re also told to keep hydrated since Bali enjoys such high temperatures. Most visitors have little option but to buy bottled water. Which is readily available and cheap. But all wrapped in plastic bottles. With plastic caps. And usually wrapped in yet more plastic labelling. You can try to limit your plastic footprint by buying larger 20 litre containers from supermarkets and just decanting what you need each day into a re-usable bottle (which is what we did) but you are still conscious that you just added to the problem of Bali’s trash. That plastic container is going to end up in a landfill somewhere, and then eventually in the waterways, and then maybe ultimately out at sea.
A quick Google image search for “Bali trash” will easily show you the problem with numerous photos of trash washed up on the beaches. So it isnt as if the problem is unknown.
On my return to New Zealand I did some research. Bali doesnt have a well-organised trash collection system. It does have a landfill site. It’s just north of the tourist hot-spot of Seminyak outside of the capital Denpasar. And it’s a growing problem. Bali isnt a big island with unlimited space. But still, they keep piling the tourists in.
Bali’s popularity as a tourist destination has skyrocketed in the last 20 years. That has brought prosperity to the island and to a lesser extent its people. But that growth has also come at a cost. Bali still regularly tops lists of the best holiday destinations in the world.
But word is starting to get out. Articles are beginning to appear online and tarnishing Bali’s carefully curated image of pristine beaches. Including this hard-hitting article published on Huffington Post a few years back encouraging travellers to take Bali off their bucket list.
And I suspect that really is the only lever we as tourists have to pull to affect change – just stop going there. Then and only then will the Bali Toursim industry get the message that they need to do something about the problem.
What am I doing about it?
Good question. I realised that by publishing more of those idealised visions of Bali that populate Instagram, I too was guilty of promoting an unrealistic dream. That’s what commercial photographers do though. We learn to create, clean, uncluttered images and go to great lengths to create those images. In my case (since this was a holiday not a commission) I was simply, zooming in or out, moving the frame up a bit or to the left, or simply not shooting a scene if it didnt fit with my pre-imagined paradise. And thankfully, Bali is still so intrinsically beautiful that you can find places where its still possible to do that.
But I was editing reality. So I decided instead to turn my camera on the problem.
The images in this post, are my attempt to contrast the beauty, with the beast. Sometimes the two images were created just metres away from each other. Simply by turning to look in a different direction.
I realise no one is ever going to want these on their wall. But they may be among the most important images I’ve ever made. IF they highlight the problem and contribute to more people looking for solutions.
Would I go back to Bali?
I’ve been asked that a few times. And the answer is yes, I would. But not in the same way. I wouldnt just go as a tourist, and Eat, Stay and Leave. I would maybe stay longer and try and find some environmental organisations to help with. Perhaps an organisation like ROLE which is based in Bali itself.
Meantime of course, I’m going to do what I can to reduce, reuse and recycle my plastics. The most effective of that triumvirate being ‘reduce’. I’m just not going to buy cheap plastic stuff I dont need. Or something that looks like it will break after one use and be unfixable. And I’m going to try to buy food that is not wrapped in plastic.
It’s easy to think that this is a Balinese problem and we dont need to worry here in New Zealand.
But I wouldnt get too comfortable. Yes, our beaches are (happily) pristine by comparison. But unfortunately if we do nothing, ocean currents and the incredible longevity of this by product of human ingenuity, will end up on our shores too.
Here are some further reading (sources) if you’re keen to learn more about this problem and ways to solve it:
All about Dutch teenager Boyan Slat’s inspiring project to clean up the mess we’ve made: