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Against the Tide

By Derek De Koff
February 28, 2014
Photo © Alejandro DurÁn
Coast of Sian Ka'an in Quintana Roo, Mexico


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The photograph looks at once beautiful and disturbing: crystalline waters shimmer beside a rock-strewn beach. It takes a moment to realize those jade speckles aren't some extraordinary case of marine phosphorescence but rather hundreds of discarded plastic bottles, piled upon the rocks.

Photographed by Alejandro Durán, the ongoing Washed Up series catalogues the vast amounts of trash that wash along the coast of Sian Ka'an, a federally protected biosphere in Quintana Roo, Mexico. The world's second-largest coastal barrier reef, Sian Ka'an has an ecosystem that supports hundreds of endangered species—including black-handed spider monkeys, West Indian manatees, American crocodiles, and the Central American tapir—and is also home to 330 bird species and over 850 vascular plants. Yet, the Sian Ka'an Neighbor's Association—an NGO dedicated to conservation—estimates that this preserve has been subject to 29 tons of waste in the two years it's been removing it.

Durán has been documenting the trash pileups since February 2010. "When I first witnessed the sheer quantity of garbage along the coast, I was awestruck and disgusted," says the Mexican-born, New York-based photographer. The Washed Up project came to life when he began poring over all the containers swept in from Guatemala, Belize, and other nations. "I saw aesthetic possibilities in the colorful plastic," he says. Toying with light and composition, he creates unique sculptural formations out of the refuse and photographs them, blurring natural and unnatural elements in a process he calls "alchemizing the ugliness."

But with such sobering subject matter, why not capture the destruction in its unadulterated state? "The photos demonstrate something a documentary photo can't," he explains. "The site-specific installations have a quality that could attract the attention of people who are otherwise not interested in the issue."




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