All photographs by Nyimas Laula
Bali. When you read that word you probably imagine looking out onto glistening oceans from a warm, sandy beach. But that shimmer isn’t as tranquil as it first seems. Those specks of light are actually specks of trash.
It’s garbage season, a period between November and March each year when the shores of paradise are flooded with an extra wave of plastic pollution due to the massive monsoon rains that occur. And this problem is only getting worse.
In a 2015 study, Indonesia was ranked as the second-worst country worldwide for its management of plastic waste. Less than half the plastic waste Bali produces is managed responsibly, with only 4% getting recycled. And it is this poor management of plastic pollution that now threatens the island’s beauty.
The government is beginning to take things in the right direction with a ban on all single-use plastics introduced in July 2019. But many see this as too little too late, and however you look at it, the problem is not going away. More still needs to be done. Luckily photographer Nyimas Laula is using her work to help people across Bali and the world realize the seriousness of the issue.
As an Indonesian photojournalist based out of Jakarta and Bali, Nyimas has extensively covered the plastic pollution in Bali, with her first work on the issue dating back to 2016. Since then she has worked with Reuters, The New York Times, National Geographic and VICE, informing a global audience about the issue and both directly and indirectly playing a big role in the fight against plastic pollution.
Getting into photography ten years ago, Laula first used it as a form of “escapism from [her] daily assignments as an industrial design student.” But this changed in 2016 when she assisted photojournalist Kadir van Lohuizen in his global project, 'Waste Land'. “The project covered waste management problems in 5 megacities around the world, including Jakarta. During that time I learned a great deal, understanding in-depth problems about waste and plastic pollution.”
Laula’s work and knowledge of the subject have only grown since then, and she is now at the forefront of documenting the developing crisis of plastic pollution in Bali.
Effects of the Pollution
Bali has been devastated by plastic pollution from both an ecological and economic standpoint.
“I can't speak for Balinese as I have been only living here for 4 years, but personally I think the plastic pollution has greatly affected Bali. More than half of Bali’s economy depends on tourism, and as the pollution gets worse during 'trash season' in November-March the most popular beaches on the west coast become polluted.”
“Bali produces approximately 1.2 million tons of waste per year, of which 303,000 tons is plastic. Without proper waste management and collection, 33,000 tons of plastic waste ended up in the ocean every year. This is affecting the ecosystem of Bali’s oceans and the food chain, which was shown in the viral video of a diver swimming with manta rays in Nusa Penida surrounded by plastic trash.”
These facts only touch the surface of the effects that the pollution has had on Bali. Since Bali’s oceans support such a rich and diverse ecosystem and the island itself is an area of outstanding natural beauty, the scope of the pollution’s impact is truly devastating, and every aspect of the island is being affected.
With such a pressing crisis, a key step towards change needs to be a general awareness and knowledge of the issue, and this is where photography has an important role to play.
Using photography to fight plastic pollution
When dealing with an issue that goes against most people’s existing perceptions of Bali, photography becomes a powerful tool to bridge the gap between that perception and reality.
According to Laula, “Bali holds these images of spectacular beaches, beautiful rice paddies, volcanic mountains etc, while at the same time these beautiful landscapes are being tainted by plastic pollution. Not everyone has access to witness personally this issue in Bali, and photography's role is to document it and make it accessible for everyone to understand.”
And it has been working. “In recent years, there have been several images showing huge piles of plastic trash in Kuta Beach and Kedonganan that have gone viral, and this has made the government declare a 'garbage emergency' in 2017 and take immediate action to tackle the issue.”
But although photography has helped bring about these turning points in tackling the crisis, when using photography to document issues such as waste, a delicate balance needs to be struck between beauty and reality, otherwise the work could do more harm than good.
As Nyimas explained: “In the context of tragedy, Ingrid Sichy wrote in an influential essay in The New Yorker in 1991 "And this beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal. To aestheticize is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feeling of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action …."
“I agree with Ingrid that the beautification of an issue can desensitize people. When I photograph plastic pollution in Bali, in my mind I want to present this juxtaposition of beauty and unpleasantness and create a clash between them. There are millions of people who have visited Bali, and this means we have a collective memory of the places in Bali. I want to tap into that collective memory while clashing it with the unpleasantness of plastic pollution that has tainted the beautiful image of Bali, in hope to create awareness in the audience's mind without glorifying the issue. These juxtaposed images can give more nuances to the complex issue.”
Dealing with Plastic Pollution
When dealing with any complex issue, no one change can ever be a sufficient fix, and plastic pollution in Bali is no different. But Nyimas explained some possible transformations that could steer things in the right direction.
“I think the best fix is to have systemic change. First, we need to have rigid regulations that would reduce the amount of waste produced and regulate companies so they are responsible for their single-use plastic packaging. Then seriously implement it, while building proper waste management and collection at the same time. For example, Jakarta has better waste collection, but without actually reducing the amount of waste produced every day, the waste management system would collapse. 200 acres of open landfill in Bantar Gebang (the 2nd biggest landfill in the world) are predicted to close next year because there is no land left to hold the waste.
I deeply hope there are more affordable and sustainable products that become more accessible for the middle to low-income people. This is what makes sustainability class-biased, as only people with a middle to high income can afford to live sustainably. I wish there was a simpler answer but it's a complex issue that has been neglected for so long, and now there is no simple solution to bring change.”
Plastic pollution in Bali is a systemic issue and solving it will not be easy.
But the people of Bali are coming to recognise this, and are banding together around the common cause of maintaining the beauty of their home.
Any solution requires a concerted effort by every part of society - the government needs to introduce stricter policy and better waste management, consumers need to be more conscious about their environmental impact and corporations need to try and reduce their reliance on plastic packaging - and photography can help bring about this change.
As a universal language, it has the power to affect so many people from so many parts of society, creating awareness and spreading a message that can be understood by anyone. And through doing so, through speaking directly to anybody and everybody, photography enables everyone to become a champion of change and understanding.