An Interview with Photographer Chris Jordan

Posted on 05. Nov, 2009 by in Design & Culture

styrofoamChris Jordan’s photographic series, Running the Numbers is a powerful visual representation of the vastness of American consumption. He is a respected photographer who has exhibited his work internationally and speaks to audiences the world over about the powerful message behind his work. He says, “As an American consumer myself, I am in no position to finger wag; but I do know that when we reflect on a difficult question in the absence of an answer, our attention can turn inward, and in that space may exist the possibility of some evolution of thought or action. So my hope is that these photographs can serve as portals to a kind of cultural self-inquiry. It may not be the most comfortable terrain, but I have heard it said that in risking self-awareness, at least we know that we are awake.” Chris spoke with me from his home in Seattle.

OG: Looking at your photographs, it seems like you evolved a system for representing the truth you wanted to show. At first the pictures in “Intolerable Beauty” show your journeys through recycling yards, new car lots, and loading docks, from the perspective of the camera lens. The viewer gets the sense that he or she is standing there with you, but may not get the whole feeling of what they’re really looking at. They may still be drawn to the aesthetic qualities and colors of the photograph. Later, in “Running the Numbers,” you use, I’m guessing, digital tools, to represent objects in the hundreds of thousands and millions. This way, people can look at and admire the quality of the design and the proportions and lines and colors and everything, but they are always brought back home to the message of the piece because every square inch of it is communicating a single visual message. Are you hoping to instill self-reflection in the consumer?

Chris: That’s exactly right. I have been passionate about photography for 25 years, and I didn’t start out as a photographer-activist. I did much more introspective work, and I still love some of that, but it was made on a personal level, not intended to convey a message to people. I initially started photographing giant piles of garbage, honestly because I was looking for these amazing, beautiful colors. I can’t really take credit for getting interested in consumerism. I had been photographing these really industrial areas, like the port of Seattle, and I would find massive amounts of crates and things, and they would look just beautiful in print. I took one photo, it was of an enormous pile of garbage, and I thought it was the best photo I’d ever taken. When people saw it in my studio they would say, “Wow, that’s a great statement about consumerism and over-consumption,” and at the time, I would get annoyed and actually argue with them, saying “That’s not what my work is about!” But then I got some advice from two well known and respected photographer friends, who convinced me that this was a path I could pursue.

So, you’re right about the evolution. I started learning more about the enormity and scale of the issue of consumerism, and realized that I wasn’t able to capture that scale with the straight photography I was doing. I started asking myself, “Where can I find the Mt. Everest of garbage?” And I realized there was no such place. Mass consumption is truly an invisible phenomenon that you can’t capture on film, because it’s happening in millions of locations all around the world in real time. Particularly here in the US, where we are the largest oil consumers on the planet.

OG: So your motivation to start digitalizing your images was to capture that massive scale?

Chris: Yes. I wanted people to be able to visualize and experience this data with their senses. It’s hard to process and make meaning out of something intangible, that you can’t see or feel.

OG: How do you come up with an idea for what you want to represent?

Chris: The idea for a new piece usually comes when I read a statistic. I’ll be reading the New York Times, and suddenly I see a number that just hits me like a sledge hammer. The most recent one was the number of cats and dogs euthanized in the United States every day. 10,000 is a big number. So when I read a figure like that, which may be peripheral to my worldview, something that I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about, I know I need to do a piece.

OG: What’s your process once you’ve decided on something?

Chris: I try to come up with an iconic visual idea. I’ll look at the source of the statistic and see if that suggests anything to me. For the Dog and Cat Collars piece I thought of my experience visiting the Holocaust Museum, specifically the image of the pile of eye glasses. There’s also a pile of shoes. These images speak volumes about the inhumanity of the holocaust and they make you think about the people those glasses and shoes belonged to. So I thought of collars to represent cats and dogs. I also chose Snoopy as an image because it’s not scary or threatening. I want to seduce the viewer to come up close with their defenses down. I try to sneak up on the viewer with every piece. In “Intolerable Beauty” I use these beautiful painterly colors to draw people in, and then with “Running the Numbers” I tried to create the feeling of boring, innocuous modern art. I try not to raise people’s defenses.

OG: That’s a brilliant strategy. That way people are intrigued and then when they see what the piece represents it adds another interesting layer to the art, rather than making them feel screamed at for being bad people.

Chris: Yeah, you know, I’m sort of a therapy junkie. I’ve been going for almost 10 years and I’ve learned that the therapy process is a sophisticated way to get past ego defenses. If you ask therapists a question they’ll always bounce back with another question to get you to think about it. They’re skilled at dodging and weaving to get past defensiveness, which stops a lot of people from being able to change in the ways that they want to.

I don’t know if you know this about me, but I started out as a corporate lawyer. I was very lost. I came over from the dark side. I was raised with a sort of 1950′s approach to life, where you’re supposed to go to school and then go do something respectable, climb the ladder. I was supposed to achieve the American Dream. I was very seduced by offers of getting paid well, and I basically sold my soul and took a job I knew I wouldn’t like. I stayed 11 years, giving myself excuses like, “Some people don’t have jobs, or have to work at 7/11, you should feel lucky,” and “There are starving people in India,” and “Everyone has responsibilities, you can’t get out of yours.” I told myself to quit complaining, but at the same time I was dying inside.

I would see people doing these fabulous things, doing incredible things with their lives. Jazz musicians, I’m very into jazz, poets, documentary filmmakers… I felt that there was so much brilliance going on around me, but I wasn’t ever going to get to be a part of it. It was depressing, and made me very angry. Therapy helped me really look at that consciously, and I had this big realization. I realized that while I had always been afraid of failing as an artist, I was even more afraid of never never expressing my creativity and being miserable for the rest of my life. My fear of failing as an artist was like a wall that had kept me from pursuing my passion, but this new fear that I began connecting fear was like a giant boot easily kicking my ass over the wall. I quit the law firm. People told me it was a courageous thing to do, but they didn’t realize I was motivated by fear.

OG: Well, they say courage isn’t not being afraid, but rather feeling fear in the face of a challenge and doing it anyway. As a big fan of your photography, I’m so glad that you made the leap. So, tell me about your latest project.

Chris: I just got back from Midway island, where the Pacific Garbage Patch is. Most of the plastic there is within 5 feet of the surface, and we’re talking billions of miniscule pieces of plastic. They get broken down into smaller and smaller pieces over time until they are the size of molecules, and also the size of plankton, so they’re being ingested by filter feeders. It’s scary because nobody knows what the results of this are going to be right now. I photographed these baby albatross chicks that were dying because their stomachs are full of plastic. Their parents are going to look for fish and they come back with bottle caps, lighters, all kinds of plastic. It’s very sad, because there’s such tremendous over-consumption – you stick 6 of those little coffee stirrers in your Starbucks in the morning and then toss them without thinking twice, and without realizing that that plastic is literally never going to break down, unless it burns and gets released into the atmosphere as CO2. There’s also literally billions of tons of runoff from industry, and even the drugs that we take, after passing through our systems, are introduced into the ocean. Chemotherapy, aspirin, it all ends up in the ocean. I hope to spread awareness about this with this new set of photographs. I’ll also be speaking to middle school students in Tasmania after the Opportunity Green conference, which I love doing. I never have to explain my work to kids, they just get it instantly, and they’re so engaged and curious. It gives me hope for the future.

OG: Well thank you so much Chris for talking with me today. Your work is inspirational. I look forward to meeting you at the conference!

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4 Responses to “An Interview with Photographer Chris Jordan”

  1. opportunity

    06. Nov, 2009

    To see more of Chris Jordan’s photography, visit his website at “Running the Numbers,” the “Intolerable Beauty” series, and his newest photos from Midway are all available for viewing. Enjoy!

  2. Naw

    06. Nov, 2009

    I am very glad that you have featured the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, I think it does in fact represent the “Mt Everest of garbage.” The work with the birds was quite well done, but I would also love to see some more macro exhibitions.

  3. Richard Bernstein

    06. Nov, 2009

    Fascinating perspective of how the interwoven fabrics of art, technology, society, and conciousness intersect and feed one another. Nice piece. Looking forward to checking out Chris’ work.

  4. jim polan

    07. Nov, 2009

    As a visual artist, I’ve always appreciated the visual aspect of Chris Jordan’s work, but I never knew about the process or how his work evolved to the point where it is now–thank you for this interview.

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