Un-Numbing the Numbers

A serious, bespectacled man in casual clothes, a Harry Potter grown handsome, speaks at the TED conference (Technology, Entertainment, Design—an invitation-only annual event), in February 2008, before Barack Obama became president, before the economic meltdown. The changes—or non-changes—since art photographer Chris Jordan spoke in Monterey seem almost as significant as the cultural shift after 9/11.

On this day, Jordan gives a talk that leaves him choked up, unable to continue. His work, images of huge piles of garbage in his “Intolerable Beauty” series (2003-2005), of the wreckage after Hurricane Katrina (“In Katrina’s Wake: Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster,” 2005), and the two numbers projects (“Running the Numbers,” 2006-2009, and “Running the Numbers II, Portraits of Global Mass Culture,” 2009), attempt to radio home to a society in which people matter less each day, and the amount of material we consume is astonishingly, grotesquely enormous. Portraits like these: two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes; 426,000 cell phones, the number retired in the US every day; 28,000 oil barrels, the volume of oil burned in the US every two minutes; one million plastic cups, the amount used on airline flights in the US every six hours; 2.3 million folded prison uniforms, representing the number of Americans in prison in 2005. Terrain’s cover image,
“Organ in Canal near Venice,” is from the Katrina photos; “Oil Barrels” (opposite) is from “Running the Numbers.”

Jordan worries that no one is able to understand the enormity of these numbers. As he said at TED, “I have this fear that we aren’t feeling enough as a culture right now. There’s this kind of anesthesia in America… If we can feel these issues more deeply, then they’ll matter
to us more than they do now”—a condition Jordan believes is necessary for each of us to alter our own assumptions and behavior. Unlike many artists, Jordan is in a headlong fight against abstractions. His final words bring it home to the audience: “I’m not speaking abstractly about this. This is who we are, in this room, right now, in this moment.”

I interviewed him by phone at his studio in Seattle, in August.

Both your parents are artists. What was that like?
Well, my mom was more the obvious artist. She’s a watercolor painter. My dad would take the photographs, so that was the basis of her paintings. She would hang a big sheet of watercolor paper on the wall, project the slide, and loosely draw the outline, and then she would put it on her studio table and start painting. I loved watching the blocks of color flow in. That’s where my interest in color came from.

My father did travel photography at a time you could actually sell travel photos, and then he became interested in fine art photography. My dad’s photography was on the side. He was a businessman in New York. We had a really nice house and a financially stable life in Connecticut, but he hated his job. He could never take the risk of fully living and doing what he loved. I just saw it eat him away. He’s now filled with regret.

I fell for the same story back when I was really young. I was encouraged by my parents to do one of the three respectable careers: become a doctor, a lawyer, or a businessman. I failed out of calculus. I was interested in law, had taken a business law class and connected with it.

I ended up going to UC Santa Barbara, played jazz piano, did a lot of hanging out in the music department. My first wife was doing a graduate degree in Austin, so I went to the University of Texas and finished up my undergraduate degree there and went to law school. I spent ten years as a corporate lawyer.

I had an interest in law because a long time ago I had been falsely arrested and charged with a terrible crime. It was a terrible mistake, but I ended up spending time in jail. Then they decided they didn’t have enough evidence and just dropped it. It just evaporated. I was nineteen at the time and it was very traumatic. It was like getting mugged in an alley. I always had this desire to get a black belt—and that black belt was going to law school. But at the age of forty, I realized I was on the same track as my father of being an angry, regretful man.

With the help of a good therapist, I started looking at all these issues. For all the years I’d been a lawyer, I’d been stuck in the fear of failing as an artist. I spent huge amounts of time photographing—I did five bodies of work that have never been exhibited anywhere. I wanted to do it full-time, but I was afraid of giving up that income and stability.

But then there’s this other fear that’s far bigger and more motivating—the fear of not living my life, not taking the risk. Lots of people tell me how courageous I am, but the truth is that I’m still motivated by fear, just a different kind of fear. In 2003, I bailed out of the legal profession.

One thing that happened to me early on is that I had successful exhibitions in LA and in New York at hugely respectable galleries. It was an intense experience early on, the kind artists wait all their lives for. I had enough of it fast that it was really exhausting. I think a lot of people get a little bit of fame, and they want more, then they realize it’s a huge burden. I got body-slammed. I realized that’s not the point of all this, though it’s incredibly seductive. Fame feels like it brings security when actually it doesn’t at all.

It’s been really interesting and scary lately because I’ve been operating on this illusion of being a famous person as if I’m exempted from the economic crash. My income has pretty much vanished. I’m in a very frightening place right now.

I haven’t really had to struggle with the issues that most artists have to struggle with. I want to be freely creative, but there’s no money coming in. How do I hold on to my principles and ideals and at the same time support my family?

I’ve had a personally hard time lately with watching what’s going on with Obama and the movement. No one really knows what to call it, the green movement. I sense a lot of hopelessness. We thought that once we elected Obama things would go our way. But Obama seems to be in a straitjacket. He wants to pass an energy bill, but those coal companies are hacking away at Obama’s energy plan. The energy plan that’s proposed now is pathetic. It’s the most flaccid attempt at doing something. I don’t think it’s because Obama has sold out. The great turning that we’ve all been working towards isn’t happening.

There’s a lot of appeasement going on as well, like as long as I ride my bike to work then I’m OK, that’s all I can do. And there’s not many people doing even that! Meanwhile, the scientific community is calling for radical change. The first warnings were about people in the future, long after we’d died, like we were going to do something nice for our grandchildren, maybe. Now those worst-case scenarios are the mainstream scenarios, and the time frame is that twenty years from now we’re all screwed if we don’t do something now. People tell me not to scare people, that my call to action should be hopeful. But my own experience is that I am motivated by fear if it’s the right kind. Yes, it’s scary to change, to do some radical act like taking over our government and appointing a council of elders, of eliminating corporations, things we really need to do, but maybe it’s getting scarier to think about not doing it. Once the consequence
of not acting looks scarier than the consequence of acting, then maybe we’ll be able to do something radical. That’s my hope at least.

What was it like for you to take the Katrina photos?
My Katrina photos came after the “Intolerable Beauty” series, with the hurricane hitting soon after coming off a series of exhibitions. I was there for two weeks the first time, and then I went down again. The first few days I was there, all I could feel was shock. It took me a while to get my bearings and experience a sense of grief. It was incredible to look around and see the incredible devastation and realize this is my own country. It erased my sense that Americans are immune from the disasters we see in other countries, and it also made me realize that we can be abandoned by our own government. Of course, many other people have experienced
that abandonment their whole lives, but I had not.

In the “Intolerable Beauty” series, I photographed giant piles of garbage. In that series, I tried to capture the scale of our mass consumption. As I stood in front of these piles of garbage, I thought I was seeing the scale. But as I studied more about it, I realized the enormity of this problem is taking place on so many different levels. I’d read these stats—20 million barrels
of oil, the huge amount of trees, plastic—and then I’d read the cultural symptoms—the high suicide rate among wealthy professionals, the millions of Americans on antidepressants, the millions of people addicted to prescription pain killers.

As I began to more clearly see the enormity of this problem, I realized that my “Intolerable Beauty” series was just touching the tip of the iceberg. I had run up against a limitation of the photographic process. There is no such thing as the photograph of the Mt. Everest of crushed cars because all these waste streams are divided up among thousands of locations. It’s like global warming, there is no way you can see it. It was a real challenge for me. I want to go deeper but I can’t figure out how to do it. It’s an invisible phenomenon. That was the seed of the idea for the “Running the Numbers” series. I wanted to depict the actual quantities of what we consume. And after I did a few. I realized I could also do images of social justice issues.

Which piece shocked you the most?
I have to say it’s the prison uniforms. The actual installation is just shocking. Each uniform in the piece is tiny, the size of a nickel on its edge. You have to practically put your nose on the piece to see what you’re looking at. And to hold those 2.3 million uniforms, it’s 10 x 25 feet. You have to understand that I see my work for the first time when I see it in an exhibition. Otherwise I see it on a computer. That prison piece took me a really long time to do, building the image piece by piece. I thought I got what it meant. But when I saw the actual print installed it was just absolutely shocking, that there were that many Americans imprisoned.

Really, they all have that effect. It’s so hard for us to understand gigantic numbers. It’s assumed that when we talk about these huge numbers that we comprehend them. But I don’t think we do comprehend them. There’s a disconnect going on. We don’t feel anything about these gigantic numbers, and it creates this cultural anesthesia. When the killings were happening in Rwanda, and we hear there are 800,000 people murdered, what does that mean to us? But if we saw their dead bodies stacked in a series of stadiums, if we could actually see those murdered people, we would act.

Talk about the tension between aesthetics and message.
I started with that question in my “Intolerable Beauty” series. I began using beauty to provoke an uncomfortable conversation. If I took ugly photographs of something ugly, people would just be repelled. If I took beautiful photographs of a frightening subject, people would be drawn into the aesthetics of the image, and the message would clobber them while they were unaware. It’s a technique that’s been used for centuries in art and photography. But when I exhibited that work in 2005, it was frustrating because most of the conversations were about how beautiful the images were, and there was very little about the message. In my cell phones image in “Intolerable Beauty,” I made several choices about aesthetics: I put it in perspective, I arranged the cell phones in a swirl, and although most were black, I had some colored phones that gave the piece activity for the eye. So for the “Running the Numbers” series, I decided to get away from that and just make a random pattern of phones, all of them silver. I wanted to just purely illustrate the quantity and get away from the beauty. But it turned out that just the sheer visual perplexity of the image has a beauty in itself.

The jet trails image was just a random pattern, but again, there’s a strange kind of beauty. People say it looks like ice crystals. So my own idea of beauty has changed a lot. But it also made me think about how we can face the horror of our world and still allow for joy. I tend to get into this place where I don’t allow myself to enjoy life because there’s so much bad stuff happening. Now I’m coming to a place where I can feel joy. We can allow ourselves to enjoy life and appreciate the miracle we’ve all been given and to appreciate humor and beauty. So that’s a subtle message I’m trying to put into my “Running the Numbers” series. I find personally the more I can open myself to the horror and really allow myself to feel the full range of feelings about what’s happening, then my ability to feel the good aspects opens up in the other direction. If we live in denial, if we try to avoid knowing about it and our role in the horror, then there’s falseness to the joy.

Chris Jordan’s photographs can be seen on his Web site, chrisjordan.com, and his TED speech can be viewed at ted.com.

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