The Science of Sustainability

A Conversation with Photographic Artist Chris Jordan 

Interviewed by Simran Sethi and recorded via Google Hangout, April 2, 2014

See full video and article

TRANSCRIPT

00.013         SIMRAN SETHI:  Chris, you have been my friend, and my inspiration for years. And that’s largely because of the incredible integrity of your work. How would you describe your photography?

00.26          CHRIS JORDAN:  Oh, that’s a toughie. Well, a photograph is worth a thousand words and I’ve taken thousands of photographs, so I could go on all day (LAUGHS).  Well, really what I’m trying to do is face the kind of frightening reality of our time. And there’re all of these issues out there that we read about every day, you know, whether it’s global climate change or the number of fish that are being taken from our oceans, or the number of trees that are being cut down in our forests, or the number of women that are being abused all over the world.

01.01          It’s like there are all these issues that we read these giant statistics about, and yet we can’t see the actual issues themselves. They’re invisible. They’re spread out over the entire planet. And there’s no other way we can experience those issues other than by reading the gigantic numbers that are the statistics about them. You know, hundreds of billions of plastic bottle being consumed.

01.27          And so I just want to create a visual image that at least points in the direction of the beginnings of comprehension of these issues, so that we can start to feel something about them.

01.40          SIMRAN:  That feeling — sentiment is so poignant. I remember when I interviewed you a few years ago, and you told me about how, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, you were seeing image after image after image of dead babies wrapped in blankets and distraught mothers, and decimated belongings.

02.01          And what you said to me in that time was that all the news coverage was delivered in that typical, horrible news voice. And you felt nothing, but you had the intuition that there was a photographic story to be told. And that story was one of reverence and love and grief. And those three touch-points, of reverence and love and grief, are so apparent in your Midway series, that highlights the devastating effects of plastic pollution on Midway, which is a 2.4 mile atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

How did you learn about Midway and why did you want to document it?

02.38          CHRIS:  Well, it came to me as such a shock when I first learned about it. I was at a meeting of a group of scientists who were all studying the Pacific garbage patch. I’d heard about this phenomenon of ocean plastic pollution and I was in the process of building a large-scale conceptual artwork to depict the amount of plastic that was estimated to be in our oceans.

03.07          And I was at this meeting, and one thing that I was really hoping would happen      at this meeting is that I would get to bum a ride on somebody’s research vessel to the middle of the Pacific garbage patch, so I could take a photograph of it because I had heard what we all have heard about it: that it’s a floating island of garbage in the middle of the Pacific ocean that’s twice the size of Texas.

03.30          And the citizen inside of me was like oh my god, that’s the most horrible thing imaginable. But the photographer in me is like wow, I want to go there and take a photograph of it. And what I learned at this meeting is that there is no Pacific garbage patch. It’s a bad name for ocean plastic pollution because the plastic in our oceans, it’s mostly underwater. It doesn’t float on the surface like a cork.

03.56          And it’s broken up into hundreds of millions of tiny, tiny pieces, and it’s spread out over the entire ocean. And it doesn’t collect in one place. So what these scientists are telling me, there’s no way to take a photograph of the Pacific garbage patch. And I slapped my knee, and I said, God — I’m a photographer. I want to go and take a photograph of the Pacific garbage patch. And that’s when this young woman named Anna Cummins turned to me and she said, well, if you want to take a photograph of the Pacific garbage patch, go to Midway Island and look inside the stomachs of dead baby albatrosses.

04.32          And it just, I mean, the temple bell rang in my head, in my heart. And she showed me some photographs that are already up on the Internet. And they had that same feeling as those pictures from Katrina. It’s like there was no intention in the photographs. It’s just sort of a bunch of random snapshots of birds filled with plastic. And I immediately got that same feeling that I felt before going down to Katrina, which is just this deeper sense that there is a profound story to be told there that isn’t being told.

05.09          SIMRAN:  It’s almost the quality of difference between documentation and relationship, which is to me, what you do. Everything that you represent isn’t that dispassionate objectivity of the photo journalist; it is the story of someone who deeply cares.

Can you talk more about that relationship, and about the intersection of art and sustainability, and what it means to you?

05.40          CHRIS:  Oh yeah, thank you. That’s a beautiful question. That to me is the great mystery of the photographic medium. And it’s what just keeps inspiring me to take more photographs.

05.52          Think about the actual physical process of taking photograph with a digital camera. It’s like you have this electronic device that projects an image through a lens onto the sensor, and from there this image is converted into millions and millions of ones and zeroes, which are saved on this little, tiny, plastic card which you then bring home and put in your computer. And you can manipulate those ones and zeroes and send them to a satellite, and they may appear — that image might appear on someone’s iPhone in Australia.

06.31          And despite all of the strange translations that happen during that process, from a from the actual thing in the real world to an analog image, into digital, and then multiple iterations of the digital, they’re sent around on wires – despite all of those translations, the feeling that the photographer had at the moment of taking that photograph, like the relationship between the photographer and the subject, transfers…

07.01          And is captured in that image. So what I’ve learned is that if I allow myself to feel something for the subject that I’m working with, then somehow that feeling is embedded in the image itself. And if I feel sadness and love for the birds on Midway Island, then through all of those translations, that person in Australia who looks at the image on their iPhone, that thing is transferred to them.

07.31          And in that way, photography can be this powerful form of activism. Because, I mean, to me, that’s the missing piece in our culture. It’s, like in the thing that we call “First World Culture,” we’ve lost contact with what we feel. Or, I should say, we’re losing contact with what we feel. And specifically, I think, we have lost contact with our feeling for the incomprehensibly beautiful miracle of our world.

08.05          And  sadness, like our sadness for what is being lost, could be a doorway back to remembering that we love that thing. That we love the world. We love the gift of life that each one of us has been given. And so you know, in terms of sustainability, I read a really powerful quote the other day by a guy named Mark Jacobson, who’s the senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

08.32          He said we have all the technology and the logistical ability to go totally renewable energy, if we can muster the social and political will to do it. Like that’s the thing: social and political will. That’s the thing — that’s the key. That if we could turn that key in the lock, it would transform the world. And to get back to social and political will, I think we have to get back to feeling, because that’s what will is – it’s a feeling inside of us.

09.01          SIMRAN:  As you’re saying this, I’m watching the sunset over Istanbul and I’m thinking here we are, in the same way, like someone who is looking at your photo in Australia — here we are connecting. And you have this extraordinary gift — which is part of why you’re my inspiration — to really translate things that seem abstract and seem like mere quantification. I’m thinking about all these staggering statistics that you were sort of referencing at the beginning of our conversation.

09.33          But you turn them into works of art. You turn them into something that triggers that emotional response and I think you almost make it safe for us to feel those emotions — that grief, that love, because those things are so close to each other. Can you tell me a little bit more about “Running the Numbers”? Your series that really does turn these staggering statistics about the world into works of art.

10.00          And what compelled you to take that particular approach to the work and — I don’t know if you have one, but what your goal is through that process and through that particular project?

10.14          CHRIS:  Well, “Running the Numbers” was an, a kind of an evolution of a project that I did that I called “Intolerable Beauty.” And in “Intolerable Beauty,” I worked for several years basically taking photographs of giant piles of the things we waste.

10.29          So in “Intolerable Beauty,”  I actually went to dumps and took pictures of huge piles of garbage, and I went to recycling facilities and photographed all the phones that were, that are being discarded. And it was an interesting and frustrating process, because the further I got with the project – like I did all this reading about mass consumption, and so I’d be going to a cell phone recycling facility, or a cell phone shredding facility, and the largest number of cell phones I could ever get in front of at one time was one day of their process at this one facility.

11.09          They processed 50,000 phones a month and they were willing to shut the whole place down for one day and take that day’s phones and dump them all on the ground so I could take a picture of them. And so I did that and I made this photograph of a few thousand phones. But at the same time, I’m reading that we’re using hundreds of millions of phones…

11.29          And I’m realizing this is a drop in the bucket. I mean, at this facility, as I was photographing these 2,000 phones, there were trucks arriving with boxes and with the next day’s phones. And soon as we were done with those phones that I photographed, they all went into the shredder. And I’m realizing what I’m actually seeing is a river, and I’m only able to take a snapshot of one little piece of the river. And if you think of all of the places in the world where the cell phones are being shredded every day, it’s like all these tributaries.

12.05          And I wanted not only to photograph the whole river, I want to photograph the ocean that they’re ending up in. And of course, there’s no such place. You know, there’s no Mount Everest of our garbage.

12.18          SIMRAN:  Thank god.

12.21          CHRIS:  Well, I don’t know. I mean, I think it would be amazing. Like, imagine if there was a pile of plastic bottles that, every time anyone uses a plastic bottle, you have to go throw your bottle onto that pile. Of course it would be impossible.

12.34          But just imagine such a thing. It would literally be as big as Mount Everest. And the, the individual act of throwing the bottle on — like you’d stand in front of this thing and first of all, the size of it would be mind-blowing. It would change one’s life forever to see the enormity of this phenomenon…

12.58          And it would connect us up with our own role. Because as you threw your own bottle onto that pile, you would feel your own contribution to it. And yet, there is no such pile, you know, our stuff just goes away. Or, you know, into one colored bin or another. And so we’re disconnected from our own role and from the bigger phenomenon. And so that was my frustration.

13.28          I wanted to take a photograph of our mass consumption and I realized I really couldn’t do it. And so I decided I was going to try to start digitally building these images. And one of the challenges is to do it in a way that doesn’t carry judgment. And you know, I don’t want to finger-point; it doesn’t help, it doesn’t accomplish anything. It just brings up people’s defenses as soon as you start preaching at them.

13.56          And so I really just want to identify the phenomenon without telling anybody how they should behave or what they should think. And so in that way, in a strange way, I think of my “Running the Numbers” pieces as being documentary photography.

14.19          SIMRAN:  Amplified (LAUGHS).  Actually, “Intolerable Beauty” is how I first met you, and I remember that series so well. And it really did shine a light on my own consumption and a greater understanding of this.

The thing that really inspires me about what you do is you shine that light, you know, when it’s immersed in the sea, when it’s above ground, in hidden kind of places that people aren’t thinking of. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the process behind some of this work. Like if there is one image in “Running the Numbers” that stands out to you and if you could kind of take us through that journey from the statistic to the image selection to the composition — if that’s the order it happened in, or how it all comes together?

15.10          CHRIS: Well, I’ll tell you about my most recent piece. I just released a new “Running the Numbers” piece about a week and a half ago. And it’s 183,000 birds, which is the number of birds that die in the United States every day from exposure to agricultural pesticides.

15.34          Sixty-seven million birds a year is the estimated number of birds that die that way. And they’re dying far faster than they can reproduce. And so we’re losing our birds. The Silent Spring is coming true. And I’ve known about this phenomenon for quite a long time and I’ve always wanted to do a piece about it. I’ve always imagined the way the piece would look is… it would be a flock of birds flying toward the viewer.

16.03          Imagine if I just have this image that came to me — imagine if you were floating up in the air, maybe a thousand feet up, you know, where a cloud would be. And all of these birds are coming towards you and you took a picture. And I was thinking, how could I possibly create that photograph? And it would be birds of all species – 183,000 of them.

16.29          And I had in my mind, for the longest time, that I wanted to do that. And then it wasn’t so long ago that I received a message from this woman who draws — she does these incredibly beautiful drawings of birds. And she had found my work and she’s a bird lover, and she saw my Midway work and just wrote to me. And I looked at her website and it’s like “oh my god,” those are the most beautiful bird drawings I’ve ever seen.

16.56          And I asked her: any chance you might be willing to make, maybe 50 drawings of birds that I could then cut out from their backgrounds and start pasting? And she did. So every week and a half or so I’d receive another box with all these beautiful drawings on a watercolor paper. She uses nine different kinds of pencils for each drawing. I mean, they’re just truly exquisite. And so I ended up with I can’t remember how many, something like 35 drawings of birds flying right toward the viewer.

17.32          So then I cut them all out from their backgrounds in Photoshop. First I scanned them in high resolution, cut them out from their backgrounds in Photoshop. And then I cut the wings off of each bird, so I had a body and two wings, so I could then rotate the wings so they made variations of each bird. So some of the birds, the wings are like that, and other birds like that, and other birds are like that. And then I warp the wings so some of them were like that. And some of them were like that.

18.00          And then I’d rotated them this way and that way. So I made like 50 variations of each bird. And then I scaled them so that the ones in the foreground are larger, and the ones in the background are smaller. And I just pasted 183,000 of them onto a canvas. And then I made layers of atmosphere in Photoshop – that’s easy to do – in between the ones in the foreground and the ones in the distance, to create more of a three-dimensional feeling. And I created this multi-gigabyte — it’s like 12 gigabytes, was the size of the image.

18.35          That’s five by six feet in size and it’s up on my website. I just posted it very recently.

18.45          SIMRAN:  Fantastic. We’re all going there right after this. How long did that take you to put all of that together?

18.53          CHRIS:  Well, let’s see, it was probably –  maybe a month and a half, or something like that? But not solidly. There was a couple of weeks of cutting stuff out from their backgrounds, which is the really tedious part, and then a couple more weeks of making all of the variations and then the actual pasting, you know, that was its own whole kind of obsessive-compulsive experience (LAUGHS).

19.20          SIMRAN:  When you came from that statistic… like you had heard something and then you just kind of had it, and when the time was right, it manifested? All the conditions came together?

19.30          CHRIS:  Like building a Rubik’s cube. You know, it’s like I always have a whole bunch of them on the cube — and I’ve got like three of the sides of the cube, but a lot of times I know I want to build an image out of something. Like violence against women — that’s one that I want to do. And there are a whole lot of famous paintings, like Picasso has some super gorgeous, really, really sad paintings of women who have been abused.

19.58          I want to make one of Picasso’s paintings out of women who’d been abused, but I don’t know what the little thing should be. Like that… I haven’t solved that side of the Rubik’s cube for that one yet. Or the number of women and children who died in our war against Iraq. I’ve been working on that one for years and I’ve never come up with what’s the thing that I can use– like the small thing. I don’t want to just use a substitute for people. I want to show real people.

20.31          So, yeah, it’s only when all the sides finally come together then I finally say okay, I’m gonna go for it (LAUGHS).

20.41          CHRIS:  One moment of inspiration and then weeks and weeks of incredible tedium (LAUGHS).

20.47          SIMRAN:  And leading up to that is a lot of patience, apparently. So, I’d like to end really just asking you… as I mentioned, you’ve continued to inspire me with every single one of your pieces, and with your philosophy and approach to the work.  Who or what inspires you?

21.12          CHRIS:  You know what inspires me and also keeps me up nights is the potential that we have to change. I mean, isn’t it the strangest thing to think that we have the world that we have, which in many ways is in collapse, you know, there’s so much horror, there’s so much bad news of a thousand different kinds on all of these different dimensions – social and environmental – and yet, there’s nothing stopping us from changing.

21.47          We could change. And yet, there are all these institutions that seem so powerful and unchangeable and yet we could change them today if we decided we wanted to.

22.05          And that’s the inspiration behind all of my work. Wait. It seems like there’s one more thing I want to say but it’s not quite there. I guess I mean it’s like hope. To me, that’s what hope is.

22.32          It’s like the knowledge and belief that we could change, and my belief is that all we have to do to accomplish that change is remember that we love the world that we live in — and each other, and the gift of life that we have. If we could just collectively remember that.

22.57          SIMRAN:  That’s everything. Thank you.

23.02          CHRIS:  Good to see you, Simran. Thanks for having me on.

23.06          SIMRAN:  Always a pleasure, Chris. Thank you.

23.15        END OF INTERVIEW