Visualizing our Sins: The Work of Chris Jordan

If you’ve been following environmental news at all over the last several years, you’ve heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the enormous floating garbage dump that has amassed in the North Pacific.  This isn’t some minor problem that can be expected to take care of itself either – the dense floating island of trash is currently twice the size of Texas and growing by the day.

Something of this magnitude obviously has profound impacts on the ecology of the ocean.  Fish are found with plastic bits in their stomachs, and photographer Chris Jordan has documented the carcasses of albatross starved to death by the copious plastic objects they swallow.  He traveled to Midway Atoll, a tiny strip of land in the middle of the Pacific, that at 2000 miles distant from the nearest continent should be a wild sanctuary, free from human influence and destruction.  Unfortunately, in this globalized economy, our impacts have truly become global as well.  Jordan has dozens of photos of dead and decaying albatross, filled up with plastic refuse.

I don’t want to proselytize regarding this issue (though it is important), I mainly just wanted to share Jordan’s image of the albatross.  It’s an incredible image to me, because on one hand I find it really quite beautiful, but of course it is emblematic of a tragic, devastating global problem.  I think we have to be careful not to dismiss Jordan’s work as merely documentary or activist photography.  It is, but it’s also more than that.

Great art doesn’t always have a message, but often, by achieving a synthesis of aesthetics and more profound meaning, art can become great.  That’s what Jordan strives for with his photographs.  Above is one of his installations at the Von Lintel Gallery in New York.  It’s pleasing and modernist visually, but it takes on an entirely different meaning and significance when you view it from up close…

…and realize that it’s an image of stacked, folded prison uniforms.  There are 2.3 million of them, equivalent to the number of people incarcerated in American prisons in 2005.  Another piece depicts a hail of 166,000 packing peanuts, “equal to the number of overnight packages shipped by air in the U.S. every hour.”

Jordan’s other projects include graphic representations of the usually unimaginable number of batteries, paper bags, cans, plastic cups, etc. that are consumed or produced every year.  He tries to draw our attention to the scope and impact of our actions by quantifying them in graphic ways that are often visually appealing.  He is in one sense a photographer/artist, but he is also a statistician and a social commentator.

The primary way we’re going to achieve real change in our environmentally and socially destructive societal behavior is through effective dissemination of information.  Our political system has shown itself to be too beaurocratic and ideologically fragmented for us to rely on substantive top-down restructuring.  Instead, we’re going to need to develop support for changes in state, local, and federal government policy through more grassroots awareness campaigns.

Chris Jordan is at the forefront of a movement aimed at people, to simply and powerfully drag our most shameful actions into the light.

Sources: The Vigorous North, The Sierra Club, SEED.

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4 responses to “Visualizing our Sins: The Work of Chris Jordan

  1. I question your assertion that information dissemination is the way to effect change. We’ve seen in climate change issues how too much info has caused overload and cause support reversal, especially when you have uncertainty. What motivates people to act? Images may soften the ground but is action achieved through incentives, penalties, or better forced choices such as more efficient devices?

  2. I think you’re right in the long term, but I think the problem we’ve seen lately is that there isn’t enough public support to sustain the political will required to pass affective policies involving incentives, penalties and forced choices.

    There has, admittedly been an overload of information regarding climate change, but we can’t brand all information as equivalent. Jordan’s work, and work like it, isn’t adding new information to the issue, it’s making the data we already have more accessible and meaningful to people. It creates illuminated bullet points out of the broader information stream.

    This is vital because change has to come in stages. It would be wonderful if we could pass a carbon cap tomorrow, but congress won’t do it because there isn’t enough support for it. It’s great to talk about hard mechanisms that can coerce people into more responsible behavior, but our first priority has to be to prime the political climate for environmental change, and that requires affective and intelligent dissemination of information.

  3. fair points – but in a lot of new work around decision making, psychology and risk – people tend not to make the decisions one would think they would make based on the available information. For example, showing too many pictures of the negative effects of climate change causes people to support initiatives LESS. It’s complex and the enviro field is really struggling over what images and messages resonate – and which cause changed behavior.

  4. Pingback: Information is Beautiful «

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