Finding beauty in industrial waste and the detritus of modern day life while making a statement against mass-consumption, photographer Chris Jordan’s recent work is a compelling and disturbing portrait of America. The recipient of the 2007 Green Leaf Award through the Natural World Museum and the United Nations Environment Programme talked art, life and ditching law with Indigo Clarke.
Chris Jordan didn’t plan on becoming an environmental artist, challenging mass-production and its devastating ecological implications. The Seattle based photographer, and one time lawyer, was simply drawn to industrial subject matter, uncovering beauty in unlikely places including shipping, wrecking and junk yards – only realising once taking a step back that he was documenting a veiled and ultimately sinister side of his home. “I wasn’t actually interested in making work that was environmentally aware initially,” explains Jordan. “I was photographing piles of garbage – colourful car scraps, containers, industrial junk, and saw these images as purely aesthetic. It wasn’t until I looked at my work objectively, and friends started making comments, that I realised what I was photographing was the result of consumerism and mass production, and that I was assembling a pretty dark portrait of America.”
Jordan gave up a successful life in law to pursue photography full-time five years ago, creating his first series of large-scale work, ‘Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption’ in 2005. The series, at once abstract and detailed, portrays consumer refuse; mountains of mobile phones and chargers, of cars, cigarette butts and circuit boards looming down on an epic scale – each image spanning up to 10 feet wide. Jordan’s latest work, ‘Running the Numbers’ of 2006-2007 (for which he has been awarded this year’s Green Leaf Award for Photographic Arts, received at the Nobel Peace Center in Oslo, Norway, at the opening of the World Environment Day Conference), follows on thematically from this earlier work, though takes a more directional approach through considering statistics. ‘Running the Numbers’ sees millions of soft-drink containers, pieces of paper, plastic and paper bags, cigarettes, and aluminium cans, among other products, shot and digitally assembled to form an astounding visual display of society’s daily environmental vices.
“Rather than present random piles of waste, my ‘Running the Numbers’ series depicts the actual numbers of products we are using and discarding every day – and looks at broader social issues including incarceration. This project is motivated by the fear I have about where our society is headed – I think American culture has gone over to the dark side,” says Jordan. “Certain behaviour and habits are having a catastrophic effect on our environment and ourselves – but they’re all invisible, they’re only evident in the statistics that show just how much we are all consuming.”
“We can’t ‘see’ how many people are in gaol in America,” he continues impassioned. “People are shocked when they learn that we have the largest number of people – 2.3 million – incarcerated of any country in the world. There is nowhere for people to ‘see’ the cumulative effect of the catastrophic phenomenon that is occurring this century – so through ‘showing’ the statistics in my work I hope that people will be able to relate to them and contemplate the effects of their behaviour.”
Jordan saw an entirely different, and extreme, ‘dark side’ of America first hand when he visited New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Not knowing what to expect, but having heard heart-wrenching accounts, he wanted to document the reality of the politically volatile situation through a photographic book. “Wow, seeing New Orleans directly after Katrina was a life-changing experience. I had been hearing horror stories at the same time as Bush was white-washing it all in the media – I decided I needed to go and see it for myself,” Jordan reflects. “What I saw was truly shocking, more awful than my worst nightmares – for miles and miles everything was just completely destroyed, it was like looking at photographs of Hiroshima. It was a monumental human tragedy seeing over 300,000 Americans displaced – and the way the government handled it deeply shook my belief that our country can call itself First World, because being a First World country means responding in a humanitarian way through leadership and resources – things that were not offered to the people of New Orleans.”
Jordan’s book, ‘In Katrina’s Wake – portraits of loss from an unnatural disaster’, published for the first anniversary of the disaster in 2006, has made over US$38,000 profit in sales – with all proceeds going to charities in New Orleans.
While initially he may not have set out to appeal to society’s collective conscience, he is now firmly on track to awaken dulled senses. “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,” Jordan considers, “but I have heard it said that in risking self-awareness, at least we know that we are awake.”