Seattle-based photographer and filmmaker Chris Jordan’s works are infused with a passion for highlighting environmental and social issues as well as a desire to convey the beauty of the natural world.
Several of his photo series document mass consumption and consumerism, including Intolerable Beauty (2003-2005), which draws attention to industrial waste in America’s shipping ports and industrial yards, and Running the Numbers, two series of photographic mosaics that cleverly transform sobering statistics into visual representations.
Jordan’s desire to portray the effects of plastic waste on the environment led to his series Midway: Message from the Gyre (2009-2013), which starkly documents the impact of plastic waste on albatross chicks. Building on this theme, he went on to make the stunning poetic documentary Albatross (2017), which depicts the beauty of these birds and their life cycle as well as the tragedy that befalls their progeny.
A recipient of the 2011 Prix Pictet (a global award in photography and sustainability), Jordan has exhibited all over the world and has given several TED and TEDx talks. His film Albatross has been viewed over a million times.
Anita Malhotra interviewed Jordan, who was in remote area of southern Chile making a documentary on lithium mining, on July 15, 2020 via Zoom.
AM: Can you tell me about your early photographs?
CJ: My early work was all done under the influence and teachings of my dad, who was a photo historian. His interest in photography was in formalism: beauty for the sake of beauty.
So all the photographers he studied were those kinds of photographers – from Stieglitz through Steichen and the American landscape, guys like Edward Weston and Eliot Porter, the color photographer, and Cartier-Bresson.
The work was about beautiful things that I found out in the urban environment. And I had worked my way down into the Port of Seattle and was taking photographs of the colours that I found down there – huge stacks of shipping containers that are a mosaic of amazing, beautiful industrial color. This was before 911, so the whole port was open. You could just drive right in there and see these huge railyards and recycling yards and giant piles of garbage.
I began photographing that, and it was a friend of mine who pointed out to me that what I was really seeing was the infrastructure of our dark culture of mass-consumption. That was a moment when a light really went on because, for all of those years when I was just photographing beauty, I sensed that what I was doing wasn’t relevant.
I would look at the photographers who I most revered – people like Richard Misrach, whose work cut so deeply into the issues of our society – and I craved that kind of relevance. It was a friend of mine who pointed out, “Dude, what you’re doing is relevant. Not just because they have beautiful colors, because of what they represent about our mass consumption.” And that started me on a track that I’m still on.
AM: In Running the Numbers you were translating large numbers into visual images that are more digestible. What led you to take that approach?
CJ: The most popular photo from Intolerable Beauty was an image called “Cell phones #2,” which is this ocean of cellphones – 3,000 phones or so. The intention was to feel the chaos and the terror and the rage that we feel in this out-of-control throwaway culture.
At the same time, I learned that the actual number of phones that we discard in the United States is more than a hundred million. That photograph didn’t represent all of our mass-consumption – it was like one drop in a river and I craved a way to see the whole ocean of it.
I kept researching how to get myself in front of the actual scale of our consumption, and more and more I realized that there is no place where all of our cars go at the end of their lives, there’s nowhere that you can see all of the trees that are being cut down. These phenomena are divided into so many different streams that it’s essentially invisible to us.
The Running the Numbers series began from a headline that I saw in the New York Times: “Jeep recalls 800,000 Libertys.” I thought it was a pun at first because this wasn’t too long after 911. Jeep had recalled all of the Jeep Libertys that had ever been made. They had just started making the Jeep Liberty four years previously, so 200,000 Jeep Liberties per year.
I couldn’t even visualize 200,000, so I went on Jeep’s website and took a tiny photograph of a Jeep Liberty that was a quarter of an inch in size. In Photoshop I made a row of a hundred of them, and then I duplicated that row 1000 times. It was a really tall image of them, and I printed it out.
I have a large-format printer in my studio and I see this slow line of 100,000 Jeep Libertys coming out and it absolutely boggled my mind. I realized I didn’t comprehend that number at all until I actually saw it.
To show 200,000, I had to put two next to each other. I did that in Photoshop, and by chance it was very close to the same proportions as the Twin Towers.
And I thought – Jeep Liberty – of all the possible names that car could have is so symbolic. We were all wondering why we were in the Iraq war, and everybody knew it was to get the oil. And Jeep and Liberty and oil and all of this stuff just swirled together and I realized it’s a really powerful way of comprehending some of these incomprehensible issues. So that started me on the track that ended up being the whole Running the Numbers series.
AM: In that series, you often you overlay small pieces of the object over an image. Is that something that is difficult to do?
CJ: Each one is a technical problem that I have to solve. The first few that I made, the images were all rectangular and so I worked with lots of photographs of soda cans and I built the Seurat painting out of soda cans. That one was easy because I was able to use photo mosaic software. But then I started thinking, “How can I get out of the photo mosaic concept and have non-rectangular shapes overlapping each other.”
So many of them were just constructed piece by piece in Photoshop – tiny brushstrokes that I could rotate and scale and build an image that felt a lot more organic.
The one that took the longest was the one that I called “Gyre,” which is the Hokusai Great Wave made out of plastic. That one took me three months. Probably now there are ways to do it in an instant with software, but at the time the only way to create that result was manually.
AM: How did you get involved in making the film Albatross?
CJ: While I was doing the Running the Numbers series I learned about the problem of plastic waste, so I did several pieces that were about our mass consumption of plastic, and specifically about the amount of plastic that was estimated to be entering the world’s oceans.
As I did those pieces, I craved a way to go deeper, because to me the power of art and photography is its ability to help us connect with what we feel about something – to take us out of the abstract world of thoughts and concepts and to help us connect more deeply with our experience.
When I learned about this tragedy that was happening on Midway island, I immediately felt this magnetic pull to go to that place and experience it myself. When I first went, my only intention was to photograph the dead birds whose bodies were filled with plastic. At that time I had very little interest in albatrosses, because to me the whole meaning of that tragedy was the plastic.
When I met the live birds and began to experience these magnificently beautiful, graceful, incredibly sentient beings, and to see that they have no fear of humans, it opened up a whole other kind of world that just asked to be filmed. So I started making a film and I kept going back over and over again, and saw them at all times of their yearly cycle. And that grew into this project that fully capture me for eight years of my life.
AM: You say in some of your interviews that making that film changed your perspective on the world.
CJ: It was a confluence of factors that came together for me. One was that I had never seen an albatross and barely ever heard of them when I first went to Midway. And over the eight trips that I made to that island, I got to see them so close and in such an intimate way – I think I spent a total of 108 days out on Midway – that I discovered that I loved them.
I realized that the reason I loved albatrosses so much is just because I had the opportunity to be so close to them, and that I would feel that much love for any creature that I got to be that close to for that amount of time.
Even rats in a sewer. If you could see how they choose their mate and how they make their nest and how they feed their babies and how they snuggle when it’s cold, I know that it would break our hearts with beauty and love if we could get that close to rats in a sewer, or any creature in the world. And so it was a direct experience of that thing that I’ve heard my Buddhist friends say so many times – of finding my love for all beings. And that’s truly a life-changing experience.
AM: Can you tell me a bit about your series Ushurikiano?
CJ: That was an amazing experience. It was a prize that I won that was sponsored by the Pictet bank. They have a photo competition on one end and on the other they have an NGO competition. So NGOs all over the world submit to be chosen as the one that the photographer goes and photographs and tells their story.
I happened to win the prize, and the NGO that year was the Northern Rangelands Trust, which was an organization in Kenya that connects up a bunch of other NGOs to try to save wildlife. I got to go to Kenya for 12 days and I’m so thankful that it happened because I was always afraid to go to Africa and I don’t think I ever would have gone just on my own initiative.
It was a stunningly beautiful experience, and so sad to be there with these enlightened souls – the people that live out in the bush there – and to see the poaching of the elephants.
AM: Can you tell me about the project that you’re working on now?
CJ: I’ve come down to Chile several times over the last few years to attend conferences, so I met a lot of environmental activists here. A group of them brought me back to work on a project that’s about lithium mining
Lithium is the new supposedly green energy, and lithium is what powers all of our devices now. Our Teslas and Priuses and computers and cameras and phones are all charged by lithium ion rechargeable batteries.
And so there’s massive demand in the world for lithium right now because it’s not recyclable. Once lithium batteries are exhausted, they go to a landfill. And unfortunately it turns out that lithium mining is massively damaging to the environment, especially in very high desert environments.
So I’ve been exploring in the high desert of Chile in a region called the Altiplano, which is this incredibly beautiful and wild and fragile environment where a large percentage of all the world’s lithium mining is taking place.
I feel with environmentalism we have to bring in beauty more because environmentalism in general has been so focused on the negative. So I came to Chile thinking, “I’m going to make the most powerful anti-lithium mining film I could possibly make – one that doesn’t show the mines at all. It’s just about how beautiful the altiplano is.” And slowly some dark ideas started to creep in, and now the way my film is going it’s going to be really dark!
AM: The mandala occurs fairly often in your work. Can you tell me about the significance of the mandala to you?
CJ: They appear in so many different spiritual traditions, and I think that there’s something really fundamental about the symmetry of those circle images that attracts the eye and has a beautiful way of boggling the mind. They represent so much, but one thing they represent to me is the cosmos. A mandala is like a math equation that runs the universe, or a doorway to another dimension.
One thing I’m really interested in is working along the continuum from the mundane to the sacred, from horror to beauty, to create a container that can hold those opposite things the way our heart has to hold those things in the world.
And so I shaped Albatross as a medicine ceremony and I started the film with the mandala representing the sacred, or the cosmic, and then went directly to the bird filled with plastic. So the most mundane – most horrible – and then back to the cosmic.
AM: Many of the issues you’re portraying are very hard to watch. What have you done to be able to cope with what you’re working with on a daily basis?
CJ: The intention of Albatross was to face that through the work itself. That’s why I went to Midway island: to stand in that fire and learn how to be with it – find out what would happen to me if I went all the way into that darkness.
And the central insight that happened from that process was the discovery that grief – this thing that I had been holding away that I thought was a bad feeling – is not the same as sadness or despair. It’s the same as love. It’s the love we feel for something that we’re losing or the love that we feel for a creature that we love that is suffering.
And in that way, it was tremendously liberating for me because I could allow myself to fully feel grief. It’s an uncomfortable experience, but to me it’s an experience that I wish the whole world could have because it’s truly transformative.