Seeing is Unbelievable
If you ever wanted to be able to visualize the extent of our consumption -- what millions of reams of paper or plastic bags actually looks like -- then now's your chance. Photographer Chris Jordan shows us how we look.
Jordan's online exhibit, Running the Numbers: An American Self-Portrait is a series of stunning visual and metaphorical images portraying American consumption: paper bags, plastic bags, tin cans, and office paper. More ingeniously, these zillions of items are arranged to create larger -- and highly ironic -- images. SUV logos form wilderness scenes, dollar bills form the iconic monetary image of Benjamin Franklin.
In his own words:
"Exploring around our country’s shipping ports and industrial yards, where the accumulated detritus of our consumption is exposed to view like eroded layers in the Grand Canyon, I find evidence of a slow-motion apocalypse in progress. I am appalled by these scenes, and yet also drawn into them with awe and fascination. The immense scale of our consumption can appear desolate, macabre, oddly comical and ironic, and even darkly beautiful; for me its consistent feature is a staggering complexity.
The pervasiveness of our consumerism holds a seductive kind of mob mentality. Collectively we are committing a vast and unsustainable act of taking, but we each are anonymous and no one is in charge or accountable for the consequences. I fear that in this process we are doing irreparable harm to our planet and to our individual spirits.
As an American consumer myself, I am in no position to finger wag; but I do know that when we reflect on a difficult question in the absence of an answer, our attention can turn inward, and in that space may exist the possibility of some evolution of thought or action. So 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, but I have heard it said that in risking self-awareness, at least we know that we are awake.
This new series looks at contemporary American culture through the austere lens of statistics. Each image portrays a specific quantity of something: fifteen million sheets of office paper (five minutes of paper use); 106,000 aluminum cans (thirty seconds of can consumption) and so on. My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics tend to feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or $12.5 million spent every hour on the Iraq war. This project visually examines these vast and bizarre measures of our society, in large intricately detailed prints assembled from thousands of smaller photographs.
My only caveat about this series is that the prints must be seen in person to be experienced the way they are intended. As with any large artwork, their scale carries a vital part of their substance which is lost in these little web images. Hopefully the JPEGs displayed here might be enough to arouse your curiosity to attend an exhibition, or to arrange one if you are in a position to do so. The series is still in its early stages, and new images will be posted as they are completed, so please stay tuned."
Ingenious, yes. But also horrifying. The viewer can not help but be shocked to see how our small contributions to the problems becomes nothing short of monstrous when accumulated with every other.