Bearing Witness: Chris Jordan on Art, Grief, and Transformation
Photographer Chris Jordan is used to working on the large scale. His most famous works try to capture the sheer scope of American consumer culture: discarded circuit boards spread out like a city, teetering stacks of crushed cars, two million plastic bottles (the number Americans use every five minutes) compiled in a single photograph.
But with his most recent project, Jordan is narrowing his focus. Last fall, he led a team of artists to Midway Atoll, a tiny, remote island in the middle of the Pacific where throw-away culture is having a major impact: albatross chicks are dying by the thousands, choking or starving after trying to eat small chunks of plastic carried to the island by the North Pacific Gyre (also called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). The result is a relentless series of photographs of decomposing birds with bright, colorful plastic where their stomachs used to be.
For Jordan, opening himself up to the horror of what’s happening on Midway—all the while recognizing that it’s “just one of the tragedies that’s happening in our world”—was painful and intensely demoralizing. But, together with the writer Terry Tempest Williams, he’s now planning to return several more times to further immerse himself in the island’s hard truths—and to discover whether transformation can be found on the other side of grief.
Brooke Jarvis: Some might expect that, having seen one photo of an albatross killed by unknowingly eating plastic, you’ve seen them all. But it really does get sadder the more you see. What was it like to actually be there?
Chris Jordan: The experience of being out on Midway, for me, was mostly an experience of pure shock. Despite my efforts to allow myself to feel the tragedy that I was witnessing out there, I was working so much that it was difficult to be really present. It took a couple of months for the experience to really hit me on an emotional level. The way it happened for me, it was a kind of descent into something that looked a lot like hopelessness.
I’ve realized that the metaphor that I carried with me when I went to Midway was that Dante's Inferno scenario—you walk through the fire, and you come out the other side with renewed energy or perspective. What actually happened, though, is that I felt like I walked through the fire and then just burned up in it.
For example, I thought that after returning from Midway, I would much more rigorously eliminate my consumption of plastic. What actually happened was a feeling like, “No matter what I do, this problem is not going to be affected.” So I kind of let go—for a while there, I didn't even care if I used single-use disposable plastics. The problem was just so huge and overwhelming that I didn't feel like I could make any difference one way or another. It's taken me a lot of work to begin to have more of a perspective on that issue for myself personally.
Brooke: What has that work consisted of?
Chris: Right now I’m trying to focus on being more present, on trying to experience what's happening right now, on letting go of the future and circling the wagons in the present moment. For me, that means focusing on who I am and what my values are; working out how to connect with others and how to live with integrity; and keeping right on doing my work.
Brooke: When you went to Midway, you assembled a team of artists. Not, say, an artist and a biologist and an anthropologist. Why?
Chris: One of the fundamental problems of our world, underlying a lot of the disasters that are happening, is that we’re disconnected from what we feel. I think it would be fair to say that American culture is the culture that is most detached from its feelings of any culture in the world. We've become separated from nature and urbanized in this weird, new, overwhelming way—and the only way many of us have found to cope is to disconnect from the anxiety and the fear.
The nature of the information that we have to deal with compounds that disconnection even further. We converse daily in numbers of millions and billions as if we understand them. When I say we use 210 billion plastic bottles in the United States every year, I assume that I understand what that number means, and whoever is listening assumes they do, too. In fact it's totally incomprehensible. There are all these sociological studies that demonstrate vividly that the human mind cannot comprehend numbers higher than a few thousand. There are all these phenomena around the world, whether it's the 1.2 billion people in the world who lack access to safe drinking water or the 10 million tons of plastic that are swirling around in the Pacific Ocean. We can't see those phenomena, and the only information we have available to try to relate to them is in the form of numbers we absolutely cannot comprehend. It’s no wonder that we can’t relate to our global culture on any kind of feeling level.
That's where I think art comes in, and why I think it's so important right now, because feeling is the kingdom of art. I've gotten to meet lots of scientists who are uniformly wringing their hands in frustration at their inability to convey to the public any sense of the extreme urgency they feel about the issues that they're studying. The underlying phenomena are profoundly important, and yet the information we're receiving is fundamentally dry and incomprehensible. Art can act as a mediator between science and the public, translating what science can tell us into a visual language that we can understand, that allows for personal connection and feeling. My hope for all my work, and especially my Midway work, is to make the global personal.
Running the Numbers
Chris Jordan's images make the huge waste streams of our consumer culture visible in dazzling ways.
Brooke: Your series Running the Numbers: An American Self Portrait dealt with the same problem: trying to literally, visually represent those vast numbers we can’t conceptualize. Now, it seems you’re saying that the best way to relate isn’t to try to show the whole problem at once, but to ask how we can understand a huge problem by looking at one very small, but more emotional, part of it.
Chris: I was looking at these huge global issues and trying to figure out a way to make them personal. To some extent, with the Running the Numbers series, I had to let go of the personal a little bit. If I were to critique it myself, there's a kind of conceptual coldness to that work. It felt like a sacrifice I had to make to be able to address those giant issues, but I wanted to figure out a way to get out of the conceptual and into something that's more about direct feeling.
You know, just an infinitesimally tiny percentage of all the plastic that's in the Pacific Ocean ends up inside the stomachs of dead baby birds on Midway Island. But where else is there? That’s what’s so hard about these mass cultural issues—there’s nowhere you can see the full impact of the problem. We try to relate to these issues through the neocortex, the intellectual part of our mind that analyzes numbers, but that’s not the part of our mind that feels things. I wanted to really feel the Pacific Garbage Patch. There's no way that I know of other than going to Midway.
Brooke: Earlier, you used the word “witness” to describe your role on Midway. Is bearing witness a useful way to think about your work?
Chris: Yes—in fact, I spent time recently with the writer Terry Tempest Williams, who talked to me quite a bit about the value of bearing witness. It means more than just going there and seeing something. There's a kind of holding that happens, and a making of meaning. I stand in awe of how fearless she is to go all the way into grief and pain. I told her about my hope of going all the way into the horror and grief of what’s happening on Midway as a way of trying to come out the other side. And she said, "There is no coming out the other side. You just learn to live with the grief."
What I realize now, after talking to Terry, is that I need to go back there. The project is just not finished—there’s more to uncover, more to witness.
Brooke: In what way?
Chris: Well, when we were there we never saw a live albatross on the island. The birds are born in the spring and die through the summer, but decompose so quickly due to the heat, rain, and insects that by November or December there’s nothing left but piles of plastic. So we went in September, which happens to be the time of the year when all the albatross are out at sea.
Terry's going to go with me when I return there in June, and again in the fall, and possibly also for the winter solstice. By June the albatross will all be close to adults—almost a million of them. There will already by thousands of dead birds on the ground, and we’ll see more dying.
I’ve been told that we’ll actually see toothbrushes going down throats and chicks whose body cavities are filled all the way up to their necks with plastic—their parents try to feed them one more piece of plastic, one more cigarette lighter or magic marker, and the baby chokes to death. It's a long process of the babies just kind of flapping around, making an awful gagging sound, and then crashing into the ground and expiring. There’s a huge abundance of life and an overwhelming noise, day and night—and at the same time there’s death all around.
Brooke: And that emotional experience is very different from an intellectual one.
Chris: It’s the only way we really believe what’s happening, or how wrong it is. Even in the green movement, there's a tremendous amount of denial about how bad things are. I constantly hear the message, "We're just about to save the world. There’s going to be a giant transformation. It's just around the corner."
But there's a dark side that we aren't facing. Until we do, I don't think we're going to make any progress. You know what it's kind of like? The alcoholic who says, "I can stop whenever I want. It's going to be tomorrow. Please pass the vodka bottle." Until we start acknowledging the scope of our problem and face what we actually feel, the conversation can’t change.
Brooke: How can giving up on denial change the conversation?
Chris: I don't know. I don’t think we can know. It seems to me that that's a portal we have to step through. We have to let go of what's on the other side, and go through.
That’s the intention for my Midway work. I'm allowing myself to fully experience the horror of just one of the tragedies that's happening in our world. I'm letting go of how that's going to affect me.
The Greatest Danger
by Joanna Macy
How do we face our grief and despair without getting lost in them?
When I do my public talks, I talk a lot about despair and shame and hopelessness. People come up to me and say they feel such a relief to talk about those emotions. We’re all feeling lost and disempowered and like some things are fundamentally wrong. And yet people are pretending things are fine: The economic bailout's going to get us right back where we were a few years ago and we're going to keep right on with the party. But I think we all know that isn't going to happen.
I believe that we need to allow ourselves to feel grief deeply. Anger and rage and shame—those are surface feelings. Grief is deep. Grief and love might be the two deepest human emotions. When we allow ourselves to really grieve, it's a transformational experience.
People I've known who have gone through the long slow death of a loved one from cancer, who have fully grieved and fully said goodbye and fully experienced the process, have come out of that experience transformed. They know more deeply who they are and what their priorities are. The Dalai Lama is not the only person in the world who has access to that kind of wisdom. We all do, but it gets clouded and fogged over by our daily rush and the messages we keep getting from our consumer culture, that material things will bring us happiness. We're all so involved in this headlong rush to a more materially luxurious lifestyle that we forget who we are and what really matters. We so badly need to reconnect with that right now.
If the conversation is going to turn in the direction of collective cultural wisdom, I believe we need to grieve first.
Brooke Jarvis interviewed Chris Jordan for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Brooke is YES! Magazine's web editor.
Chris Jordan discusses his Running the Numbers series.
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