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Cause & Effect Mental Contagion
Art • Environment • Interview

Chris Jordan Seattle, WA
Interviewed by Dean Pajevic | Website | Upcoming Shows

About the photographer
Chris Jordan is a Seattle Washington photographer whose images of the desolate remains of America's mass consumption have been featured in magazines such as Harpers , Art and Focus. In the series Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption, Chris sees a "slow-motion apocalypse in progress ... its consistent feature is a staggering complexity."

Chris states that his new series, Laid to Waste: Portraits of Loss in Katrina's Wake, " portrays the cost of global warming on a personal scale. Although the subjects are quite different from those in my earlier Intolerable Beauty series, this project is motivated by the same concerns about our runaway consumerism."

Chris Jordan's Katrina work is featured in the February issue of Harper's Magazine; and the consumerism images are currently appearing in fifteen magazines around the world. The Katrina series will be featured at the PhotoEspana Festival in Madrid this summer, while images from both bodies of work will be in the upcoming "Violence Against The Earth" show at the Museum of Cultural Arts, Houston. Chris is working on books of both series.

Remains of a business, St. Bernard Parish

DP: Your photos of Hurricane Katrina show a world thrown upside down, or remade into alien landscapes. What excites your eye when you look through the viewfinder? What makes you click the shutter?

CJ: In post-Katrina New Orleans, everywhere I went I found strange scenery and bizarre subjects--cars upside down on house roofs, boats sticking out of people's living rooms, whole neighborhoods ripped apart as if they had been bombed, with clothes and toilets and beds and dishes thrown around in ironic and poignant juxtapositions. The power of the hurricane was ever-present in the landscape; I could have done a whole body of work just about evidence of the incredible forces that had come to bear. So it took some discipline to stay focused on what I was interested in. I went there with the intention of connecting with something other than the obvious devastation. I didn't know exactly what that would be, but I tried to be very present with my own feelings, and when I felt a certain thing, I photographed whatever it was that triggered that feeling even if it wasn't the most spectacular subject. It is difficult to describe exactly what that feeling was because it's complex, and trying to reduce it to words would oversimplify it and probably miss the point. Hopefully it's there in the images, because that's the only language I know for conveying it clearly.

Circuit boards #2, New Orleans 2005

DP: From the work I have seen, there are no people in your images. Just our stuff. Can you talk about why?

CJ: Over many years, I've seen thousands of photographs of people suffering all over the world, but for some reason I rarely find myself moved by those kinds of images. That sounds terrible to say, but it's true for me. Maybe it is because those photos tell only a tiny fragment of the people's stories so it is difficult to connect with them. Journalistic disaster photos portray what is happening in that instant, but those instants have already passed by, and we can't know what became of the people, or what else happened in their lives, or who they really were, or whether it got better or worse for them, and so on. There are exceptions of course; some photos of people suffering are shatteringly powerful, but not very many that I can think of.

For me, my work is about something different. It is not about portraying other peoples' suffering, or trying to evoke sympathy for the victims. It is about connecting with a sense of loss that I feel myself, a deep experience of my own grief for what is happening in our country right now. In the destruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, we have all lost something sacred. That is a personal loss, not someone else's.

A big part of this for me is the fact that Katrina was not an entirely natural disaster. If this were a purely natural event like an earthquake, I would feel differently about it, and may not have photographed it at all. The sense of loss for me has something to do with our collective failure as a society, maybe like the loss a parent might feel if their teenaged child died from a drug overdose. If we had been more aware, we could have done something sooner, but we weren't, and now it is too late. This would be different than losing a child to an untreatable illness, for example. There is an element of accountability, or shame, or maybe regret, and perhaps an inspiration to be different in the future.

Crushed cars #2, Tacoma 2004

DP: In many ways, your photos of vast piles of industrial waste start to become important social records like the photos taken of concentration camps after World War 2. People had to see the pictures to believe. You chronicle, or make visible, what is in our culture a mostly invisible process: our mass consumption of the planet. Is it hard to focus on what others would rather not see? To show that the emperor is wearing no clothes?

CJ: When I was down in New Orleans photographing, I was talking on the phone with my parents one day, and they asked me if I was having a good time. I reflected on it for a moment, and said no, I definitely am not having a good time, but there is nowhere else in the world that I would rather be right now. Photographing these kinds of subjects--both the Katrina project and my consumerism work--is physically and emotionally challenging, not the kind of activity I would call fun. But my own personal quest these years is for authenticity, and I'm willing to make some major sacrifices to go in that direction. I could probably make a nice living taking photos of tropical beaches and getting free vacations from cruise companies or whatever, but I wouldn't trade my work for that.

Do people ever get angry with you for showing these places in your images? If so, why do you think they do? How do you respond?

CJ: When I exhibit my work and talk about our rampant consumerism, no one ever seems to think I am talking about them. So I get very little anger from people; they almost always take my side and speak zealously about consumer issues, even if they drive a huge SUV and work two thousand hours a year to pay for their three homes. This illustrates for me the complexity of the issue; it is like talking to someone with an alcohol problem, where no amount of preaching will break through the defensiveness. Self-reflection is something that can only happen internally. But it can be inspired from the outside, especially by art; I have experienced that myself. So my hope with my work is to offer something that will invite self-reflection. I wish I could accomplish more, and faster, by doing lots of yelling and pounding the table, but that just doesn't work.

DP: Are you drawn to exposing secrets, to truth telling? How does it work with your art?

CJ: As a kid growing up, for some reason I was always the person in my family who spoke up when there was a problem that everyone else was ignoring. As an adult I am interested in artists' ability to take on this role in society. People as a culture can get into collective denial about something, or become engaged in some unconscious group behavior that is cruel or unhealthy. This kind of mob mentality can grow and spread until a whole nation is doing something atrocious. History is full of examples, but to me none is so disturbing as what is going on right now in our own culture. I think we have gotten into some serious denial about our consumerism and its effects on our planet and on the people of the future. I feel compelled to say something; I just can't bear the falsity of going along with the crowd and pretending everything is fine.

Of course lots of others are playing this role also; there are brilliant writers, thinkers, scientists and artists out there who are passionately devoted to issues around our consumerism. I hope that my work might contribute to some kind of critical mass, where a new consciousness takes hold and becomes mainstream instead of stuck on the fringe.

DP: Do people have a hard time deciding if you are an artist or a journalist? Does it matter?

CJ: My work always seems to be right on the line between things, as if I am walking a tightrope all the time. Is it documentary or art, abstract or representational, activism or objective observation, ugly or beautiful, contemporary or traditional? I guess in the end I am more interested in trying to hold all of those concepts at once, to see how much complexity I can bear, rather than trying to decide one way or the other. I trust that the images will convey their message on their terms, and I love when people argue about my work because it means they are engaged.

Pants rack in a women's clothing store, St. Bernard Parish

DP: The sheer physicality of your images shows the reality behind our gigantic societal shopping spree. After all you have seen, do you sometimes feel we are just shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic? Or is there reason for hope?

CJ: There are some visionary thinkers who believe we are just shuffling the chairs as the ship sinks--that we're past the point of no return, and the people of the future will inherit a problem that will be almost impossible for them to recover from. I think that's probably true. But there is another truth too, which is that if we all decided to, we could change the world overnight. As an example, just imagine this: what if we put women into every major governmental role in America. A woman President, an all-woman congress, women in the Supreme Court, women governors, women in charge of the EPA, and so on. And I mean evolved, compassionate, self-reflective women. Do you think we'd be trashing Iraq, drilling for oil in the Arctic, screwing the people of New Orleans and spending a billion dollars developing a new microwave-pulse rifle that boils the water in people's skin? Radical change may be more accessible than we tend to think. So, yeh, I have hope.

DP: What really, for you, is at stake?

CJ: I believe everything is at stake. There is a beautiful statement by Terry Tempest Williams, where she said that the people of the future are watching us, and silently begging for us to do the right thing. Now is when it all gets decided; the temperature is spiking, the pollution curves are going vertical, the fish populations are plummeting, oil is running out, and the Inuit Eskimo womens' breast milk is so high in mercury that it qualifies as hazardous waste. This generation holds the sacred cup from which all future generations must drink. Everything is at stake.

e-Bank, Tacoma 2004

DP: If there was a person, or a group of people in the world whom you think will never see your art, but whom you think need to; who would that be? And why?

CJ: My first instinct is to say it would be the Bush administration. Right now for some strange reason we have the most un-enlightened leaders in the history of our country. It is appalling how far backwards we have slid under this regime. I could launch into a diatribe here, but I won't because it's not my place. Other people can say it more articulately and I probably would be preaching to the choir anyway.

My own theory of it is that our culture slowly has become consumed by greed. Greed is our national state of mind. It didn't used to be this way; even in my own lifetime I remember when people worked less, spent more time with their families, were satisfied with fewer cars, smaller houses, and less stuff. Just a few years ago our stoves and countertops didn't matter; now a $30,000 remodeled chef's kitchen is standard in most middle-class homes even if no one in the house cooks. Today's Honda Civic is far more luxurious than the best Mercedes of a couple of decades ago, yet everyone thinks they need more than a Honda Civic. We're driving insane cars, buying insane amounts of stuff, and working insane hours to pay for it all. In the last few decades the economy and the gaining of material wealth have subverted everything else that we value.

I don't know whether our leaders help foster this, or if they are just reflections of it. I fear that they are just reflections of it, and the real problem lies with us: you and me, our collective American Self, and our individual greed. There's an elephant standing in the room here, and I'm sorry but I just can't handle the small talk anymore.

Upcoming Shows

Solo Exhibits
2006 Photo Espana Festival, Madrid, Spain

Selected Group Exhibits
2006 Artists Responding to Violence Against the Earth
Museum of Cultural Arts Houston, Houston TX, March- April 2006

©2006 Mental Contagion • Making Space for Visual Artists & Writers