To Visualize a Different Reality – The Photography of Chris Jordan

by Annie Escobar

Amid the constant inundation of advertisements and images that surround us, we may often filter photography into the category of visual noise- another message trying to sell us something else. 

The work of Chris Jordan, who is coming to speak at NYU on March 3rd as part of the NYU Reynolds Program’s Social Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century Speakers Series, does just the opposite- his images make us think twice about our daily habits. In the project that made his name known, titled “Intolerable Beauty: Portraits of American Mass Consumption,” Jordan photographed piles of trash and landscapes of waste, visually stunning and equally horrifying, cementing his name as a critic of consumption. The geometric repetition in his images (that makes his compositions so pleasing to the eye) is representative of the mass produced and commercialized nature of the American lifestyle. His work has since evolved, but each project considers the material footprint of humans and the ways we tie our physical belongings to our definition of ourselves. 

Jordan’s focus on material culture left behind is not limited to our waste. His stunning photographs of post-Katrina New Orleans show destruction in a way that immensely humanizing. An empty church, a decomposing piano laying dead in the middle of a canal, a soaking wet phone book full of numbers to houses that no one occupies… This post-apocalyptic terrain, full of human influence but absent of the human body, makes us consider the world we want to leave behind.   

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I first became aware of Jordan’s photography two years ago when I saw “Running the Numbers: An American Self Portrait”, the images in this project are visual representations of statistics that look at American contemporary culture in all the “vast and bizarre measures of our society.” The statistics he visually depicts cover a wide range of social issues: yes, consumption, but also topics as diverse as incarceration rates and cigarette addiction and health care coverage in children. One piece titled “Constitution” consists of five 8 x 25 foot panels. From a far distance it reads “We the People” but as the viewer moves in closer they see that the larger image is made up of 83,00 smaller images of Abu Ghraib prisoner photographs, representing the number of people who have been imprisoned at US-run detention facilities with no trial or other due process of law.  The human mind cannot comprehend statistics of this scale. In fact, research has shown that we can comprehend very few statistics at all.  Jordan’s photos stay in the mind, they combat the psychic numbing of statistics and they help us amalgamate the pieces of our large and fragmented world. Yes, they are terrifying and overwhelming but in a way that is surprisingly beautiful and quite frankly, necessary. 

As a photographer, I am incredibly moved at the ability of his photography to take abstract statistics, ideas, and places and make me see and feel them. The power of a visual representation cannot be exaggerated. If we can visualize the enormity of the problem, it activates our ability to imagine a different way. It is when we begin to expand our imaginations of the way the world our world is that we can begin to visualize a different reality. 

Photography of this kind brings intangible ideas and transforms them into a reality we can see.  My own work in Nablus, Palestine this past summer attempts to take a large and daunting conflict, the discussion of which is often filled with the poisonous venom of rigid ideologies and destructive stereotypes and give it a human face. It becomes very difficult to ‘other’ when you know the eyes of the mothers and their children. It is their voices that are seldom heard.

Instead of averting our eyes from the conflict, and placing it aside as a never ending cycle of hatred and violence, we must make our view of it focused on the individual story. I hope to bring forth the faces and voices of those rarely visible in our imaginations of this conflict. 

That is where photography comes in. From thousands of miles away, you can make eye contact with Fauzia, a beautiful 4 year old girl from one of the poorest neighborhoods in Nablus. Her eyes tell the story of how PTSD has already shaped her life, yet they are also a testament to her innocence. If you really look at the contours of her face and her expression maybe you can begin to imagine what it must have been for her to see her brother, a ‘militant’, murdered.  

Jordan’s photographs are also about discovery- the viewer begins with the confusion of the whole image and with each subsequent zoom pieces together more and more visual information until the final moment when they realize what the singular object that makes up the rest of the image actually is. It is in this process of discovery that the viewer is transformed. 

It may seem that our two different styles of photography are opposite- my work strives to be intensely individual, focusing on one person and one story at a time while Jordan’s work looks at the overarching whole, showing the effects of millions of people. I believe, however, that they are indeed part of one narrative: the consequences of forgetting our interconnectivity as humans. My work aims to put humanity back at the center of the discourse- we must never let the huge and overwhelming discourses of ideology take precedence over people. Jordan’s work inspires us to consider our practices as pieces of a whole, to never consider our lives in isolation. He often brings together fragmented materials that could never actually exist in only one place. His images remind us that we must mentally tie our habits to their consequences, it is when we lose that connection and think of our daily actions as singular and small that we also forget our interconnectivity as humans.

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