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August 7, 2009

CHRIS JORDAN: The warnings on this one are all written in Chinese characters. Do not recharge, put in fire, disassemble, put in backwards or mix with used or other battery types. May explode or leak.

Our consumption looks like something from a distance, and then, when you get up close, it looks like something very different. From a distance it looks like all these nice, shiny things that we get to own. And these great lifestyles that we get to live. When you zoom in close, and you learn about the toxic metals, and the world-wide pollution, the details look different than it looked when you stood back at a distance.

My name is Chris Jordan, and I used to be a photographer and now I'm some kind of digital photographic artist.

This is called Plastic Bags 2007. This is 60,000 plastic bags, which is five seconds worth of plastic bag usage in the United States. That's five seconds worth of plastic bags.

All of my work is meant to evoke a whole bunch of different layers of discord between the attraction and repulsion that we feel toward our consumer habits and our consumer lives. It's like there's this tremendous power in our culture that has a dark side to it that has surfaced lately. And that's kind of what I'm working with.

Yep,, that's exactly how I'm going to shoot em..

I find myself walking these lines. Like I might be an artist, but I also might be an activist. And I'm trying to be both in a way that honors both and doesn't stray too far into either.

For many years, all I was interested in about photography was aesthetic beauty. And so, I would go out looking for that. And what I would do is go out driving around the Port of Seattle or I'd go down to Tacoma and drive around the port there. What I was interested in at the time was just color, places where color appears inadvertently or places where there's this color that appears in a very complex and beautiful way, but nobody intended it.

A lot the photographs I took back then, I had to trespass. I had to sneak in or climb over gates or over fences on Sundays to take these photographs. I worked with this camera that was about, I don't know, three and a half or four feet wide. It was an 8x10 view camera. And a tripod that went up 11 feet.

And one day, I found a pile of garbage that was really beautiful, I thought, and so I photographed it. And I made a big print and hung it on my wall. And people would come over and look at it and they would start talking about consumerism. And they'd walk up and say, "Oh, look, there's an Altoid's can." Or there's a, whatever particularly consumer product that they recognized in the photograph. And then they would start talking about garbage and waste and they would tell me, "Chris, this is a different kind of image that you haven't made before." And they would sort of urge me to follow the thread. And I told them "I'm not interested in all that. Like, don't talk to me about modern art. And don't tell me to come up to date. Just check out my cool cosmic color theory." And it really took a while for me to assimilate that this was a new kind of path I could follow. It and as I look back, it's something that I truly cannot take credit for -- is finding my way to consumerism as a subject, because it found me. My own idea of it started to change. And it went from these brightly colored things, and it slowly started to get a little darker.

There's this contrast between the beauty in the images and the underlying grotesqueness of the subjects. And it's something that I put there intentionally. Because I was using beauty as a seduction, to draw the viewer in to sit through the piece long enough that the underlying message might seep in.

It was frustrating because I would show my work to people and they would tell me how beautiful it was. But, they wouldn't get that it's about consumerism. Then, I would think, okay, I can go further. I want to make an image that is affirmatively ugly.

A visceral pile of twisted wires - supposed to look like monster guts, or something like that.

I couldn't really show the scale of American mass consumption -- I could only hint at it. I would always have to say, "And this photograph only represents a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the actual quantity of things that we use or we discard." And as it came time for me to think about doing a new series it occurred to me, what if I could show the actual quantities of the things that we consume? One of the dilemmas I faced was that there's nowhere where there are massive piles of the actual detritus of our entire country's consumption. And so the only way I could possibly depict those things was to create digital images that put together lots and lots of little photographs.

This one is called "Toothpicks". We have 100 million trees in the United States that are cut every year for mail order catalogues. Each toothpick in this image is one tree cut just to make mail order catalogues in one month. Eight million toothpicks.

Our minds are just not wired to be able to really comprehend and make meaning of and feel numbers that are that huge. And if the only way we're getting all of this information about these profoundly important phenomenon that are going on in our society is through statistics, then we aren't going to feel what we need to feel in order to make the radical changes we need to make. This one is called "Plastic Bottles" and it depicts two million plastic bottles - the number that we use in the United States every five minutes. This is the equivalent of eight entire football fields and that's five minutes worth of plastic bottles.

So I'm just curious what lots and lots of these are going to look like. I think of other artists who get to create for long periods of times. Like painters who might take 'em a month of actual-- the creative process of putting paint on the canvass. And, with my work, the way it happens, is I have a flash of an idea that'll just be this instantaneous "I got it." And it might be weeks and weeks of just the most incredibly obsessive work in Photoshop. But that's the only way that I can realize the idea that I had. And so I really don't-- it doesn't feel like there's a lot of creativity in my work. It's mostly just pure, obsessive tedium in Photoshop.

As I released the first few images in my running number series, I got some really negative feedback. One person said this "This is computer shenanigans that my 12 year old daughter could do." But I'm just willing to be with that, because what I care about is the message.

This one is called "Prison Uniforms, 2007" and it depicts 2.3 million folded prison uniforms, equal to the number of Americans incarcerated in 2005. We have the largest prison population of any country on earth. There's also no other country that has that percentage of its population in jail. And that includes all of the dictatorships that we think of as the enemies of freedom. I want people to realize that they matter. Because, to me, that's the key. When you stand back from the print you see the collective. As you walk up close, you can see that the collective is only made up of lots and lots of individuals. There is no bad consumer over there somewhere who needs to be educated. There is no public out there who needs to change. And that's kind of the underlying message that I'm trying to convey. It's each one of us.

BILL MOYERS: That's it for this week but the JOURNAL continues on our website, log on to, click on BILL MOYERS JOURNAL and you can see more from Chris Jordan and hear more from Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot.

I'm Bill Moyers and I'll see you next time.

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