Chris Jordan is an artist based in Seattle, Washington. Jordan is a strong believer in the transformative power of photography and all of the work he makes is animated by a belief in photography’s unique ability to convey a reverential relationship with our wondrous surroundings. LensCulture’s managing editor, Alexander Strecker, reached out to Jordan to find out more about him and his beliefs surrounding the unique strengths of photography.
LC: How did you decide to become a full-time, professional photographer?
CJ: Actually, I have known photography was my thing ever since I was a kid. My Dad was a photo historian and a photography collector, so I was steeped in the medium from a young age. But I was afraid to follow it as a career, afraid of going to art school and failing artistically and financially, so I went to law school and spent ten years cooped up in a Seattle law office like a caged animal.
All that time I was photographing with a 4x5 camera on the streets of Seattle at night and on the weekends—I made five bodies of work back then that have never been exhibited. After a decade I was so sick of myself that it became easy to quit the legal gig and finally take the risk of living.
LC: Why is photography special to you? What is it that first drew you to the image as a way of conveying the message you wanted to share with the world? And what keeps you coming back?
CJ: Photography for me is magical on so many levels. In one way it is like a treasure hunt—these images or perspectives are out there in the world waiting to be discovered, but each photographer has a particularized version available to them, that only they can recognize. And on another level, it is fascinating to find photographic subjects out there, that feel somehow internal and connective, that I recognize as being parts of myself in some way. It blurs the lines between self and other, and the external and internal, in ways that bring teachings of all kinds.
But perhaps the most mysterious part for me is the way the medium can transmit feeling. Digital cameras record millions of tiny electrical signals that get sent down wires and through multiple computers; and yet somehow the feeling of the photographer’s relationship with the subject can make it through that whole process intact. For me that is one of the greatest powers of photography—to convey relationships, which for me, are all about reverence.
LC: Is a picture worth a thousand words? Some of your work is singularly powerful and can stand alone. Others [e.g. “Gyre,” seen below] seem to require a little more context/information to appreciate. Can you talk about balancing those two approaches?
Gyre, 2009. 8x11 feet.
CJ: Well, I like that old saying from Zen: “Whenever a man speaks, he misses the point.” To put it another way, as soon as we reduce something to words, our consciousness becomes rooted in language, and the world shrinks. I think a good picture, whether a photograph or painting or any other kind of art for that matter, can be worth more than any amount of words; images have the power to convey complex mind/heart states that operate below the level of words.
I mean, kneeling over a dead albatross whose body was full of plastic, feeling viscerally the grace and complexity of this magnificent creature, and the destructive power of our carelessness and collective spiritual bankruptcy, was a life-changing experience in a way that I cannot describe in words. But then, yes, the titles/captions of photographs can convey important information, so there is a balance there.
“Gyre” depicts 2.4 million pieces of plastic—equal to the estimated number of pounds of plastic pollution that enter the world’s oceans every hour. All of the plastic in this image was collected from the Pacific Ocean.
LC: Do you think photographers/artists can make a difference?
CJ: I think art has always made an immeasurably important difference in human culture, and right now might be the most potent time ever for the arts to contribute to the healing and transformation of our world. I think perhaps the fact that we are collectively losing contact with our pre-verbal experience—intuition, feeling, amazement, wonderment, our innate love for Life, and so on—is a primary reason why we have gotten ourselves into the mess we are in. Art is not only relevant right now; it has a crucial role to play in the battle for our collective sanity.
LC: Your work looks at some of the most daunting issues of our time. I imagine this gives you a sense of purpose but also…despair? How do you face these problems squarely day by day while at the same time maintaining a positive/productive attitude?
CJ: That’s the challenge we are all facing, isn’t it? The bad news keeps getting worse and bigger in scale all the time. If we turn away from it, we know we are living in denial; but if we face it, we risk falling into despair, hopelessness, depression, disempowerment, and paralysis.
For me it is all about perspective: yes the news is bad, and we have to face it, but that’s not the whole story. The world, every single moment, is an incomprehensibly amazing and mysterious miracle, and each one of us has won the lottery ticket of the Universe to get to be here and experience it. My wish for myself is to develop the capacity to bear both sides of the equation—horror and beauty, sadness and joy, despair and love. I want to learn how to live mid-way between the opposites and paradoxes of our world, facing and holding them all equally.
LC: You talk a lot about fear in your work. Do you think people are touched most by fear? Or beauty? Or rational argument? Or…?
CJ: Fear is dangerous because it tends to operate below the level of conscious awareness. The way our minds are wired, most of the time when we are scared, we don’t even realize we are scared. Fear propagates from the amygdala and arrives milliseconds later in the thinking mind, having transmuted into thoughts that sound plausible and credible. Then we act on those thoughts without realizing that the underlying motivation was fear. My therapist friend calls this process the “amygdala hijack.”
When hundreds of millions of people all collaborate in suppressing collective fear, then we fall into a kind of trance that can lead us to commit atrocities. I think it is incredibly important for us to face our fears, to shine the light of consciousness into those shadows, both individually and collectively. When we do that, we discover that we have all kinds of choices we didn’t even know we had a moment previously, and the world changes before our eyes.
LC: Photography is often a very solitary pursuit. Activism is more group-oriented. Do you feel a tension between working on your own and trying to inspire others to action? Between being on your own and being connected with the world?
CJ: I frequently get labeled as an activist, and I find it a bit annoying because I’m not really interested in trying to inspire others to action. I think the way people behave is their own choice and responsibility. That to me is one of the divisive aspects of the world of activism—there are so many activists out there telling other people how to behave. I find that approach to be disrespectful and usually loaded with irony and hypocrisy, and it doesn’t work anyway.
My only wish in terms of the effect my work might have on others, is to help them remember something inside of themselves that they might have forgotten, or that they didn’t know they knew in the first place. I think we all have a place in our heart that loves albatrosses, and elephants, and all other living beings as well, even if we have never realized that before. From a place of deeper connection with self, or spirit, or whatever you want to call it, then we are back in touch with our wisdom and our compassion. And if that kind of shift in consciousness can be achieved collectively, then we can literally step into a new world together.
—Chris Jordan, interviewed by Alexander Strecker
Editors’ Note: To find out more about Jordan and his inspirational work, please visit his website.