Consumption is mostly an individual or household thing, so it’s hard for people to imagine the sheer scale of consumption (and related waste) which a rich country can achieve. Even when you see the statistics it’s hard to visualise. Which is where the photographer Chris Jordan comes in.
An exhibition of Jordan’s most recent work, Running the Numbers, opens in Los Angeles this week, and in it he has set out to use composite photographs to try to portray the volume of American consumption: two million plastic beverage bottles used in the U.S. every five minutes, 60,000 plastic bags used in the U.S. every five seconds, and so on.
A couple of quotes from recent interviews, the first in The Morning News:
The only way we know about the staggering effects we’re having on our environment, for example, is to read scientific reports about statistics, but there’s no where you can actually go and see the numbers. The only way we have of relating to these incredibly important facts about our mass consumption is statistics. And the problem with statistics is they’re so dry and emotionless. If we’re going to be motivated as a culture to change our behavior, then we’re going to have to find a deep motivation. Because statistics are so hard to connect with, we’re not going to find motivation from them.
Some things have so far eluded his gaze – because of their sheer scale, as he told the blog Pop Photo Flash:
CJ: There are a couple that I’ve wanted to do for a while but can’t think of a way to depict them meaningfully: the amount of carbon emissions daily in the U.S. and the amount of petroleum that Americans use. Those are two of the most frightening statistics of all, but the numbers are so huge that I can’t think of a practical way to depict them.
Jordan says that the response to the pictures has been enormous – he’s had to take someone on full-time just to handle enquiries. He reads this as a sign that we are in social transition:
To me this response to my work is a reflection of the new movement that millions of people are finding themselves a part of: a worldwide shift in consciousness toward greater social justice and environmental stewardship… Twenty years from now, our culture won’t even be recognizable from the way it is now.
I’ve inserted a couple of images below [all copyright Chris Jordan] to convey the idea of them, but also report Chris Jordan’s caveat on his website that “the prints must be seen in person to be experienced the way they are intended” – because “their scale carries a vital part of their substance which is lost in these little web images.” To get an impression of the scale, and the detail, it’s worth spending time with the images on his site. I’m particularly fond of his ‘Cans Seurat’ which reconstructs Seurat’s pointilliste masterpiece out of photographs of aluminium cans; the notion of Jordan as being the ‘pointilliste of waste’ seems compelling.
The exhibition is at the Paul Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles, from September 8 to October 20.
Plastic Bottles, 2007 [detail]
Depicts two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes.
Jet Trails, 2007 [Partial detail]
Depicts 11,000 jet trails, equal to the number of commercial flights in the US every eight hours.