When a picture is worth two million plastic bottles

Editor’s note: This piece by MPR’s Euan Kerr aired yesterday evening on All Things Considered, but I think you really have to see the images for the full effect…


‘Plastic Bottles,’ by Chris Jordan depicts 2,000,000 plastic bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes.

St. Paul, Minn. — When we casually toss around words like millions and billions in conversation, it’s difficult to visualize what those numbers actually represent.

It’s a challenge which for years has motivated photographer Chris Jordan, who had a frustrating problem. He wanted to find a way of portraying the impact of consumerism in the modern world. For a while he tried taking pictures of huge piles of garbage. They were dramatic, but didn’t get the effect he wanted.

“I had this craving to go photograph all of the cell phones that we throw out, or all of the cars that we throw out every day, or all the plastic bottles,” Jordan said. “And of course there is nowhere you can go and see everything collected into one place like that, because it never is.”


“Plastic Bottles” detail.

Photo: Chris Jordan

Jordan decided photo editing could create such places. He creates large images which represent even larger numbers. But that raised another issue. Speaking from his Seattle studio, Jordan says the numbers involved were so huge, they were incomprehensible. Jordan says when it comes to millions or billions most people can’t get their heads around them.

“These numbers are far beyond our comprehension, and if we can’t comprehend what we read if we can’t comprehend these issues, then it’s very difficult to feel anything about them.”

Jordan’s series called “Running the Numbers” is now on display at Carleton College’s Weitz Center for Creativity in Northfield, Minn.


‘Gyre,’ by Chris Jordan. The image represents 2,400,000 pounds of plastic dumped in the world’s oceans ever hour.

Many visitors will recognize the image on the gallery’s far wall as the famous 19th century Japanese print of a great wave cresting in the Pacific with Mount Fuji in the background. It’s only when Bradley takes everyone close up that it become clear that it isn’t a print. It’s an image created from photographs of plastic — lots and lots of tiny pieces.

“Two-point-four million pieces of plastic,” says Laurel Bradley,director of the Weitz Center’s Pearlman Teaching Museum. “Equal to the estimated number of pounds of plastic pollution entering the world’s oceans every hour.”


‘Gyre’ detail, by Chris Jordan

The images on display appear to be examples of different artistic schools: from Jackson Pollock-like splatters and pop art, to nature painting and industrial fantasy art. Yet none of them are as they seem. What appears to be the George Seurat’s pointillist masterwork “A Sunday on La Grand Jatte” is actually a depiction of 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used every 30 seconds in the U.S.

Then there’s a huge image of what looks like a demented slinky. It turns out to be stacks of one million plastic cups, the number used every six hours on airline flights in the U.S.

“I think there is a gestalt of ‘Wow’ and ‘Oh, my God,'” said Carleton College psychology professor Neil Lutsky. “There is an astonishment at what’s depicted and then also an astonishment at how he has done it, how he has composed something with so many things in it.”


‘Cans Seurat’ by Chris Jordan. The image is made up of 106,000 aluminum cans, the number used every 30 seconds in the US.

Lutsky initially proposed bringing Running the Numbers to Northfield. Statistics are important to psychologists, but Lutsky takes it one step further, teaching what he calls quantitative literacy, dealing with numbers in a way that makes them understandable.

Some of his students have worked with local high schools on research projects where the final result is a graphic representation along the lines of a Jordan photograph. They are on display in another gallery at the Weitz Center.


Detail of ‘Cans Seurat,’ by Chris Jordan

Another person who contends with colossal numbers on a daily basis is MPR economics correspondent Chris Farrell who is along on the tour. He says Jordan’s pictures are arresting in their own right but what makes them so powerful is the layering of images, ideas, and then the vital addition of a revealing line of text by each picture. “In one sense this doesn’t work for me, unless you have the text that explains what it is I am actually looking at” Farrell said. “And then I go, hey that’s kind of cool, that’s pretty clever.”

“I agree completely,” Lutsky said. “I don’t think that the experience as a whole would be same if you didn’t have that interaction.”

And that experience is ultimately unsettling, Bradley said.

“When you are confronted with this expanse of image accumulated out of these details, it has an impact on your body and your soul if you will.”


“Plastic Cups,” by Chris Jordan, represents the one million plastic cups used every six hours on airline flights in the US.

Jordan says he hopes that moment of realization is the start of an internal conversation for a viewer about what we contribute to the accumulating detritus of a mass consumption society.

“The question of ‘Do I matter?’ What’s the role of one individual any more in this incomprehensibly enormous collective that we all find ourselves part of,” Jordan said.

And in what may be a blessing and a curse, Jordan says that incomprehensibly large number means he has enough ideas to keep his series going for a long time.


Detail of “Plastic Cups” by Chris Jordan.

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