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TED2008: Chris Jordan’s images of our world

Chris Jordan is an amazing photographer and commentator on social issues, especially consumerism. He tells us that he wants to document “the behaviors we all engage in unconsciously on a collective level.” These are behaviors Jordan believes, “we’re in denial about, that operate below our level of awareness.”

One of his new images is a huge web of tubes. It looks like a nightmaring highway interchange. As he zooms out, we see that the tubes are stacks of plastic cups – a million, to be specific. That’s as many as are used on American airlines in six hours. Another image shows a fraction of the 40 million paper cups used every day for coffee and other hot drinks. His huge canvas shows only 15 minutes of American coffee consumption.

Some new images take on different social issues. America, he reminds us, has the largest percentage of people in prison of any country in the world. One of four people in the world in prison are imprisoned in the US. There are 2.3 million prisoners in our country, and Jordan pictures 2.3 million prison uniforms. Each is the size of a nickel on its edge… but to show 2.3 million, Jordan had to use six panels, each ten feet tall.

Another image shows the impact of smoking on Americans – 1100 American die a day from smoking related illnesses. Jordan shows a Van Gogh painting of a skeleton smoking a cigarette, made from photographs of box tops. Another image shows 65,000 cigarettes, side by side. That’s the number of teens who will start smoking this month in the US.

Jordan notes that 384,000 American women will seek elective breast augmentation surgery this year. It’s rapidly becoming the most popular high school graduation gift for girls, before they go to college. He arranged 32,000 Barbie dolls into floral patterns. As you zoom out, they resolve into a picture of breasts. Each doll represents a woman – mostly women under 21 – who have breast enhancement surgery in the US every month.

He tells us that Americans are “losing our ability to feel.” In attempting to build ” a holographic image in our mind of the interconnection of things,” we’re frustrated by numbers, gigantic numbers that are hard to visualize and feel, “our national joy is nowhere to be seen.” These images aren’t meant to nag. They’re supposed to show us that we have options. “I’m not saying we’re bad – I’m saying that we have a choice.”