Happy New Year Everyone —
Each month, we bring you with an interview with a muse, someone not unlike ourselves who faces the same existential questions and human experience we do. This month, we present an interview with photographer and cultural activist, Chris Jordan.
I cherish Chris. In every way, I see him being willing to be here now, to see the world without blinders, and live from his big heart. Chris is what I call a willing participant in life as it is and as it can become. He doesn’t shy away from looking straight at the tragedies we humans inflict upon nature and living beings, as in his astounding upcoming film, Midway: a Message from the Gyre. Chris has spent years traveling to Midway Island with his wife, poet, Victoria Sloan Jordan, and film crew, to document the tragedy of the albatrosses who are dying en mass from burst stomachs due to eating and feeding their babies pieces of our plastic detritus, which ends up being swept in currents to what is called, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch – (7 million tons of plastic spanning an area twice the size of Texas). Chris is not afraid to face these horrors, or that of poached elephants in Africa, mutilated and killed for their tusks. Chris walks his talk when he asks us in his film if we have the courage to face and feel these realities.
Victoria Sloan Jordan, in her poem, Kaleidoscope, read at the 2010 TEDxGreatPacificGarbagePatch Conference, cuts to the core when she says, “How painful it is to be seen…to be called out of the darkness, cut from layers of sleep that hold us together, to have our eyes opened forever…” The parallels are deeply apparent… It is us, you and me, we, who have to face the pain of being called out of the darkness as well as the dead albatross, it is our eyes that are opened forever when we look at Chris’s work. In the following interview I ask him how he lives with all that he sees and photographs.
Deep thanks to Chris for this great interview… Enjoy
Chris Jordan (born 1963) is an artist based in the Pacific Northwest who is best known (so far!) for his large-scale works depicting the consequences of mass consumerism, garbage, and our love affair with plastic. His passion for conservation and awareness, and his love of nature have brought much attention to the inevitable consequences of continuing our unconscious habits and behaviors, and instead, as Joanna Macy says, contribute our energies to this time of “the Great Turning– a name for the essential adventure of our time: the shift from the industrial growth society to a life-sustaining civilization.” His work, while often unsettling, is a bold message, and one we need to face.
Linda: Chris, your artwork confronts so many tragedies and ills in the world today. I wonder how you deal with facing so many of the horrors in this time of “dire beauty,” as Caroline Casey says? How do you face it all and take care of the inner soul of Chris Jordan in the process?
Chris: Well, that is the big question. It’s the question I’m trying to live, because I want to face it all. I don’t want to turn away from the smorgasbord of horrors in the world, because that would be to live in denial. Yet, at the same time, I don’t want to dwell only on the horrors because there is so much beauty in our world, as well. There aren’t even words to describe how beautiful and miraculous every moment of our life is. I want to learn how to hold these two extremes as fully as possible, and I don’t know how exactly – but I’ll tell you one thing I’ve made a practice of this over quite a few years now going back and forth to Midway Island, and to places like Kenya, being with elephants who were killed for their tusks. And just recently, I had the experience of losing my mother. I was with her over the last couple months of her life, and was with her for her last weeks, days and minutes. It was the most profound experience of my life by far. I’m only beginning to make sense of the question of how we grieve the loss of our mother. I can’t even fathom that my mother is dead. It’s been two weeks now and I just broke down yesterday as it hit me on another level — that my mother is gone. I’m trying to figure out what that really means for me, it’s like the bottom just dropped out, and yet at the same time, on a global scale, we are losing our mother. I want to learn how to hold this all, and grieve it, and it just seems so huge and overwhelming.
Linda: What a metaphor…I know. It’s so painful. My mother is still alive and I think about having to face losing her one day in the not too distant future and it’s going to be harder than I imagine, I know. I sit with teenagers all the time who are just beginning to face the horrors of the world, and the many losses. I feel for them because they live in a world that has been systematically and a purposefully desensitizing them, especially the boys. I see you as a person in an ongoing process of re-sensitizing yourself all the time. I don’t see you distancing yourself from the pain of being alive, but going towards it. So, what do you do to take care of yourself — what feeds you with whatever it takes to remember that sense of awe and beauty that also exists to help balance out all the horror that you see?
Chris: It’s a weird thing — it doesn’t feel to me like there are “bad” feelings that have to be balanced out with “good” feelings. To me it’s a continuum. On one side are all the feelings we think of as “bad,” like grief, sadness, despair, hopelessness, anxiety — all the feelings that come up when we face the horrors of the world. And on this other side we have all the feelings we think of as good feelings, like joy and love, and happiness. For me it’s like this spring-loaded continuum that can only exist in both directions at the same time.
What I find is the further I allow myself to experience the horror, the despair and grief the more the other side opens itself up to me in equal measure. They’re completely related to each other. I don’t have the experience that the further I go into the sadness and grief, the sadder and more despairing I’ll become. It’s the opposite experience. The more I grieve for what’s happening in the world, the more I experience being happier than I’ve ever been in my life. I don’t feel like I have to somehow compensate for all the sadness by doing something that produces happiness. They come in unison. So, whenever I am at a gathering where grieving happens, spontaneously there’s a tremendous amount of laughter and joy and celebration. These hard feelings don’t last forever. It’s counterintuitive to me and I think counterintuitive to our culture as well. I think we all live with this feeling that if we face the horrors of our world or our lives, we’re just going to be sad forever. A friend of mine said, “I’m afraid if I start crying, I’ll never stop.” It’s like we hold back all those feelings because if we let ourselves feel them, we just might be depressed forever. But, it’s not like that, it’s the other way around – it’s the holding back that is causing our depression and paralysis and anxiety. Once we let ourselves feel, it’s like the hurricane comes through, it comes through and it moves on and then there’s clear sky on the other side.
Linda: Have you ever felt suicidal?
Chris: Yes, many times.
Linda: When those feelings come up for you, what gets you through that moment and keeps you from killing yourself?
Chris: There are a few things. The main one is the love and responsibility I feel for my family. It would just be such a terrible thing to do to them. And the other thing is that I have this intuitive sense that something good is going to happen later and I don’t want to miss out on whenever that is.
My wife, Victoria’s father committed suicide. I can totally relate to what happened for him in that moment, but what he’s missing out on now is just so incredibly sad. He has missed out on so much all these years. He wasn’t there for our wedding, he wasn’t there for so many wonderful things. We have a nephew recently who committed suicide and I feel the same thing. It is just too final. When I’m feeling really down and I start thinking about suicide, I think about the finality of it – it’s just too final — and so I think, ‘Okay one day at a time, I can still choose to do it tomorrow, let me just get through today and see if I still want to tomorrow,’ and then I wait one more day and if those two days were just absolutely hell, I think, ‘Well I can still do it the next day… just give it one more day.’ But something inevitably happens, and everything shifts. And then I look back and think, ‘Man, am I glad I didn’t do that.’
Linda: OMG, me, too, I love you so dearly, Chris, and you mean so much to so many. But, I do understand those moments of great despair…I’ve felt them and had the same thought. But thankfully, these feelings pass for me, as well. My mama used to say when I was very upset, ‘Linda, let the world turn; everything will be different tomorrow.’ Sadly, just last week, another teen here on Bainbridge Island committed suicide. It’s usually the boys who succeed.
Chris: So tragic. The other tragic thing is that the vast majority of suicides are accompanied by some kind of substance abuse: too much alcohol or too much marijuana or taking too many prescription painkillers. Those things can really mess with our minds and they mess with the parts of our minds that would otherwise be self-reflecting.
Linda: Teens and adults both need to be very careful with what they ingest in terms of substances, plant medicines, etc. There are many times I’ve seen great benefits for someone having taken a plant medicine in the right situation. It’s been an awakening experience.
Chris: Yes, there are a lot of things that can take us into an altered space. But, I would put chemical substances, whether it’s marijuana, or ayahuasca, or MDMA or whatever, into the same container along with things like witnessing elephants who have been poached for their tusks, or being with someone who is dying. Any of these experiences can be transformational experiences. They can be incredibly powerful experiences that can either lead someone into a newly self-realized place or totally crush them. They can do deep healing and/or deep emotional and psychological damage. It is all about how that substance or experience happens and the container in which it happens.
I think a great deal of substance use today happens in an unconscious or unintentional way, like using substances like MDMA at a party. It can be incredibly harmful. Then, of course, there are a lot of other substances such as meth or heroin, and a whole category of drugs that I think are harmful no matter how they’re used. I wouldn’t say I’m against substance use across the board. But the effect of marijuana, for example, when it smoked every day and abused as a way of escaping the world versus used in a Native American medicine ceremony is very very different. Each way is equally powerful. But powerfully destructive or powerfully illuminating.
Linda: Sometimes, as an artist, I think if I took more drugs, I’d be more creative and I would see and know more profoundly what it is I really want to create and I’d do it. You know? I look at all the artists and spiritual leaders who have gone into different states of consciousness and think to myself that maybe I’d learn something more about being human or have a greater understanding of this and other mysterious planes of existence.
Chris: I know, it’s very seductive. All those musicians like Coltrane, sometimes I think, it must be all those hard drugs that made them into geniuses! I think each substance, or plant medicine has different affects on each person. For some people, they increase creativity, and other for people their creativity is decreased. I know a lot of musicians who don’t touch substances because they’re afraid it will mess their minds up. And others who use them and say they’re not fully there until they have the substance in them. People have their own personal relationship with substances.
I think it is very important to look really deeply into why we do any substance because I know for myself when I use a substance, alcohol or whatever, on an impulse, I have to look at the impulse and ask myself if I’m trying to escape something. Am I medicating a feeling I don’t really want to have? When substances are used for that kind of purpose it inevitably backfires because we still have the feeling we were trying to evade. We want to feel more deeply and yet we don’t want to feel the pain. It’s a paradox. I think it is really important for young people, and for us as leaders of young people, to help them learn how to have these feelings and to process these deep feelings in community.
Linda: Yes, I agree completely. I know many young people are want to get out of their heads, so to speak. We sure did in the 1960s in my generation, but having a community to hold us as we feel that which we are ashamed to let anyone know we feel and to process these feelings is the ultimate high! You do that with Joanna Macy. Her grief workshops must be extraordinarily valuable.
Chris: Yes. Joanna Macy is one of the most respected teachers and practitioners of Buddhism in our hemisphere. Her website is amazing. There is a wealth of information there. She’s also written many books worth reading. She looks at this very issue of how we bear the horrors of our world. She believes as I do, and much of what I believe I learned from her, that when we face the horrors and when we honor our pain and allow ourselves to really feel it, it is actually a doorway back to ourselves and our connection to the world. It is not an exercise in pain, not a self-punishment kind of experience at all, it is a doorway, perhaps THE doorway, back to a deeply centered, deeply connected, deeply self-loving, sacred relationship with the miracle of our world and the miracle of our own life.
In her workshops, she takes people through a 4-step process. It starts with gratitude, and then gratitude moves into honoring the pain of the world. When we experience gratitude, we can’t help but face the destruction and feel the pain. Through facing the pain we realize that the only reason we feel sad that our forests are being destroyed or species are going extinct is because we love those things. And that that’s what grief actually is: Grief is not sadness, it is love. It is a bodily, felt experience of love for something we’re losing or have lost. Maybe at no other time do we feel our love as strongly as when we’re grieving. Love may be the most powerful of all our feelings. We protect what we love, we advocate for what we love. So, then, the 4th step in her process is going forward into the world, newly empowered, deeply feeling warriors for the earth. I love Joanna and have immense respect for her and for what she has been doing for so many years.
Linda: What a human being you are, Chris: authentic, honest, courageous, loving, talented, open…
Chris: Thank you, you’re so kind — right back atcha, baby! You’re just looking in the mirror, Linda!
Linda: Thanks, Chris – I have my days when I have no idea who the heck I am or what good I’ve done in the world!!! Let’s talk about your Running the Numbers Series, which is one of the most important and easy to understand ways of continuing to help people become aware of what’s happening. You keep coming up with so many more.
Chris: That’s one other thing I’ve been wrestling with lately — how to stay with it. There’s not an on or off switch where one day you become enlightened or whatever thing we aspire to be and then you’re like that forever more. I saw this quote from Thoreau in Walden that I really love. He said, “It’s not enough to merely awaken, we must reawaken and continue awakening.“ It’s a cyclical thing that takes a tremendous amount of discipline and patience with oneself. I mean, one moment I feel in connection with the world and feel my love for the world and I’m doing new artwork and I feel like I’m on it, and the next moment or the next day, I’m drinking too much alcohol or wasting too much time feeling really lost and frightened and thinking about committing suicide. That’s one thing I think young people should really know. It takes work to stay awake and not only to stay awake but to keep reawakening. From Sunday night to Monday morning we can suddenly lose ourselves and be filled with anxiety. Even after 14 years of therapy, I can fall right back to calling myself a loser.
Linda: Oh, thank you for saying this. You are not alone!! I go through the same thing. It’s so human. It’s actually refreshing to know I’m not the only one who puts myself down so… and knowing that you don’t deserve it sure informs me that I don’t either! I recently heard that one way to see the idea of discipline is to become our own disciples. Be our own disciples! Everyday for the past year, the minute I get up and see myself in one of my mirrors, I go close to it and say, “Good morning, beautiful, Linda, I love you.” It helps a lot!
Chris: I have a friend you have to meet, Kurt, he is a deep practitioner of Zen. He goes on 28-day meditations, where folks meditate 16 hours a day, in total darkness. When he comes back, he’s just the same guy as when he left. One day, I asked him if there are any insights that happen for him there, or things he’s learned or something he can share, and he said in a beautiful kind of honesty, “I don’t know, I just do it.” A couple weeks ago, we were sitting around a campfire and he came forth with this insight that was the sum total of all his years of meditation. It was such an incredibly astute insight. He said, “Have you ever been doing something, like doing the dishes or just sitting around, whatever, and you suddenly go, “What is happening? What is this?” And on the deepest level, you’re just thinking, “What is happening?” Victoria puts it in a beautiful way. It’s an idea she’s been working with in her poetry, for quite some time. It’s preverbal. The real question is just WH? She writes it as WH with a question mark. Like WH? It’s just pure WH!
Linda: Wait, do that again – I’m using Capture to take photos of you as we speak! I want to capture you doing WH? That’s hilarious. It’s so true. Yes! WH? It’s short for what the fuhhhh, right!?
Linda: Got any favorite poems or music right now?
Chris: I love that Rumi poem, the one that goes “Out beyond notions of wrong doing and right doing, there’s a field, I will meet you there.” I mean, what deeper wisdom can there be than that. And as for music, oh my gosh, I just discovered a new musician, Mike Stern, and I’m completely in love with his playing. Do you know him?
Linda: No, I don’t.
Chris: I just saw him twice at Jazz Alley. He’s a jazz guitarist. His playing is just wicked! I’ve been a Pat Metheny fan for many, many years, and Mike Stern is on that level, but his playing doesn’t have the kind of sweetness that Pat Metheny has. Mike comes from rock, funk, blues, that kind of background. His playing is so incredibly hip and hard driving and cool. I’m all about Mike Stern these days.
Linda: Sweet, I’ll do a Pandora Mike Stern channel. Ok, here’s my last question. What is your favorite question interviewers ask you?
Chris: Pretty much the questions you ask. I always think it’s interesting when people start an interview, or introduce me as an environmental photographer. I don’t think of myself as doing environmental photography. What I’m really interested in is not making artwork and talking about what’s happening out there, but what’s happening in here, inside us. I think of all the problems of our environment, whether it is the destruction of our oceans, or the damage to our atmosphere, or the cutting down of our forests or whatever as not being the actual problems. These are the symptoms of a greater disconnect that’s happened in here, inside us, on a collective, global level. To me that is where the truest healing can really happen. I’m interested in questions like how can we face the pain and bear it, and transform ourselves. We need to heal the disconnect that caused the problems we have in the first place. That’s why I like to call myself a cultural activist, because that’s the place where we can change. We might not be able to do anything really meaningful about saving the elephants. But, one thing we can do, where we are all empowered, one place where we can really be an activist and make a big difference is right in here. This is one place where we can take complete responsibility and transform. What if there was more activism around that subject?
Linda: Oh, yeah. Well, it’s an inside job, right?
Chris: Yeah… Being around my mother in her last weeks and days, I became more interested than I’ve ever been before in energy — interpersonal energy — attuning to it. My mother became incredibly attuned to my energy. It was almost telepathic, near the end of her life, there were very little words but she was so tuned in to my energy. I realized that that’s the place where the most powerful activism can happen, shifting energy — on a cultural level, interpersonally, and individually.
Linda: I know you have to go to another interview, Chris, and I feel we’ve only just started to talk about this. Just one thing more: what are you up to for the future with your work? I know the Midway film is going to come out.
Chris: Well, yes, someday soon. What I really want is to get back behind my camera. I’d like to go back into Washington’s rain forest again. I have a way to photograph really big trees, that, as far as I know, hasn’t been done before. It’s a super cool idea I’d like to experiment with.
Linda: Well, I know whatever you are going to do, is going to be great, Chris.Thank you so much for this special time with you.
After this interview, I went out with Chris to photograph one day. Here’s a few from that experience.
“Let the beauty we love
be what we do
there are hundreds of ways
to kneel and kiss the ground” Rumi
Important Organizations to research and support:
Plastic Pollution Coalition Plastic Pollution Coalition is a non-profit, global alliance working to stop plastic pollution and its toxic impact on humans, animals and the environment.
5 Gyres Their mission is to conduct research and communicate about the global impact of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and employ strategies to eliminate the accumulation of plastic pollution in the 5 subtropical gyres.
Iworry The iworry campaign was created by The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT) and exists to raise global awareness to the devastating impact the illegal ivory trade is having on elephant populations.