Conversations with Chris Jordan

by Ayreal Ziegler

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Only a friend on social media? We’ve all done it. Added someone whom we didn’t know well or followed some celebrity we had little chance of actually connecting with. Before the pandemic came along, the odds of making a connection with a celebrity were slim. In times like this it’s even less likely, but somehow the impossible happened. Our professor announced that during our Digital Art II class we would be hosting Chris Jordan, a famous digital artist and photographer in our next Zoom class. You may know him from his documentary, Albatross, which is about the environmental impact of human waste on an Albatross breeding ground on Midway Island in the central Pacific. You may know his powerful and evocative images about public consumption such as his “Silent Spring”. It depicts 183,000 birds, equal to the number of birds that die from agricultural pesticides in the United States in a single year. His images are famous for these alarming messages that were made to rattle our subconscious thoughts and our unconscious habits. 

As a class we were asked to prepare questions for Mr. Jordan. I did a deep dive into his work. I watched his Ted talks and his movie. I analyzed his printed work. I should, however, inform you that this class is about advanced Photoshop use. It would be easy to assume our questions would be about Jordan’s Photoshop techniques. Maybe that would have been the case if we were not in the midst of an unprecedented global pandemic, but it certainly was not a topic of the conversation. The conversation felt intimate with many twists and turns, but it was never shallow or frivolous. Sometimes guest speakers can gloss over the more challenging topics; unwilling to go for the deep complexities, afraid to go over the audience’s head. But not Chris Jordan. He laid himself bare and vulnerable to any and all questions. He never once gave a half answer. 

We all had preconceived notions of what he would be like. The false idea that he is a man who had the privilege to leave a successful corporate law career in favor of his passion: photography. We came to find out this was far from the truth. He explained that he had to let go of all the expectations and the idea of what it means to be successful. His career as a lawyer made him deeply unhappy – to the point of feeling suicidal and completely miserable. What propelled him out of that life was the realization that he had something far greater to fear than failure. The fear of not living his life and getting to the end of his life not doing what he loved most. He took the leap in a manner that I find exhilarating and yet utterly terrifying. I know my peers felt the same way. Some are preparing to graduate in a couple of weeks, not knowing what lies ahead in these uncertain times. 

Jordan said, “There is nothing standing in the way of changing our story.” He said that sentiment alone is so fascinating and motivating to him. It was at that moment I knew I was listening to one of the most authentic humans I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. He spoke for three hours and was incredibly giving to all of us.

I feel profoundly grateful to have been part of this conversation. I will listen to the recording of it for the rest of my life trying to squeeze every nugget of goodness from it. It was such a rich and inspirational experience.  Chris Jordan gave my class what we so desperately needed: a permission slip to be happy, to seek our happiness out – but most importantly – he gave us hope for our future. 

But only if, through our work, we seek love and beauty first. 

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