June 26, 2008, 11:52 am
Running the Numbers: A Portrait of America
By Lisa Agustin
To photographer Chris Jordan, today’s American culture is the product of daily and often unconscious decisions made by individual citizens. Further, these decisions can add up, to the detriment of the environment or the population (“One million plastic cups are used on airline flights in the US every six hours.”)
While such statistics are important, these large numbers are also abstract, harder to comprehend, and therefore easier to dismiss. Jordan’s exhibition, Running the Numbers, addresses this by visualizing such data in a way that makes these numbers tangible and accessible. Each large-format photograph is the result of assembling many small images (or individual choices, if you prefer). For example, the image “Skull With Cigarette, 2007″ (based on a painting by Van Gogh) is an assemblage of 200,000 packs of cigarettes, or the equivalent of Americans who die from smoking every six months.
From the artist’s statement:
My hope is that images representing these quantities might have a different effect than the raw numbers alone, such as we find daily in articles and books. Statistics can feel abstract and anesthetizing, making it difficult to connect with and make meaning of 3.6 million SUV sales in one year, for example, or 2.3 million Americans in prison, or 32,000 breast augmentation surgeries in the U.S. every month…Employing themes such as the near versus the far, and the one versus the many, I hope to raise some questions about the role of the individual in a society that is increasingly enormous, incomprehensible, and overwhelming.
Jordan’s approach to visualizing statistics addresses a common challenge in visualizing complex data. Statistics themselves will do little to convince or persuade an audience and can even have the opposite effect. (When was the last time you were inspired by a pie chart?) But presenting data in the context of a visual analogy or story makes the numbers easier to grasp, more memorable, and more likely to motivate.
People have a cognitive inability to comprehend large numbers. 2.3 million, 200,000, 32,000, what’s the difference? Especially when context requires comprehending an even larger number. I’m not convinced that Jordon is saying anything other than “big numbers are scary.”
Posted by Henry Woodbury on July 2, 2008 at 11:30 am
Big numbers *are* scary. But I’d argue that seeing the number “1,000,000″ and seeing a picture of the same number of cups (and then imagining them going into a landfill) each give a different experience. By presenting large numbers the second way, Jordan hopes to make viewers more conscious about their impact on the world around them.
Posted by Lisa Agustin on July 2, 2008 at 11:50 am