Being human – Glass meets Christopher Anderson, one of the Magnum Photos collective’s rising stars

Being human – Glass meets Christopher Anderson, one of the Magnum Photos collective’s rising stars

Christopher Anderson, one of the Magnum Photos collective’s rising stars, explores the textures of human emotions through his poignant ‘experiential documentary’ photography

Christopher Anderson never saw himself as a ‘war photographer’ even though he was in the trenches in Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Afghanistan, West Bank and Gaza. He considers such labels misleading and considers himself as simply a photographer in search of a human story. In his early photographic years, he accepted assignments to photograph the ‘sand wars’ of his generation because he was looking for adventures – and the “exotic” – and not to merely document conflicts. He rejects the notion that he functions as a photojournalist and has publicly stated that he does not believe in photography as an objective medium. Instead, he views his role as more of an “editorialist”, giving visual truth or opinion – not fact – about an event.

Anderson was born in Canada and grew up in a suburban Texas town where his father was a pastor. As a reaction against this insular upbringing he travelled as far away as possible, to what he describes as “the other side of mediocrity”. And that escape happened to be warzones in the Middle East. Then in 1999, he famously boarded a boat with Haitian refugees that sank in the Caribbean while trying to sail to America. Ironically the boat was named Believe in God.

He survived, and his images from that ill-fated journey garnered him the Robert Capa Gold Medal award which recognises ‘reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise’ in 2000. In 2007, he became a member of the famed Magnum Photos collective.

Christopher Anderson Being Human

What separates Anderson from most other photojournalists – who consider themselves concerned primarily with capturing factual news, however emotional – is that his images tend to be intentionally infused with emotions, or what he calls “experiential documentary”. His images often reside in subjectivity or, for the lack of a better word, abstraction. He resists the objectivity of news photography as he finds the definition too restrictive, and disingenuous.

He courted controversy when he didn’t photograph Haiti’s devastating earthquake last year – he was expected to, simply because he has photographed Haiti extensively. As he explained to Patrick Witty of the New York Times, he never felt comfortable covering natural disasters, and that he didn’t want to add “another camera in the face of someone who has just lost everything”.

Anderson belongs to the new generation of Magnum photographers, and confides that it was the iconic photo of a man jumping over a puddle by one of Magnum’s founders, Henri Cartier-Bresson, which inspired Anderson to take up photography in the first place. Anderson now lives in Paris with his wife and son. His latest project, Son, is an intimate photo essay of his family.

Here Anderson discusses what it means to be a humanist photographer in a world facing economic malaise, ecological crisis and unending war.

What is “experiential documentary”?
The idea is that I wanted to experience as closely as I could whatever I was photographing. I didn’t want to be just an observer.

The boat that you sailed with Haitian refugees was called Believe in God? Did you find that strangely fortuitous?
What, the name? I didn’t think about it in those terms. But I survived, so I perhaps it was a fortuitous name.

How do you find beauty amid unimaginable violence?
I don’t search for beauty within misery. They coexist. They are one and the same. It is the totality of experience that is beautiful. I am not saying that I find suffering or violence beautiful. But there is no up without down, pleasure without pain. In this sense, life is magnified by the existence of death.

You have described yourself as a photographer, an editorialist, and a historian. Why not a photo-documentarian?
Good question. Why not? I guess I felt that is covered under “photographer” and “historian”. Just like camera operator”. But if I have given myself titles, it is to escape the ones that were assigned me. In the end, I am always running from titles.

Do we live in the worst time in history, or is history just repeating itself?
I no longer photograph conflict as I did for many years. But I guess even my current work has a certain sense of melancholy in it. I don’t think I am filled with darkness, but it is hard to escape the sense of ‘end times’ that we are currently living: wars, economic collapse, staring down the barrel of environmental destruction. I could go on but I was looking forward to actually enjoying the rest of my day.

How do you stay optimistic?
Optimism is a luxury. Sanity is what I am more focused on. In my case I have retreated into very basic things such as the love of my son. That is what I am photographing now.

Are dreams of a better future impossible in the present political climate?
I’d like to think that life recycles itself. After winter comes spring. Rebirth. So I would like to believe in a better future. Unfortunately, things might have to get a lot worse before they are to get better.

You saw Obama’s inauguration as a glimpse of what America could be. Is a united and equal America an unattainable utopia?
Utopia is a fantasy, but I do admire some of the things that make America a symbol of hope. Despite the bad things that America is capable of, if you can’t find hope in the fact that the most powerful nation on earth is capable of electing a black man with a name like Barack Hussein Obama, then you are more cynical than I am. Of course it still remains to be seen if America or the world will be a better place for it.

What is the aura or aesthetics in your photographs?
I think the unifying thread is a certain emotional tension. The rest is autopilot that I am not really conscious of when I am making the photograph. Yes, there is a certain sensibility to light and colour (in my colour work). But what I really think makes pictures look like my pictures is an intensity of emotion.

Are photographers the modern missionaries?
No, they are the “last Samurai”.

How did growing up in Texas influence or affect you as a photographer?
I think that it formed how I see light and space. Texas has these big skies and horizons that stretch out with a certain drama. And there is a certain quality of light.

Does being the son of a preacher imbue you with an instinct to travel to remote parts of the world?
Well, I could say that it imbued me with the motivation to run far, far away to the far corners of the earth to see how the other side lives.

Is the peripatetic life of a photographer sustainable?
Not for me. I am travelling much less now. The pictures I have been making are of my home. I am thinking of my next body of work that might actually be in a studio. Of course, there is the need for money and jobs, and I will always have to travel some for that. But I hope it will be much less.

Son is an intimate photo essay of your family. Are you shifting from the political to the personal in your photography?
My photography was always personal, never political. I photographed political events before, but I always looked at them in a personal way. I was always photographing the experience of being there.

by Peter Yeoh

From the Glass Archive – Issue Five – Dreams

Full caption: Afghanistan, Kunduz, Taliban fighter seen through the windshield of a Toyota HiLuz that has been smeared with mud as camouflage from American bombers surrenders to Northern Alliance troops outside of Kunduz, 2001

Images by Christopher Anderson, courtesy of Magnum

About The Author

Glass Magazine New York and Tokyo editor

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