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The Way Christopher Anderson Sees the World Is Amazing

Some of the most-talented and celebrated documentary photographers in the world are members of the Magnum photo agency. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we'll be featuring some of their photographers over the coming weeks. First up is...
March 21, 2013, 1:30pm

shot for New York Times Magazine.

Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven't heard of it, chances are you're familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa's coverage of the Spanish Civil War, Steve McCurry's Afghan Girlor Martin Parr's very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum's members are selected by the other photographers in the agency, which, given they're the greatest photo agency in the world, means that becoming a member is a pretty grueling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.


First up is Christopher Anderson, who became a Magnum nominee in 2005 and was a full member by 2010. His early work on Haitian immigrants' illegal journey to America—during which he and they sank in the Caribbean Sea in a handmade wooden boat named Believe in God—won him the Robert Capa Gold Medal. And last year, we produced an episode of Picture Perfect about him.

His subsequent book projects include Son, a series of photos capturing his wife and young child as his own father grew ill with cancer, and Capitolio, which documents unrest in Caracas during the time of Chavez.

I had a chat with him about how he sees himself and how that's changed over his career.

Joe Biden descends from Air Force Two in Virginia, shot for New York Magazine.

VICE: You've vocally distanced yourself from photojournalism in the past. Why is that?
Christopher Anderson: There are photojournalists in Magnum, but I don't see it as a photojournalist agency. It's more founded in documentary photography. If I were to use a term for myself, I feel I'd fit more closely in the bracket of documentary photography than photojournalism. The term photojournalist tends to be loaded with meaning: specifically that one reports the news. I don’t see that as my function. Even when I was photographing things that were news topics, like conflicts, my function was not that of a news reporter, my function was to comment on what I saw happen that day and to offer a subjective point of view. In my role, I was commenting on what was happening, but also trying to communicate what it felt like to be there when it was happening.


So you wanted to capture images that were more emotional and personal?
Exactly. But I would go further and say that I not just wanted to do that, that is in fact what I did do. I had no pretence of objectivity. I was photographing, giving my opinion, and I wanted you to know that I was giving my opinion.

Did your unconventional approach make it initially more difficult to sell your photos, or was it beneficial from the start?
Well, I don't think I was going 'round articulating that to editors, saying, "No, I won't work for you unless you understand that what I do is subjective." With the agency I was with before, it didn't make a difference, as I was already sort of working for "journalistic magazines," and I worked a lot for the New York Times Magazine. The kind of stories that I would do, even ones from conflict zones, would be longer and more in depth in their approach to what was happening there, trying to put what was happening in a more human, intimate context rather than the headlines of the day. But to be honest, the marketable advantage never crossed my mind at the time. I was just intent on trying to do what I did in the way I wanted to with as much integrity as possible.

Taken at the 2011 Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot, the largest gun shoot in the world. From Red State. Shot for New York Times Magazine.

You started out mainly working in color, then moved toward black-and-white, and now seem, with recent projects like Son, to have reverted to color. What helps you make that decision?
The process of making these choices has evolved over the years. I used to say that I was a color photographer, but at one point I was shooting a lot of black-and-white, especially when I was doing conflict work. Black-and-white has a way of adjusting the sense of time within a photo. There was a period where I would choose the language depending on what the subject matter was. Black-and-white offered a sort of timelessness that I wanted in that work. Now I am more of a color photographer. My first, intuitive response to something now is to see it in color, I think.


You mentioned integrity earlier. Is there an overall purpose to your work, a key idea you want to express?
It's funny, I was just thinking about this earlier. I guess I probably prescribe more to the Garry Winogrand philosophy—he said he photographed people to see what people would look like photographed. There's not a particular subject I cover, I'm not a one-track person, and I'd like to think there are different facets to my self. If I was to unify all of that visually into one thing, whether it is my photographs from documentary work to more personal work to family, I guess it is all linked together. There's a unifying element, I want to see my time on this planet and communicate a certain emotional quality of that time. I photograph my own human experience and the things I have seen and participated in.

Young boy in Caracas, taken from Capitolio.

Have people ever reacted negatively to your work because you champion subjectivity in a field which many argue should be entirely objective?
Yeah, especially with the blogosphere there is a lot of criticism. I can't pay attention to all that; I don't mean that in an arrogant way, it's just a waste of my energy and time. My photographs are a reflection of the experience I have, I can't really be ashamed or embarrassed about the photograph that results from those experiences any more than I could be uncomfortable about the experiences themselves. There was recently an article where they compared pictures I took in a war zone to pictures I took in a fashion setting, and there was some uproar about it. I do understand the sensitivity there, but actually, I've been to a fashion show and I've been to war, and I don't see any conflict in that.


Was there any one project that was more difficult for you than the others?
Probably the most challenging one in many ways was when I took a boat with Haitian refugees trying to sail to the United States. That was the work that I received the Capa Gold Medal for. What was challenging in other ways was photographing in war zones, which I don’t do anymore. Not just because it's dangerous, but because I had more and more trouble reconciling my feelings about taking pictures in those situations.

Taken from the project Son.

Has being at Magnum changed your approach in any way?
Interesting question—yes, it has. The process of becoming a member at Magnum is that you apply, and if you do well you can become a nominee for two years, you work and then you show a body of work again, then you might become an associate, then you show another body of work to become a member. That process is interesting, it puts you into a position where you ask questions of yourself that are difficult to consider otherwise: What do I want to do with my pictures? Why do I do things this way and not that way? You come out the other side of it understanding more about yourself. The answers to those question are very personal answers—it's your work and it is not for a market and it's not because other people do it this way. It is how it is because it is my experiences and how I see the world. I find that liberating.


Thanks, Christopher.

Click through to see more photography by Christopher Anderson.

Terrified Haitian refugees en route to the US, 2000.Shot for New York Times Magazine.

Caracas, from Capitolio

Taken from Capitolio

Taken from Capitolio

Long Island, New York, 2007. Home for sex offenders. Taken from Red State.

The Hazara people of the Mushkel-Hal mountains in Afghanistan, 2001.

Taken from Son

Taken from Son

Iraq, 2003. Battles south of Baghdad.

More from Magnum members:

Antoine D'Agata Lives a Life Less Ordinary

Posh Snow, by Martin Parr

Bruce Gilden Does Street Photography Right