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Interview with Christopher Anderson
Born in Canada and raised in Texas, Christopher Anderson (b.1970) first gained recognition following his dramatic photographic account on board a Haitian boat headed for the U.S. which started sinking en route. From there, he went on to photograph stories around the world, showing global news, conflicts and life – working with photo agency VII until 2004, and then joining Magnum in 2005. His latest work, Son, due out in book form later this year from Kehrer Verlag, focuses on his own life following the birth of his son and the simultaneous declining health of his father. He speaks here with Katherine Oktober Matthews on shooting photos closer to home, publishing your private photos and the journey to a better life.
You’re working now for New York Magazine, as their very first photographer-in-residence. After covering stories internationally for so long, how does it feel to be shooting your home base?
In a word – wonderful. (laughs) In many ways, it’s the natural progression from what I started to do with my work, Son. My whole life, photographically speaking, was spent going to far corners of the earth to experience someone else’s life. To photograph another experience, maybe. With my work Son, it was the first time that I slowed down and began to consider my own experience, to examine that and to photograph that.
With New York Magazine, it’s kind of expanding out in concentric circles from that bull’s-eye. So it’s a natural extension of what started with the Son work. It’s like having a grant to explore what I think my subject is now, which is that world. My world. In that sense, it’s creatively fulfilling, and in terms of where I am in my personal life with my family, it allows me to stay home — not have to go get an airplane, just be close to home. I couldn’t be more fortunate.
From that perspective, Son is also your first foray into publishing photos from your private life. Was it a challenge to put the work out into the world, essentially exposing yourself to the public?
I’m not sure I’ve come to grips with it yet. Because now it’s starting to be challenging. I made the images without thinking of showing them to anyone, and then they got out in the public. The material popped out in different ways, bit by bit, and then it was ‘out there’, and then it was ‘a body of work’. Nowadays, images get out, through the internet or whatever… and they’re not yours the second they’re released.
I mean, it was ultimately my choice, but it wasn’t a conscious choice to release it… it happens and then it’s not yours anymore. In a sense, it wasn’t a choice to do it, I knew no other way to function really: I make pictures, and those pictures end up being for public consumption. Even the work I was doing before, I felt like I was making them for myself in some ways. So, it wasn’t really a challenge, because that was the only way I know how to do things. Now that I’ve thought about it… it’s too late. The images are out there.
It’s kind of, “okay, well, this is me”, and I’ve exposed myself in an intimate way. It may be a little too heady to say it in this way, but I sometimes wonder if, in some ways, I’m making it fair game. I’ve exposed the intimate lives of other people and now it’s only fair that I’ve done it to myself.
Fair game? Has there been a time when the photos that you took of the lives of other people came back to haunt you in some way?
No, and I never did reveal private lives in that sense but, in the work that I did for a long time, you’re in a situation where you’re photographing someone in a moment of suffering or loss for example, and that’s an intensely personal thing. I wasn’t invasive, that wasn’t what my work was about, but I was portraying intimate moments of people’s lives. Maybe I owe it to them to do my own. It’s only fair.
I don’t want it to sound like I have really thought about this as part of some serious artist statement—that I’m doing this because it’s only fair. I mean it in a light way. But, maybe there’s something to it.
Early on in your career, when you were on the boat of Haitian refugees and it started to sink, you’ve said that only then, under threat of death, did you begin to take pictures. And, afterward, you asked yourself ‘why take pictures that nobody would ever see?’, concluding that you’re trying to explain the world to yourself as much as you’re hoping to explain it to others. Are there things that you can’t explain to yourself, no matter how much you photograph it?
Yeah… most of it, actually. When I talk about ‘explaining’ it to myself, maybe what I really mean is, it’s my way of trying to deal with it or my way of examining it. There’s plenty of what I’ve photographed and experienced in my life that I can’t begin to understand or explain to myself.
I feel like those pictures that I made before, which I can’t separate from the experiences that I had before, inform what I do now and particularly the work I did of my family. I don’t think that, for me, there would be a reason to show those pictures of my family without that work that came before. Yes, that body of work is about very universal things—of life and death and love and new life and seasonal nature of life—but for me, that work has meaning in the context of what my life was before. And the pictures that I made before, and the experiences I had before, inform that and give context to what that book is.
“Before”… That is, pre-Son, post-Son?
Fatherhood made such a big difference in your life and photos?
Yeah! On every level. In the way I approach pictures, and in practical terms of the subject matter that I was photographing… I don’t go to those places anymore and do that kind of work anymore. It’s not just because I had a kid, there’s a laundry list of reasons, but that’s part of it.
At this point, you’ve covered incredibly diverse topics around the world from the lives of so many people across cultures, also concerning life and death matters — why do you suppose your photos from Son seem to ring truest and most universal?
What I was always looking for in a photograph was some sort of emotional quality. I wasn’t looking to make so-called “good pictures”, I was looking for something about the—I don’t want to sound too grandiose here—about the human experience, and a certain emotional truth in the images. And I think there are some nice pictures from that work before, but it wasn’t until photographing my own emotional experience that I really made what is closest to the goal that I always had in terms of what should be in that image, in the power of that image to connect.
When you talk about your work, the words that keep coming up seem to be intimacy and authenticity. Do these go hand-in-hand, or how do you see them interacting?
They go hand-in-hand, but I don’t think of them as inseparable. They are two ideas, two separate qualities that I always want to be hand-in-hand in an image. I think something that might characterize my work is intimacy and that’s what I’m looking for in an image, but I want that intimacy to be authentic. I want the image to be authentic in every way.
There’s all sorts of discussion in the blogosphere, especially recently, about facts and truth, which is a big semantic game. What I really want, when I talk about truth, is authenticity. And I want that to be as honest as I can be and as real, and I’m not really interested in trying to make an image that appropriates an emotion, I’m only interested in the emotion itself.
Speaking of truth and facts… You said recently in an article with the British Journal of Photography, in reference to the World Press Photo controversy about how much Photoshopping is too much: “The question is not whether or not it is factual, the question is whether or not it is true”. If where we should all meet is a level of emotional truth, what are we to do if we can never agree on what is true because we’re all coming from different emotional places?
We won’t all agree, and we won’t all be affected by an emotional truth in the same way—and, thank God that we are affected in different ways! But, I think that we still recognize authenticity, and we know it when we see it. And it’s one of those “if you have to ask, you’ll never know” kind of things.
I’m wary of how I speak about that particular debate, because I realize that my way of putting it sounds like a bullshit semantic game that I’m playing, and I don’t want it to be that way. But, in a very earnest way, I don’t know how to articulate it any other way except saying that I think we always will have different perspectives on things. You may agree or disagree with my perspective but you’ll know if I’m being honest about my perspective, and I think that is the thing that we can recognize in an image.
Now, what does that mean for images are captured, captioned and retouched and whatever? You know, I come from a religious background. There’s a quote in the bible like, all things are permissible but not everything is beneficial. In this context, I think that trying to set some dogmatic rules on what’s acceptable and what’s not is missing the point. We don’t really need those dogmatic rules to know what we already know—you know it when you see it. And I think the public knows when they’re being fooled.
You’ve said that all the work that you did before Son felt like it was leading to this point, to this project. If that’s true, that all roads lead to Son, where does ‘here’ lead to? How do you move forward?
It’s a very, very good question that I ask myself now. Like I said, the Son work brought me back to my home which, at New York Magazine, I’m getting to photograph in a sort of larger concentric circle from there outwards, and I have another book coming out this summer with some of my New York Magazine work that’s about the American political scene, which in some ways is returning to my other work, but doing it from the perspective of my home – in a closer circle.
I’m not sure what that means moving forward, except to say that now I feel freer than ever before. In that sense it doesn’t matter what I do, because I felt like I’ve kinda done what I was put on this earth to do (laughs), so now I’m free to do whatever I want. And I don’t mean that in a blasé way. I really feel free of genres, completely free of labels. This idea of labels, like ‘photojournalist’, ‘war photographer’, and now I’ve entered into this other genre of ‘personal family photographer’, ‘commercial photographer’, ‘fashion photographer’… whatever… ‘art photographer’? I feel absolutely free of that in a way that I always thought would be possible but never imagined like this.
When you gave a lecture at World Press Photo in 2011 about your work, you said you were “obsessed with the idea of the journeys that people make for a better life”. Do you suppose it might be that Son is your personal journey?
Wow. I’ve never put that context together in my head. Give me a second to think about it. Ask the question again.
That’s a beautiful question. Well, first of all, I was obsessed at that particular time, rather than seeing it as a continuing obsession. I kind of worked it out of my system after the boat in Haiti and a couple other things I did. But …Wow. It’s actually kind of beautiful when you put it that way. The journey I made to get to a better life. I don’t have anything to say to that because, wow, it’s beautiful.
As I was saying before, I really do feel like all of the work that I’ve done, all of the experiences that I’ve had, were preparing me to make that work. ‘Cause I don’t think I would’ve been capable of making that work before, or certainly if I did, it wouldn’t mean the same thing, and I couldn’t view it through the same context. What came before gives meaning to those pictures, because I was never in a place that I could have appreciated that and have been ready to look at it that way. So, yeah, that was my journey to a better life. But I don’t want to compare myself to somebody from Haiti who has to risk their life to reach Miami!
We’re always searching for a better life. And maybe that’s why I say that I feel free from what’s next. Because I found my better life. Things are pretty good in that sense. The work I create now, I don’t feel like I’m chasing it.
This interview with Christopher Anderson was published on GUP Magazine.