Christopher Anderson was born in Canada in 1970 and grew up in West Texas. He first gained recognition for his pictures in 1999, when he boarded a handmade wooden boat with Haitian refugees trying to sail to America. The boat, named the Believe in God, sank in the Caribbean. In 2000, the images from that journey would receive the Robert Capa Gold Medal. They would also mark the emergence of an emotionally-charged style that Christopher refers to as ‘experiential documentary’ and has come to characterise his work since. His photographs often explore themes of truth and subjectivity, and his subjects range from war, to fashion, to his own family. As well as being a member of Magnum Photos, he is also the author of two monographs: Nonfiction (published in 2003) and CAPITOLIO (published in 2009 by RM, and named one of the best photography books of 2009/10 at the Internationales Fotobuch Festival Kassel in Germany).
Grant: I am sure that this is a failing of mine, but I was not aware of your work until recently, when I saw the image of your wife and son lying in the water.
Christopher: Okay, that was shot in a little creek on a rock bed.
Grant: It is such a strong image that it made me want to find out more about you. Then when I went to your website I was struck by the fact that you are a Magnum photographer.
Christopher: Is that good or bad?
Grant: Then I read your bio and saw that you have such a breadth of work, including personal work, personal projects, reportage, fashion and commercial portraiture.
Christopher: ‘Have camera, will work’ sort of thing. You know, my roots are very firmly planted within the documentary tradition. I came to photography by accident. I didn’t study to be a photographer, and I didn’t make a decision to be a documentary photographer, an art photographer or a journalist. I didn’t understand that photography was a profession when I first started. The first photography I encountered was documentary photography, and in the early days it was a ticket to escape from small-town Texas and the conservative, religious, small-town environment I had grown up in. One thing led to another and the next thing I knew I was photographing in war zones and the term ‘war photographer’ was applied to me. It was never a conscious thing, and it was never a decision I’d made. It was very odd to me. I came to the things I was photographing by accident and in an organic way. Now there has been a progression in my work, in terms of subjects and styles even, that has not been part of a conscious decision. I photograph my world and what’s interesting to me, and I photograph where my path takes me.
Grant: You say that, but to be awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal for your work is a major statement about the images you have created.
Christopher: Don’t get me wrong: I work very hard at what I do, and at my craft.
Grant: Was war photography presenting you with narratives that appealed to you and that you wanted to tell?
Christopher: Absolutely. I wasn’t driven by ambition; my fuel was curiosity. In the case of the Haiti story, I had been travelling to Haiti for many years. In fact, at the age of 16, it was my first exposure to the world. I’d grown up in a religious environment, so I saw Haiti through the eyes of a missionary, so to speak. It became part of my world. When I was 18 I spent a summer working for a relief agency there. So I had this deep connection with the place, so the stories of people taking boats in which to try to get to a better life were not something that I thought would make a nice set of pictures; it was a subject which was part of my curiosity for years. I was working on something else in Haiti when, by chance, I met the subject of some of the pictures, who told me that he could introduce me to that.
Grant: You use the term ‘experiential documentary’ to describe your work.
Christopher: To me this means that what I was trying to do at the time was documentary that wasn’t about running to a new situation to grab exciting, hyperbolic pictures, which would be published for their shock value. I was interested in photographing in a way which created stories which were, as closely as possible, experiences which captured as closely as possible what I was experiencing.
Grant: Is that within the single image, or within the narrative of a series of images?
Christopher: Both. At the time I didn’t have the vocabulary of photography to even to discuss that. I was trying to learn how to be a photographer and what making pictures meant. I wanted to communicate something about the experience that I’d had.
Grant: Is that what led to you joining Magnum?
Christopher: Well, joining Magnum happened in steps and stages, but there was an important step for me between that happening. I was asked to join the VII Photo Agency when it first started, with people like James Nachtwey and Christopher Morris. At the time, James Nachtwey had become a sort of mentor of mine; and when James asks you to join his agency when you are just 26 years old, you kind of say, “Really?” So I joined, but I had a set of close friends at Magnum who were a kind of new generation that had come together at that time: Alex Majoli, Thomas Dworzak and Paolo Pellegrin. We had become close friends because we had grown up together in the wars, so to speak. Watching them have their community at Magnum made me feel that that was where I wanted to be and make it my home. It felt like an exciting and vibrant time to be at Magnum with my generation. That, combined with Magnum’s rich history and tradition, along with a lot of other reasons, made it the right place for me to be.
Grant: Your work is incredibly powerful. When I am looking at your images I can almost hear a background soundtrack taking place within them, while the central focus often feels very still and quiet.
Christopher: It’s really interesting that you say that because I do a lot of teaching, and one of the things I talk to the students about is the idea of a mood that a picture has. A lot of my students are Italian, Spanish and French, and the word ‘mood’ doesn’t translate well into Latin languages, so I explain it to them like this: “A film has a soundtrack, and that soundtrack gives you the cues as to what you should be feeling. In my mind, every photograph should have this imaginary soundtrack.” So it’s funny that you say that. I think of my pictures as being a stillness in the eye of the storm: the storm being, hopefully, the emotion of the image. I’m always looking for stillness and calmness.
Grant: You always seem to be able to create a background soundtrack without dialogue in all of your images.
Christopher: That’s a huge compliment to me, because that’s what I’m looking for.
Grant: Your personal work and projects don’t feel like a separate body of work to your commercial commissions, which is a difficult balance to achieve.
Christopher: I don’t know how to explain that, other than I guess that it’s the same pair of eyes in my head all the time, whether I’m on a commercial job or when I’m exploring something in my own time. The interesting thing about photography is that it’s a mix of complete intuition and the conscious intellect. You have to engage at some intellectual level to communicate and try to tell a story; but at the same time, the power of being able to do that is completely intuitive.
Grant: There is a big difference though between being in a situation in which you are looking to capture a moment, and being in a commercial context when you have to create and manipulate that moment, such as when you are shooting Lady Gaga for instance.
Christopher: Yeah, but what’s interesting is that if you take Lady Gaga for example, it’s a commission; it’s a job. But I didn’t feel any different about doing it than I do when I shoot my personal work because I have a genuine curiosity about her. I’m not a fan, but shooting her became about my world. And if there is a unifying thread in what I photograph – from the Haitian refugees to a war; or from my own family to Lady Gaga – it’s that I feel like I’m putting into a visual language my time on this planet.
Grant: But with a client expectation of you and your work on commercial shoots.
Christopher: Yes, but I’m in a position where clients hire me to do what it is I do, and I think they recognise that what I do is emotional quality in the image.
Grant: Photographing the emotion.
Christopher: Yes, trying to somehow pull that thread through the lens.
Grant: A number of fashion and lifestyle magazines have picked up on your work.
Christopher: I think I have a certain colour palette which is rich and soft, which they seem to like.
Grant: Like old Kodachrome.
Christopher: Well, I started out shooting slide film, so that’s where my understanding of a colour palette comes from.
Grant: There is a filmic quality to your work.
Christopher: That is an essential part of my thinking, my process and my approach. I often think of myself as being a cinema photographer using a still camera. It’s certainly in my book CAPITOLIO about the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela. In that I tried to rip cinema off of the silver screen and stuff it on to the printed page. The images were edited in the same way that cinema would be edited: with jump cuts and connective tissue holding images together and transitions from one place to another. The book was heavily influenced by watching Mexican snuff films. You know, those police films from the Sixties? That’s why I decided to shoot it in black and white, with grain and a heavy blackness. It needed to feel like film stills. The whole reference is cinema.
Grant: In that case, the obvious question has to be, ‘Is the moving image something that appeals as a medium to work with?’
Christopher: Yes, and I have been experimenting with it and playing with it more and more. I feel like that is going to be a natural progression for my work; but at the same time I don’t think that I will ever leave still photography. Like you said, there is a cinematic storytelling in the single image, and I’m interested in that as an idea.
Grant: We are in an age of image making now: sometimes they move and sometimes they don’t.
Christopher: Yeah, photography is such a young medium and we’re tearing up what we knew about it and putting it back together in different ways, where the distinction between what is still image and what is moving image is in flux right now. I’m talking to you now, sitting at what was Tim Hetherington’s desk. Tim and I shared this studio in New York, and part of what we bonded on as friends and as photographers is that we were both very much part of this generation of experimenting with the transience of the still and moving image.
Grant: It’s all just storytelling.
© Grant Scott 2012