Milk Gallery's Magnum "Protest!" Spotlight: Christopher Anderson
When MILK.XYZ reached out to Christopher Anderson, we were eager to speak with the man behind the camera. The poet who immerses himself in new environments in order to record the emotions and aura of unfamiliar territories; the photographer who boarded a handmade, wooden boat with Haitian refugees in order to sail to America and nearly sank in the Caribbean when he was just 29-years-old. As a Magnum photographer, it was no surprise that Chris was traveling when we finally reached him, and an interview over the phone right after he landed felt fitting with his always on-the-go profession. And though the current political climate seems to dominate most conversations these days, we decided to steer away from the obvious, and the overly discussed. Instead, we were more interested in having a conversation about inspirations, methods, and meaning. Check the full interview below, and be sure to visit Magnum’s “Protest!” show at Milk Gallery, on view until July 15.
How was the flight?
It was good!
Cool. So let’s just jump right into it. What led you to photography?
I have to go backwards, it was a hobby, as I was growing up it never dawned on me that there was a profession called photography till I was, quite by accident…working as a professional photographer.
And in terms of it being a hobby, did you have any early inspirations?
Well when I first started working I was photographing just kind of everything. I didn’t set out to become a certain type of photographer nor was I even really consciously aware of the idea of a fine art photographer or portrait photographer or fashion photographer. I was just interested in making pictures. By accident that led me into early on, professionally working as a photojournalist. But I did not set out to be a photojournalist, it certainly wasn’t what I found myself doing in the early parts of my career, you know doing war photography. It was not something I set out to become or be, I just kind of found myself in that situation.
When looking at your work, like you just mentioned, we’re moving through things, we’re moving from a Maison Margiela fashion show to an image in the main market of Port-au-Prince that was burning after a riot and gun battle. How did you choose subjects? Were they assignments or were they things you just decided to go and document?
Well in the early days I was doing a lot of assignments. I think I found myself choosing assignments because they were interesting to me, for one reason or another. For instance, the picture you talk about in Haiti was a place that I’ve worked before being a photographer doing some paid work and it was a place I had a connection to and I think, at the time, I pitched a story to a magazine to go and work there.
But…yeah it was, especially in the early part of my career people offered me assignments, and that sounded great, you know I was young and wanted to see the world and wanted an excuse to go and seek out the exotic on the other side of the world.
But as a photographer it wasn’t until much, much later in my career that I asked myself those sort of basic questions. What is a photograph? What is photography? And why do I photograph? That began to shape more of what it is that I wanted to do as an author and a photographer. And what I wanted my voice to be about.
Moving towards the show, your photographs that were included in the Magnum Photos “Protest!” Exhibition are from the Women’s March in midtown that occurred the day after Donald Trump was inaugurated as President. How was that experience for you, as a visual storyteller? What was your influence or what pulled you to make those images you created?
I guess now, I’m more and more seeking to say something about the things that I experience or witness. That is further removed from the reporting of what happened, but is more connected to the experience of what happened. Better put, what it felt like to be there and that’s why I think my pictures become sort of more specific visually in order to become more general or more universal and more emotional, rather than literal.
Yeah. I get that because I marched the day after the election and that’s exactly the vibe you get while being there, you just see the backs of heads, or you notice shirts or garments or signs, and you don’t really get a full overview—you are very submerged in a sea of people.
Has the shift in politics, here in America, affected what you’ve chosen to point your lens at in general?
Well, if you know about my work, there has always been a certain political and social engagement in my images. In my work I mean I did a book about, it was often that I think my photographs or my work tend to comment on the nature of power and, I mean, I did a book about political theatre in America, doing the 2012 elections cycle, um..
Was that the one with the super tight shots of the faces?
Yeah, I saw that. That work is super powerful.
Thank you. So yeah that has always been a part of my work, so it hasn’t changed what my work is about. If anything the political moment and sort of the collective sense of engagement that’s happening right now…I would say that it doesn’t change my work, but I would say, it has brought my work into certain clarity in my own mind of what my work is. I think it’s given my work a new sense of immediacy. Maybe urgency is the wrong word.
Yeah, well especially now. Every day there is something different, happening. We all sort of have to adjust the way we are taking the information and putting it out because we are actually receiving so much at such a rapid time.
Yeah. I think that what I do now is not about actuality in that sense. I’m very much aware of what the pictures mean, will mean 20 years from now, or 50 years from now.
How does it feel to be a part of this group show here at Milk Gallery, that’s focusing on protest and the 70th year Magnum Anniversary?
Oh man, did you see that big print of Malcolm X?
I know, I keep saying I can’t believe someone hasn’t snatched it, I walk in the gallery every day like, “How is this still not sold?!” It’s beautiful.
Did you see the pictures of the guy standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square?
All those images, to be a part of that set of images, is madness, I get chills. I feel pretty grateful to be in the same room as those images and those stars for sure.
It’s an amazing way to bring all the work together and speak to one another, and like you said, to be in a room and see your images with a Malcolm X portrait, and images from students protesting in Europe, that’s incredible.
When viewing your images, I got the sense that you were much more the observer and we the viewers feel the same emotions that you felt in those scenes. How do you manage to immerse yourself in these foreign environments?
I don’t really have a good way to answer that, for me I always wanted to be, in fact I used to say this a lot, I think my work is experiential documentary because I wanted to be apart, I wanted to feel what it was like to be there, I wanted to taste it, I wanted to smell it. I wanted the pictures to reflect this very intimate experience with whatever, my personal experience was, I never really wanted to report on something, but I wanted to kind of make pictures that feel part of it. So I don’t really know how to work without showing up in the middle of it.
That makes sense. And could you tell me what has been one of the most rewarding parts of your career?
Man, I am a really, really, lucky person. I’ve gotten to have a front row seat to so many different lives and so many different points of history, to be my time on this planet, and, uh, I’m trying to figure out how to say this without using the word blessed because it always seems so trite.
[Laughs] But its real.
But, man, I’ve gotten to lead a pretty magical experience and that to me, that’s been so wonderful about my career I guess, however you want to put it.
It’s hard to answer that question without sounding like an idiot.
[Laughs] no it’s real, I get it 100 percent.
Pardon me for having this slight fan girl moment, but the project that you did, “Son”, was super moving for me. Could you describe the experience of getting that intimate with your family, and the experience of stepping back in your environment to become an observer?
You know, it was quite natural, organic actually. I started making those pictures like any father would, pictures of my family, it didn’t occur to me that actual work until about two years into it, I realized it wasn’t actually a an ordeal, it was the work of my life, everything I’ve done led to those pictures. There was no change about how I work except that I got to stay home to do it. It was still what I was always looking for in pictures, which is something that is about emotion and intimacy that I finally really understood by photographing my family.
I have to end it with something I always ask—could you give a piece of advice to young or emerging photographers out there? Anything.
Uh, know yourself.
How about this, be yourself.
Be yourself. But in order to be yourself, you got to know yourself!
You have to know yourself.
Magnum’s “Protest!” show runs until July 15 at Milk Gallery.
Stay tuned to Milk for more exclusive behind-the-scenes coverage.