Industry Insights with Le Book: Christopher Anderson on understanding why you take photographs

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“I finally understood what a picture can be about — and it’s about responding to a moment that’s important to you.” Charting his origins in war reporting to his shift into intimate personal work, the renowned Magnum photographer reflects on what drives him to create with a camera

Industry Insights with Le Book is a series ​​directed at young creatives, sharing insights and advice from leading industry voices associated with the photography and creative industry publisher, Le Book.

Christopher Anderson has rarely revisited the pictures that launched his career. But the memory of the scene they captured often comes back to him. It was 1999, and Anderson was onboard a handmade wooden boat named ‘Believe in God’. On assignment for the New York Times Magazine, he sat amongst 44 Haitian immigrants as they attempted to cross the Caribbean Sea to America; a journey as dangerous as it was illegal. As the boat started to sink, Anderson prepared for the end of his life.

“On that boat, there was a moment when we were saying goodbye to each other, because we assumed that in an hour, or a matter of hours, we were going to be dead,” says Anderson, speaking over the phone from his home in Paris. “We were literally saying goodbye to each other. And I made photographs. Reflexively, I made photographs.”

Hours later, as they were striving to bail out water, the boat was spotted and saved by a patrolling coast guard. Anderson lived, and his photographs were published to huge acclaim. Shortly afterwards, he received the Robert Capa Gold Medal for the work.

©Christopher Anderson

“For weeks after that – and I think this was something to do with post-traumatic stress – but I thought over and over about that; why did I make photographs?” he says. “Why would I make photographs that I assumed no one would ever see? The only answer I could come up with was: I was trying to explain the world to myself. I wasn’t trying to explain the world to anyone else; just to myself. And I was doing that with photography.”

“That crystallised what I wanted my pictures to be about,” he continues. “I knew from then on what I was looking for in a picture. It wasn’t telling a story, or reporting facts. It was not about describing something. It was about trying to convey what it felt like to be there.”

After the boat, Anderson quickly became a go-to photographer for some of the biggest publications in the world. He was a contract photographer for Newsweek and National Geographic for more than a decade, covering historic wars, meeting and photographing iconic characters, and documenting the most far-flung places on Earth. But during the Covid-19 pandemic, as he unpacked his studio after moving from New York to Paris, he found himself reflecting on his earlier work.

“I started to look through the Haiti work, and realised I missed all the best images,” he says. “At the time, I didn’t understand what it was I was looking for in a photograph… I was looking for a picture that would impress somebody; that showed my visual expertise. Now, I don’t care about that. I care about the images that express how I felt at the time.”

Life during COVID19 confinement - ©Christopher Anderson

Anderson’s photographs appear like those of a natural image-maker. But he was not made to be a photographer. He was born in Kelowna, a small town in British Columbia, Canada, in 1970, and then raised in Abilene, Texas. He remembers visiting the small library in Abilene and poring over the few photobooks that happened to end up there. But he never set out with a distinct ambition to become the new William Eggleston. After studying Anthropology at Abilene Christian University, Anderson’s career began humbly, at a small scale. He got jobs for local newspapers throughout his twenties, covering small events on assignment, and learning as he went. “I remember getting a small assignment and trying to do a good job on it,” he says. “And then I’d get another, slightly larger assignment, and try to do a good job on that. That was about the closest thing I had to a strategy.”

Over the next two decades, Anderson would rise to the status of one of the world’s top war photographers, chronicling Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. He was one of the early members of VII Photo Agency, formed by photographers James Nachtwey and (the now disgraced) Antonín Kratochvíl in 2001. He joined Magnum Photo Agency in 2005, before becoming a full member in 2010. Then, in 2011, he became New York Magazine’s first ever photographer in residence. The appointment marked a move into portraiture and fashion that saw Anderson create some of photography’s most enduringly recognisable portraits: the likes of Barack Obama, Spike Lee and Debby Harry.

Matt Damon - ©Christopher Anderson

But today, Anderson is best known not for his war work, nor his portraiture. Rather, his contemporary practice is defined by his intimate documentation of becoming a father. Anderson’s first son, Atlas, was born in 2008 in a loft apartment of a building in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, known as the Kibbutz (Anderson describes it as “one step up from a squat”). The Kibbutz was known as a haven for artists, “back when Williamsburg was a place where artists could still live.” His apartment was above a sculptor’s studio, and fellow photographers Tim Hetherington, Alex Majoli, Stanley Greene and Thomas Dworzak also spent stints in the building. 

In particular, Anderson struck up a close relationship with Hetherington. They were the same age, covered the same wars, and had started to feel comparably uncomfortable about the ethics and pursuit of war reporting. When Hetherington died after being hit by shrapnel from a mortar fired by troops loyal to Colonel Gaddafi in Misrata, Libya, in 2011, it hit Anderson hard. Atlas, at the time, was a vivacious toddler. These dual experiences – the responsibilities of fatherhood coupled with the pain of losing a friend to a senseless moment of violence – convinced Anderson to stop photographing conflict zones. He turned his back on the work that made his name, and he turned his lens to Atlas. We saw this profound change in Anderson’s practice in 2013, when he published the photobook SON.

“Everything else I had photographed up to that point was just to prepare me to make these pictures”

– Christopher Anderson

SON is a love letter to Atlas, who was five when the book was published; to Atlas’s mother and Anderson’s wife, Marion Durand, who worked at a photo editor at Newsweek; and to Anderson’s father, Lynn, who was, at the time, struggling with a cancer diagnosis. Although Anderson himself barely features, the book is also a self-portrait: a chronicle of a man who built an identity around historic war photography, only to truly “find” himself in the ordinary, everyday challenges of being a parent, husband and son. 

“Everything else I had photographed up to that point,” he says, “was just to prepare me to make these pictures. I realised that the smallest gesture from my son, in the most quiet, still moments, had the capacity to contain more power than anything I had witnessed before.” 

©Christopher Anderson

The shift in his practice happened, he says, without him asserting much in the way of conscious thought over it. “I just stopped being interested in reporting,” he says. “I stopped being interested in mannerism and aesthetics. That suddenly just became like a wrapping for a picture. I finally understood what a picture can be about — and it’s about responding to a moment that’s important to you. In my case, I was responding to my experience of becoming a father; to who my son was becoming. I wasn’t trying to make a good photograph, or tell a story. I was literally communicating how I felt.”

After Atlas was born, Anderson photographed him lovingly and instinctively, as virtually every parent does. It did not occur to him that those pictures would become part of his ‘work’. “But my career since then has become a mission to chase that quality,” he says. “And I realised everything I had done up to that point, all my work for Magnum, all my work in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, was a preparation for becoming a father. For finally understanding why I photograph, and what I photograph for.”

Christopher Anderson is closely involved with the international photography and creative industry publisher LE BOOK, as well as Connections by LE BOOK, a custom-made trade show for the creative community and its digital presence, Connections Digital. 
Le Book Connections Digital Europe takes place on 10 November 2021. Click here to find our more information about the event
The Fast Track 18 will be presented to the LE BOOK Connections Europe jury by way of 1854’s ‘Meet the Unsigned’ booth.
Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.