Self-taught photojournalist Christopher Anderson was born in Canada, grew up in west Texas and called New York his home for most of his adult life. A member of the prestigious Magnum Photos and until recently New York Magazine's first ever photographer-in-residence, he is now making a new home in Barcelona with his family. We caught up with him as he explored his new surroundings to find out about his concept of home, his approach to street photography and what, for him, constitutes a good camera.
The journey home
For Chris home is ultimately about connection – to his family, to the sounds and rhythms of streets and to the people around where he lives. But he has been on quite a journey to discover where that actually is.
“I left the home where I grew up at a pretty early age and I’ve lived in many different places - travelling the world in search of the exotic. Curiosity and a sense of adventure propelled me forward – but looking back it also helped reveal what home means to me.”
“Before I had my family I was almost constantly travelling – living life in perpetual motion – and home used to be wherever I woke up that day. I was literally homeless, even though I paid rent somewhere, because I had no sense of belonging. But behind that constant motion there was a sense of looking for that place to belong, a sense of searching for home.”
“The birth of my son, and the book SON that I did about him, made me look for the first time at my immediate surroundings. It was only then that it dawned on me that home is more about the intimate space I share with the people I love and less about a place, a city or a particular house.”
“But all of the journeys and photos up to that point were preparing me to make those images of my son. And they gave me what I was always searching in a photograph – a true connection to a universal experience that was also completely uniquely mine.”
“Since the SON book I also feel like a lot of my work is continuing to explore the idea of home – going out in concentric circles from the nucleus of my family. Barcelona is another continuation of that personal journey. I’m still photographing my home this is just another place to be doing it.”
Making emotional connections
Chris describes the act of photography as “a device that interfaces me with what I’m connecting to” and as “an excuse to connect and discover more about myself”. But admits it can take a while in a new home to get close to the emotional connection or quality he’s always looking for – that rare element which reaches out and grabs you by the throat.
“When I look at the early pictures I’ve taken in a place that is totally unfamiliar to me – I can see there is the element of new discoveries. Everything looks great with a sense of freshness and exotic newness – but once I get past that, and get somewhere richer and deeper, then the pictures start to happen.”
“For example when I started taking the pictures for the project that became my book SON, I didn’t see it in a professional context - I was just a father taking photos of his family. I was surprised to find how organic those pictures were and realised that this was what I had always been looking for in a photo. I was not trying to make a pretty picture - I was just seeing something I was connected to. The same thing holds true with whatever I photograph. The better I understand something the more organic the pictures are and the greater the emotional truth in the image.“
“So when I go through my images during editing I’m not looking for the perfect light, composition or exposure – I’m looking for an image that stops me and punches me in the gut; one that hits me in an emotional way. And that's also the only way it’s going to be interesting to someone else – if it strikes a similar chord with them.”
“All tricks of light combinations, colour etc. in the end are cotton candy – They are not what makes a picture connect with someone – all that stuff is just window dressing. Hopefully the real heart of the picture is something everyone can connect to. Sometimes it’s something you can’t even explain, articulate or put your finger on, but it’s there. It’s that magic that makes an image rise above the rest and cut through all the noise. Anybody can make a pretty picture, but that’s not enough for me – I want my pictures to connect in a deeper way”
“My work has spanned everything from war photography to portraiture and everything in between with many different visual languages –but I like to think that there is one thing unifying them all and that is the same sense of emotional connection.”
The poetry of the streets
Connecting with the unfamiliar people and places of Barcelona, Chris explained that his aim was to capture what he describes as the sensuality and poetry of the streets:
“The beautiful thing about street photography is that it gives you this licence to observe and connect. The practice itself is also a discipline – like playing a musical instrument - that taps into a certain frequency of practised observation. It's a bit like fine tuning a radio – at first all you get is static noise then suddenly you lock into the sound of music and you feel the rhythm of the place you’re at. A sensual pleasure is the only way I can describe it.”
“And out on the streets there is that magic dust that gets sprinkled on a picture – maybe it’s the light, maybe it’s the composition that brings it to life. But light in particular has a way of changing a scene and bathing something in this otherworldly glow - infusing a situation with something that goes beyond the colours, the action or the geography of the place. I look for light a lot but I feel that light is intuitive, something that is felt not just seen. Light goes beyond the moment.”
“Ultimately my photos are a reflection of my experience or not and when I’m out on the streets I hope to capture poetry, not file a news report! When it all comes together - like the girl with a black and white t-shirt and dramatic red hair walking into the impossible black shadows and hot light of a narrow street - that’s poetry”
A good camera
To capture the poetry of Barcelona’s streets Chris used the EOS M5, Canon’s new compact and lightweight mirrorless camera, which embodies many of the attributes he looks for in a good camera – ease of use, great portability and proverbial nail hitting performance.
“A good camera should feel natural to use. I want to react quickly to a scene and not have to think about the mechanics- that breaks the magic of the picture for me. A camera that can facilitate capturing an emotional connection is more important than the technical specs. A small, lightweight camera like the EOS M5 is especially great when I have to walk long distances – like the 5 miles I did on the Barcelona shoot!”
“I used to work construction, where everyone has their own hammer that they know and feel comfortable with. It’s the same with a camera; I need to know how it will respond and react and to feel comfortable with it – so I can rely on it be an extension of my eye and hands. I need to know it’s going to hit the nail on the head! The EOS M5 did that.”