On the photography of Christopher Anderson

On the front page of the New York Times website today is a phenomenal image of Donald Trump. Black and white, framed as a portrait that shows only just past the left half of his face, the image is confrontational and intense. Trump’s gaze holds you to the shot, and feels as though it is emerging from a darkened pool. The arch of his brow makes one feel as though he is coming out fighting; in that gaze is resolution, power, and – informed by information beyond the frame – perhaps petulance, fragility.

Trump’s pores scream, wide open. The resolution in his gaze is undermined by the bags under his eyes, and the hint jowls under the chin. Paired with an article detailing the latest setback for the current US President, it’s an arresting photograph that gives the sensation that Trump has just taken a blow, and is turning around to return one of his own.

The photographer is Christopher Anderson, of Magnum Photos. I hadn’t known his name until I saw the NYT article, but I’ve come across his work before – you probably have too. Looking through his body of work, I am reminded once again how powerful photography is as a medium, how high the form can be raised as an empathetic and political act, and how much work there is still to be done on my own.

Anderson’s photographs stand out. They beg to be read, examined in detail – and yet on his website they are presented without captions or titles. Have a look at the following images, and take a minute to read each one. Try and identify what stands out for you about them.

For me it’s the unashamed subjectivity of his images. Looking through a gallery or a catalogue, the feeling of the same eye is manifest. There’s also a timelessness to many of them, in the sense of being unable to place it in the exact place and time, the exact context in which it was taken, but being able to read its subject or theme historically quite easily.

Look at this shot.

The eye is immediately drawn in from the black on the left into the American flag, about to be overshadowed. We hit the man in the middle, facing his flag, his nation, his body also broken by a darkened line. The juxtaposition of lines throughout the frame is confusing, but somehow clean – many lines contradict or perpendiculate one another; the strong verticals of the building choked by the stronger shadow, the clear horizontals of the flag just off centre of the frame blunted by the organic form of the man.

I challenge anyone to look at this shot and read it as apolitical or casual. There is a compelling sense of deliberation, of personal feeling of the photographer, but what does it say? What does it say to you? Take a moment to examine that.

Even without context, to me this image speaks to the difficulties embedded in the American life, the American dream. The man in the image is old, and in imagining his gaze I see nostalgia, I see loss and the passing of time in the shadow on his back. Impending peril speaks from the flag and the black form on it’s left – not immediate trauma but a slow death, a slipping into darkness.

The filmic nature of this photograph, and the lack of many anchoring details we take for granted to read context (a smartphone, brand, vehicle, clothing, weapon) make this shot readable in many contexts from the last 50 years or so. However, due to the subjective elements, this image screams post 9-11 America to me, perhaps the early 2010’s where America’s social problems have come to the forefront of its political discourse, and the slow sink of the dream is most visible.

Many of these elements are present in his other images, and they all speak to a strong sensation of Christopher Anderson’s own mind and gaze; a shot out of the window of his apartment, a woman’s tanned legs in view on the left of the frame, but the focal matter being the buildings outside, the multitude of lives within. Part of a series entitled “Son”. The outward looking giving a sense of thoughts of the future. The many sons and fathers and mothers within the frame, but invisible, anonymous. Playing on the archetype of semi-nude woman in front of the sunlit window, but looking out of the window, the woman his wife, his city the subject.

A series for National Geographic, again no captions or titles, yet unmistakably Palestine. The wall. Violence and dance, fire, a weapon held aloft by a yelling youth, his finger on the trigger. In the same frame older grief, older wariness for personal safety, the man’s eyes on the gun. Almost every image is of people in movement, youth in movement, people in revolt. Then, the stillness in a shot of a wounded man under the shadow of telephone lines, his right hand gone. The shadows like unseen tensions of the past, pulling him apart.

Second National Geographic series, somewhere in the Urals or the Baltics. One image that really stands out; a river of graves leading into the sea of a city. In the foreground, a young couple walk hand in hand; the personal, the multitudes of unseen living and the multitude of unseen dead, all in one frame.

All images by Christopher Anderson. You can see more of his phenomenal work here.

THE SEVENTH MAN – A Tribute to John Berger

John Berger died yesterday, on the 3rd of January 2017.

This will not in any sense function as a satisfactory obituary, but perhaps it can work as a personal tribute, which I feel compelled to write.

Probably best known for the 1970 documentary Ways of Seeing, Berger was a famed art critic, writer and painter.

Berger was a dark horse amongst the art and literary critics that I have read. He had the brightest of eyes that always seemed to hold contact consistently with the camera, with you, almost confrontational if it weren’t for his gentle, mischievous gleam. He inhabited that wonderful, liminal space of strength and sensitivity. He was no pushover, but something about his lisp, his sheer passion for his work and that of others ensured you were enraptured by his words, by the works he examined. He was able to open doors for many people, myself included, into the world of artistic thought and work.

For myself, Berger was first introduced to me by a partner a few years ago.  I think that she passed me a short essay to read regarding the analysis of images – my recall of this is distorted. It didn’t stick, and he fell from my mind.

Some years later, I was working on my first genuine piece of visual art – the first as an adult. My partner encouraged me to watch Ways of Seeing – and so I did. It stunned me. Like all works I have considered great art, it demonstrated to me another layer of fabric in the living experience, a completely different manner of thought and perception as to the nature of the world which I was previously unaware of. Like the works of Henry Miller, Berger’s words compelled me into a frenzy of artistic work, and what I understood to be his perceptions of the world consumed me, to slowly fade over time and leave me markedly different on the inside.

Reading Berger’s Understanding a Photograph further drove this home. A written essay prompted as a response to Susan Sontag’s On Photography, Berger dissects the art of photography at its most elemental – the medium of light and time. He brings an historical perspective to the form, and to how we consume images; the different ways in which we do so, how we can train ourselves to read more from them, to understand them as a visual language. As a photographer without formal training, this text was ambrosia, and it opened my understanding of my chosen profession, my chosen medium, in a massive way. I could not read or create images as I do today without this text.

Lastly, Berger also taught me the value of the photo coupled with the written word. For much of his life he collaborated with his longtime friend and photographer Jean Mohr, working on projects where Berger’s texts would accompany Mohr’s photographs. The magnification of meaning and context by this coupling is exponential, and is something that Berger wrote on. It’s one of the reasons that I feel passionately about editorial or narrative photographic work – that it is almost impossible for a lone image to tell a sophisticated story, and the value of the experience of the image is much greater when accompanied by other images or text. Single images which are able to impart such a level of context and narrative without any accompaniment are often amongst the truly great.

Perhaps these words may engender enough curiosity for you to visit, or revisit John Berger’s work, to discuss him and his words, his thoughts, and keep him alive in our thoughts, as I will try to keep him so in my photography and my words.

“Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.”

John Berger (1926 – 2017)

Portrait of John Berger by Jean Mohr

Portrait of John Berger by Jean Mohr

In the shadows of “The Giant is Falling”

Wintersleep, one of my favorite bands, released an album earlier this year. The lead single is this; “Amerika”. Give the video a dedicated watch, or keep it playing as you read on.

I first heard the song along with the music video, and it’s a powerful statement on the current uncertainty facing the United States. My first instinct was to look to home, and the parallels between the song and us.

“Lover don’t be sad
Think of the time we’ve had
The moment’s truer now
It won’t last”

For me, this song acutely represented my own sentiment toward my country. The post-1994 nostalgia has exhaled it’s final breath, and for my generation at the very least, the dream of our rainbow nation has been killed by every unmet promise from government, every thoughtless critique from enfranchised society, every stark inequality we are forced to gaze upon or partake in on a daily basis. We look to the future, and lots of the future looks like it’s going to be shit.

Last night, I watched a screening of Rehad Desai’s “The Giant Is Falling” in Cinema Noveau in Rosebank, to a sold out house. Myself, my partner and two friends sat on the steps in the wings of the packed theatre. If you haven’t heard of it, the film charts the rise of President Jacob Zuma, the subsequent codification and misuse of state power and funding, the cracks appearing in the ANC as a result, and the states interactions with civil society – from protests to massacres.

I have never been to a film screening of it’s like – it’s rare as a nation that we feel united, like a collective – let alone in a cinema. The audience was diverse amongst racial and professional boundaries; students, journalists, art lovers, everyday citizens – and though it’s true that socio-economically it probably didn’t have all that much range, it was nevertheless an inspiring evening to share. We watched the film together. We applauded inspiring and integrous characters in our recent national history as they attempted to defend our democratic infrastructures; our Deputy Minister of Finance Mcebi Jonas, our recent Public Protector Thuli Madonsela, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng. We laughed at scenes of Julius Malema back when he was still the fiercest advocate of our dear president with a mix of nostalgia and pain. We clapped solemnly for those who dared to remind Zuma of Khwezi. We were dead silent as the police gunned down our fellow citizens, the striking mineworkers of Marikana.

One of the most compelling effects of the film is it’s codification of what we have experienced as news into the tapestry of history – and history reads very differently to news. We, as the immediate consumers of all of these events, have become somewhat distant from the broader narrative. There is the cumulative numbness and blindness of the “Same shit, different day”, day after goddamn day. The film ties it all together, and the overall picture is one of the dissolving integrity of the Republic of South Africa, from the man at the top all the way down. It hits too close to home. Desai, perhaps due to his time overseas, brings a refreshing internationality to his critique of our political journey over the last 15 years – there is a distance which could almost be called coldness if it weren’t for the empathy that permeates the film.

It makes no bones of it’s perspective. In the Q&A session afterwards, Desai labelled it as “progressive”, in the sense that it is a leftist film that takes a definite position of critique rather than aiming to be a purely objective account of our recent history. This is to the films credit – the pen of history will write with just as much power as it scribes the significance of Jacob Zuma in our country’s history, or this dark chapter in the history of the ANC.

I appreciated it’s perspective on the student movements of last year and this year. The generational and socio-economic gap in understanding and sympathizing with the motivations behind #FeesMustFall is somewhat transcended, and I feel that the film places the movement in a broader context of disenfranchisement, in which perhaps those of an older generation or wealthier class may be brought to a greater sense of understanding of what has caused the protests. Its a film that I would encourage any vociferous critic of #FeesMustFall to watch.

On a personal level, the film affected me profoundly, the effect something akin to being poleaxed. This is the history we have written. Having been in the thick of some of the events that it documents with my own photography this year, having consumed each new blow in the news every single day, the film picked me up and carried me far enough away to see the course that each event has been leading us to. And that path, fellow citizen, is breathtaking in its bitterness.

Professionally, the film was inspiring. I’ve met Rehad at several points; last year at the #ZumaMustFall marches, during #FeesMustFall and just 2 days ago at the EFF march in Pretoria. It’s a piece of work to be proud of – and I’m angry that I didn’t make it. It felt like a direct challenge to me to create more – not just press work, but art – stories that are powerful, evocative strands in our national collective narrative, with enough context to compel us to move beyond our stasis. I’ll write more on this when I’ve thought it through.

The most overarching experience of the evening was an amalgam of fear and hope; fear in the tearing away of the last strands of the veil of deeply embedded optimism that being a born free bequeathed me; fear at the degree to which the reins of our country have been allowed to be pulled away from all of us, and into the hands of a few who would steer us all into damnation to line their own pockets and protect their own power. Hope, in the fact that the critiques are not dead – art and media still shout, though their voices ring shrill. Hope, most of all, in that shared laughter and dread in the packed out theatre in Johannesburg, in our South Africa.

“I don’t want to wave goodbye
Shout out a thousand times
I’ll love you until the moment dies”