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VICE Loves Magnum: An Interview with Christopher Anderson

Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven’t heard of it, chances are you’re familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa’s coverage of the Spanish Civil War, Steve McCurry’sAfghan Girl or Martin Parr’s very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum’s members are selected by the other photographers in the agency, which, given they’re the greatest photo agency in the world, means that becoming a member is a pretty grueling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.

First up is Christopher Anderson, who became a Magnum nominee in 2005 and was a full member by 2010. His early work on Haitian immigrants’ illegal journey to America—during which he and they sank in the Caribbean Sea in a handmade wooden boat named Believe in God—won him the Robert Capa Gold Medal. And last year, we produced an episode of Picture Perfect about him.

His subsequent book projects include Son, a series of photos capturing his wife and young child as his own father grew ill with cancer, and Capitolio, which documents unrest in Caracas during the time of Chavez.

I had a chat with him about how he sees himself and how that’s changed over his career.


Joe Biden descends from Air Force Two in Virginia, shot for New York Magazine.

VICE: You’ve vocally distanced yourself from photojournalism in the past. Why is that?
Christopher Anderson: 
There are photojournalists in Magnum, but I don’t see it as a photojournalist agency. It’s more founded in documentary photography. If I were to use a term for myself, I feel I’d fit more closely in the bracket of documentary photography than photojournalism. The term photojournalist tends to be loaded with meaning: specifically that one reports the news. I don’t see that as my function. Even when I was photographing things that were news topics, like conflicts, my function was not that of a news reporter, my function was to comment on what I saw happen that day and to offer a subjective point of view. In my role, I was commenting on what was happening, but also trying to communicate what it felt like to be there when it was happening.

So you wanted to capture images that were more emotional and personal?
Exactly. But I would go further and say that I not just wanted to do that, that is in fact what I did do. I had no pretence of objectivity. I was photographing, giving my opinion, and I wanted you to know that I was giving my opinion.

Did your unconventional approach make it initially more difficult to sell your photos, or was it beneficial from the start?
Well, I don’t think I was going ‘round articulating that to editors, saying, “No, I won’t work for you unless you understand that what I do is subjective.” With the agency I was with before, it didn’t make a difference, as I was already sort of working for “journalistic magazines,” and I worked a lot for the New York Times Magazine. The kind of stories that I would do, even ones from conflict zones, would be longer and more in depth in their approach to what was happening there, trying to put what was happening in a more human, intimate context rather than the headlines of the day. But to be honest, the marketable advantage never crossed my mind at the time. I was just intent on trying to do what I did in the way I wanted to with as much integrity as possible.

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Love makes people do strange things. The history of mankind is rife with love producing illogical and oddball behavior. When it comes to photography, falling in love with the medium is hardly an exception. For example, someone painfully shy might find themselves impulsively photographing strangers without asking for permission. Or, they instinctively photograph something without any ability to later explain why. Alec Soth’s newest book Looking for Love, 1996 is, in its way, about both—the search for love guided by the heart and the search of love guided by the eye.

Soth, a Minnesota native, came to national attention in 2004 after his project Sleeping by the Mississippi was featured at the Whitney museum during its Biennial exhibition and consequently released in book form by the prestigious German publisher Steidl to critical acclaim. Rapidly thrust into the worlds of art and commerce he followed up his debut with equally strong and provocative bookworks: Niagara (2006), Dog Days Bogota (2007) and Broken Manual (2010). Looking for Love, 1996 (Kominek Books, 2012) is a look to the past at his early beginnings as a photographer working with black and white film and a medium format camera.

In his brief introduction to the work Soth describes that time as one of working a miserable job (printing photos at a large commercial lab) and retreating to a bar to be comforted by “the solitude I found among strangers.” He began to concentrate on his own pictures, slyly using the lab to make prints which he smuggled, concealed under his jeans, out to his car. He writes of imagining one day “a stranger would fall in love with me.”

The first photographs of couples we encounter in Looking for Love cling possessively to their partners and leer at Soth’s camera as if to ask, “this is mine, where is yours?” While his journey takes us through the outside landscape and various social gatherings—the aforementioned bar; a convention hall that seems to bridge religion, spirituality and dating under one roof; poker games; singles parties; high school proms—we can sense a young photographer eager to hone his photographic instincts for metaphor and craving the fruits of collaboration between artist, medium and world. A photo of a flirtatious blonde cheerleader sits on the opposite page of a lone, slightly gothic teen outside a music club. The prom king and queen stand proudly before an auditorium empty but for a few hidden background observers and a basketball court scoreboard. An older man sits phone to ear at a ‘Psychic Friends Network’ booth while a quaffed blonde with a #1 ribbon pinned to her lapel passes by paying no mind. Alongside the underlying melancholy of some of these pictures is also the excitement of a photographer discovering their talent and seeing an affirmation of life stilled in photographs.

That affirmation makes the parting photograph all the more important. In it we see Soth himself sitting sprawl-legged in a rental tuxedo as if his own prom has just ended. Perhaps it had. I hope the love he may have found, lasts.

Looking for Love, 1996 is available from Kominek Books.

Jeffrey Ladd is a photographer, writer, editor and founder of Errata Editions.

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In the years we’ve worked in Africa, TIME contract photographer Dominic Nahr and I have been to some pretty out-of-the-way places: Sudan, Somalia, the Ethiopian mountains, Congo. But I doubt we’ll ever again go somewhere as off the map as Obo in southeastern Central African Republic. To reach Obo, you fly to CAR’s capital Bangui, then for four more hours east over unbroken jungle, with almost no sign of life below. Once in Obo you find a town with no power, one road, one church, one hospital with one doctor, several thousand refugees, who have fled from as far away as the Democratic Republic of Congo to escape Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA)—and one U.S. Special Operations base built out of palm thatch and grass.

Access to the Special Forces: nil, as expected. Access to the Ugandan army, who the Special Ops are assisting in their hunt for the LRA: nil, which was disappointing. But with close to 100 of its people abducted by the LRA and forced to become fighters, only to escape and return home years later, Obo turned out to be a treasure trove of information on one of the most mysterious and notorious rebel groups in the world.

It was also a revelation on another count. Hundreds of miles from anywhere, with nothing to eat but what they grew or caught, Obo was one of the most welcoming, most charming and—now that they had U.S. base on the edge of town to discourage attackers—the most peaceful places we’ve ever visited, proof, if ever it was needed, that a rich life can be measured in many more ways than mere money. In the evenings, Dominic would complain that he’d come to shoot a war and had ended up shooting a bucolic paradise. I think his beautiful pictures capture the place perfectly.

Read More: “The Warlord Vs. The Hipsters”

Alex Perry is TIME’s Africa bureau chief. 

Dominic Nahr, a TIME contract photographer, photographed the Arab Spring in Egypt. Nahr is represented by Magnum.

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Gone are the accolades of heroism and courage that just one year ago greeted Egypt’s so-called “Facebook youth” when they led the popular uprising against the authoritarian regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Of that emotional and miraculous 18-day revolt, many proud Egyptians say the youth succeeded where decades of repressed and compromised opposition parties had not.

But 12 months later, Tahrir Square is a ravaged and frustrated version of its former self. Egypt’s youth movement is struggling to keep the revolution going, challenging the ruling military council the only way they know how—through protest. But with the country’s economy and stability sliding further into turmoil, the youth heroes of yesterday are failing to win the hearts and minds of the Egyptian majority today. Instead, many say they’re desperate to move on from the square.

Abigail Hauslohner is TIME’s Cairo correspondent. Find her on Twitter @ahauslohner.

Dominic Nahr is a contract photographer for TIME, represented by Magnum Photos. You can see more of his work from the Egyptian revolution here

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