As the National Front's Marine Le Pen fights to become French president in a country scarred by terrorist attacks, a personal meditation on French identity and culture takes on a dark new context
“Everything in France over the last year-and-a-half has given a different context to the pictures I’ve made,” says Magnum photographer Christopher Anderson. “There’s a darkness now that wasn’t there when I began.”
We’re discussing his series Bleu Blanc Rouge, an open-ended meditation on French identity and culture he’s currently editing into a book. He started it back 2010, on a residency in South France, but the work has taken on new resonance, after a spate of terrorist attacks in France and the rise of ultra-nationalist Presidential candidate Marine Le Pen.
In fact the series now seems timely – prophetic even – but then Anderson’s work often does. He released Stump, a photobook satirising the American presidential circus, back in 2014, two years before the upset election of Donald Trump; and he released Capitolio, a dark vision of the Venezuelan capital, in 2011, two years before the death of President Hugo Chavez and the economic and political crisis now playing out on Caracas’ streets.
“I have noticed that,” he says, when I point out his talent for clairvoyance. “I can’t take credit for planning it – I don’t think I or anyone else foresaw where we would be in France after Nice [when a truck deliberately drove into crowds celebrating Bastille Day, killing 86], and I never imagined in a million years that Trump would be president. But I guess if you start paying attention you start noticing things.”
When he started Bleu Blanc Rouge, he just had “notions of the colour of the flag and French identity and colour of skin”, he says, sparked off by the traditional jousting events he saw in the town of Sète, while on residency for the Maison de l’Image Documentaire. “It dates back to the Middle Ages and Knights waiting to be deployed in North Africa for the Crusades,” he says. “Now I was seeing French people of North African descent in French national costume doing this crazy sport.”
He was working during another French election campaign, the cycle which saw Hollande come to power, and in which issues of immigration, nationalism and identity started to be discussed as never before; these issues spoke particularly pertinently to Anderson because, having lived in France for years, he by now had a French partner and family. When we speak by phone, he’s just had his final interview for French residency.
“I was thinking about France and my family’s identity,” he says. “It relates to relates to my previous book Son, in which I photographed my family and relationship to New York – this work expands out from that because of my family and our relationship to France.
“I wanted to photograph France in the same way that an English person might photograph England, what would it look like,” he continues. “France has a very rich photographic history and culture, but you don’t tend to get French photographers summing up France in quite the same way as you get British or American photographers looking at Britain or America.
“In Britain there are many projects questioning what British identity is, or what it means to be English; in France there’s a certain romanticism and nostalgia, it’s all about people kissing in cafes. I wanted to make some pictures that had some kind of distance. I’m walking the link between sentimental and not sentimental, close and affectionate and not.”
Seeing the French flag being flown on an unprecedented scale, Anderson hit upon the idea of using its colours as a kind of thread, a “motor or engine” to help him progress. His stay in Sète ended and he published a catalogue of the project, as happens at the end of each residency, but somehow he found he wasn’t yet done.
Images kept finding their way into the project, both those he shot specifically for it, and those he originally shot for elsewhere – in fact a successful editorial photographer, who was New York Magazine‘s first photographer-in-residence, Anderson doesn’t differentiate between his commissioned and non-commissioned work. It’s all his photography, he says, “it’s all connected to me”.
He also freely included images shot in the US as well as in France, creating a record of his and his family’s experiences, he says, “not a journalistic work in that sense”. It’s an instinctive, open-ended approach but, in refusing to draw easy conclusions, Anderson’s series work on a deeper level.
Seven years on and he’s ready to boil this portfolio down into a book, but he’s wary of “relating to certain pictures in particular ways, of assigning particular meanings”, particularly as global politics shift. He thought he’d found the right edit last year – entering it into the BJP’s International Photography Award and reaching the final shortlist – then, as the current French election got underway, he completely changed his mind.
“I’m still not sure what will be in the final edit,” he says. “When I think of finishing the book I have to think of how to deal with other things in France. There has been a lot of violence – how do I address that, or do I not? If I do, does it become a political book? I don’t want to write a polemic. But if I’m making a book about French identity, to act as if it’s the same work as two or three years ago seems strange.
“I want to rethink how I deal with certain subjects because of the way the world is changing, not just France or the US,” he adds. “The world is a different place.”