Written by Eva Barragan
Photography by Shamsan Anders
You won’t find lavish studio lighting, couture models, or coffee shop photo-ops at a Shamsan Anders gallery show. Instead, you’ll find striking natural chiaroscuros, compelling characters and gritty streets - the rare underbelly of the city. Choosing to focus on real people, capturing real stories, Anders prides himself on photographing narratives he feels demand and deserve to be told.
“It was never my plan to become a photographer,” Anders tells me while we grab a beer near Urban Spree Galerie, a 1700 sqm independent artistic space in Berlin dedicated to honoring urban cultures through exhibitions, artist residencies, DIY workshops and concerts.
“I worked for a production agency for ten years and the first photos I took were actually on my iPhone for the agency’s clients. As time passed, and I began to really study the history of photography, and the origins of this art form, it became my ambition to photograph societies that I personally feel are underrepresented in mainstream German media. As a photographer and as an artist, it is my obligation to capture the truths of our times.”
Anders’s photography today falls into two categories: street photography, focusing on urban/environmental portraits and documentary/photojournalism style of photography that focuses on social commentary. Commentary which he feels is necessary but heavily lacking amongst mainstream photographers.
“I don’t know. I feel like nowadays people are so concerned with popularity or being politically correct that they don't want to say anything that could potentially be ‘bad for business’,” he explains. “ I don't want to just take pictures of what is happening. I also want to make a verbal statement about it. I know not all of my followers will agree with the things I have to say, but I feel it's my duty to speak on behalf of things that I value, people I cherish, and situations I simply will not tolerate.”
For Anders, a good photo is created by a perfect co-work of heart and mind. It should allow the viewer to not only see what the photographer is seeing, but also feel what the photographer is feeling.
“I see too many pictures out there that are well-composed — created with the brain, but emotionally dead to me, “flatline” like. A great photo touches people emotionally or motivates them to think about the deeper message living in between the lines. A great photograph should be mysterious or surprising in some way. For me, content and context always beats composition.”
He tells me his eagerness to not only document the times, but also offer an analysis of them, often puts him ahead of other photographers for certain jobs who have been active in the industry for much longer than he has.
“I wouldn't say that I’m better than anyone else,” he says. “But I’ve found my way now and I know exactly what I want.”
What Anders wants is to be able to tell stories authentically, passionately. He wants to capture narratives that may not be “profitable” in the monetary sense, but beneficial for the nourishment of his soul.
“Success as a photographer to me, means that you can create a lane for yourself. You can create your own way without copying and pasting other people. I think success just means creating work that you’re proud of. Work you’re able to pay your bills with. I don’t think success as an artist has anything to do with becoming famous or rich. I think all that matters is that you’re happy and you’re able to have your craft sustain your livelihood,” he tells me.
Currently, the project feeding Anders’s soul is entitled, “La Mayotte - A Dream of A Better Life.” La Mayotte tells the story about the journey of Mouday Madi Ali (aka Major), a long time friend of Anders who is fleeing the suburbs of Paris in search of a better life in Africa. Major is a father of four and saw no perspectives in the concrete blocks of Gennevilliers, Paris, for him or his growing family. He made the brave and somewhat controversial decision to move back to Mayotte - a poor little Comorian island in East Africa, where his parents once came from.
“Like much of my artistry, this wasn’t a planned project,” Anders confesses. “I visited my friend when he was making this transition and when I arrived, I discovered all of these problems on the island and immediately began photographing everything.”
He describes Mayotte as “paradise at first sight” but the deeper you dive into it, the more you realize it is an island that is rich in life, but not in wealth. More than 60% of the population is under 20 years old, and less than half of them are able to go to school, he tells me. The ones who can’t afford an education form gangs inside the jungle that Anders describes as warrior men inside nine-year-old bodies and the ones who can afford an education, Anders deems “the lucky ones.” On one side this is a story about life values, the search for identity, personal freedom and future perspectives in nowadays society, Anders explains. On the other side this is the story about the current situation of a little French island in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It’s a story about migration, illegal life, the social situation of “France’s forgotten children.”
Anders recounts the stories of the countless faces he’s captured, stories that - with a click of his camera - are now forever ingrained in his memory. I’m struck by how he’s able to capture such grim realities while still maintaining his sanity.
“The truth is, if you’re going to become a documentary filmmaker, photographer, or storyteller, you’re going to have to surrender to the fact that you will need therapy from time to time,” he admits. “You cannot do this job without going crazy sometimes. But somebody has to do it. There are so many stories to tell in this world and photography is one of the most impactful ways to tell them.”
He goes on to say that in order for anyone to become a better photographer, he believes they need to become a better human. They must be able to reflect and redefine things, reinvent themselves if needed.
“A good photographer has to be honest, with themselves and with others. People need to be able to trust you with their stories. Being a photographer comes with a great level of responsibility,” he continues. “ I think you really need an honest interest in the people you’re studying in order to capture raw, humanizing images of them. And maybe that means spending several hours, or even days with these individuals to get a shot of them in their purest, most vulnerable states. This isn’t always easy to accomplish, especially if your assignment is to photograph dead bodies during a world war or famine in a third world country, but like I said, everyone deserves to have their stories be seen and heard and as artist, it our obligation to tell them accurately.”