Heather Elder Represents
Reps Journal

Capturing the Essence of Communities: Andy Anderson on the Responsibility and Privilege of Being Invited In

As a photographer, being invited into a specific community to shoot is a privilege, honor and responsibility to capture its essence through your lens. Each community comes with its unique culture, history and aesthetic that challenges the photographer. Andy Anderson is an artist whose humility, openness and curiosity have opened up the opportunity to shoot within communities in small towns, remote villages and vibrant cities and his experience has poised him to be able to capture these idiosyncrasies. 

Being invited in sets you up as an outsider, so it takes a specific kind of person to do this. Since Andy has experience with this, we sat down with him to talk about some of these projects he has worked on and what he thinks is the secret to being invited in and documenting with integrity.

What does "being invited in" mean to you?

Being invited into a community means that those individuals have given you a unique opportunity to connect with them on a deeper level and gain an understanding of their lives and experiences, and then capture that with your camera. I love watching documentaries and learning about people and places all over the world, so being invited in is the highest honor in my eyes because I can learn directly from these people and experience what it is to live a day in their life. I get inspired by the subjects but ultimately it is their story I am telling, so to be open to learning is critical. 

How do you gain the trust of those who invite you in?

It certainly comes with a certain responsibility so you have to approach the work with sensitivity, humility and acknowledging any power dynamics that might exist. It seems simple but you have to just listen to their experiences and be willing to learn from them rather than imposing your own views and biases. I also think you can’t think of it as a one-off project, I always try to establish meaningful relationships with the community and continue to connect with them after the project.

Do you have a project in which you were invited in that sticks out in your mind?

My “Side Show” project was one of the most unique experiences. This was the last of Ward Hall’s traveling sideshows in America. This one was a project where I thought empathy was extremely important. So many people see the members of a sideshow and label them with a slur or disrespectful label. But they are real people with their own stories and to be able to hear their story was really incredible.

A second project that sticks out was my South Side Gang project. This was again, an experience that likely would not have been presented to me if I weren’t a photographer. I had worked on a film called A Beautiful Thing by Mary Mazzio, shooting the stills. It was about the first African American high school rowing team in America whose team members were made of former gang members, sometimes from opposing gangs. I became close with some of them and they asked me to come back and shoot within their community a few weeks later. It is an incredible story of resilience and I was really honored to be a part of it.

What excites you most about being invited in and working directly with a community?

The opportunity to learn and experience something new. My vision through curiosity carries through my life and my work, and being invited in is the most immersive way to scratch that itch.