Andy Anderson’s Curiosity Made Him Join a Chicago Gang

Their lives are about survival, and we as humans need to open our eyes to the human condition.
I am changed. 

Andy Anderson

Andy Anderson tends to document the pastoral, given his commitment to the outdoors. He explores the human condition in far-off places around the world, storytelling through his imagery. When he presented photography of men from the South Side of Chicago, we knew, due to his curious nature, there had to be a story behind it. We asked him to share it.

Photographing gang members from the South Side of Chicago is not on every photographer’s bucket list. It was high on yours, though. Why? 

 I was asked to work on a project in Chicago with a wonderful filmmaker, Mary Mazzio. She has done many films such as “I AM JANE DOE.” The film I worked with her on was about the very first African American rowing team in the US, comprised of South Side gang members. It was an incredible experience, and because of listening to their stories, I was immediately captivated. After that project was complete, my curiosity led me to come back to Chicago and spend time with this fascinating group.

My visit left me with an understanding that we’ve forgotten this community and the people in it. Their lives are about survival, and we as humans need to open our eyes to the human condition. I am changed. 

Your work is always so powerful because you find stories that are universal and help people better understand themselves and their place in the world. Part of your success is that you can relate to, and make connections with, the people you are photographing, allowing them to open up. How did you earn their trust so you could take their photographs?

I want to create images with honesty and integrity. It starts with treating people as people. We are all humans, and we ALL want to be respected and heard. It’s not a new approach. But sometimes it gets lost, and photographers treat folks as subjects and not as good humans.  

Be quiet and listen – you will be surprised how fast the room becomes relaxed.

In the video that Yeti produced about you, you said, “To be good at photography, you have to be obsessed with it. Fueling this obsession is a life-long love affair with curiosity — it is the engine to my creativity. And collaboration is the fuel that brings it all to life.” How does that come into play with these images?

First and foremost, these men are human beings just like you and me. We are ALL beautifully flawed, every single one of us. Redemption is a real thing, and kindness is everywhere. These men are proof-positive that we all can be changed. They are my friends.

In terms of curiosity, it comes right back to my need to find things that compel me. I read a ton, probably three books a month. I know it’s an issue – because I do that it opens my curiosity to ideas. I’m constantly looking. When I was asked to work on the film with Mary, I had no idea I would be so inspired to tell their story, after the initial project wrapped. Here I was sitting next to characters I might read about in a book. I had to know more.

What did you learn from the men you met? Did anyone surprise you?

I am intrigued by more socially-minded projects. The biggest take-away was that I found the human condition is worse than I thought it was.

You have also said that on a perfect day, you are making images that the world wants to know more about. Do you think you succeeded in telling their story?

Nope, I feel like I scratched the surface. There is so much more I need to see, know, and learn from these men. I need to go back.

Follow Andy on Instagram to see more of his imagery that reflects the truth as he sees it – rugged, mysterious, and all the time mythical.

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