Christopher Bethell on his complex relationship to home

Meet one of our featured photographers, Christopher Bethell, who explores his identity through his work

Christopher Bethell’s work comes from a desire to explore his identity, making his personal reflections universal. His complex relationship to home comes from his dual American and British citizenship. Despite never having visited America, he has always thought of it as a home, and so embarked on his major MA project, The Duke of Earl, last year in the US, as a way to document his understanding of this new but familiar place. What followed was a struggle between cliche and authenticity, as Christopher came to terms with the stereotypes that had informed his perception of this fractured home.

Christopher’s interest in photography was first sparked at the age of 19, and he quickly threw himself into the medium, studying at Mid Cheshire College, Staffordshire University, and finally at London College of Communication, where he received a Masters in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography. He cites his most valuable lessons as those about the foundations of photographic theory, and the ethics of representation, which have changed the way he approaches projects and commissions. Since graduating he has been nominated and shortlisted for a number of prestigious awards, including MACK’s First Book Award, and the Magnum Graduate Photographers Award.

The Duke of Earl © Christopher Bethell

How did you get into photography and in what way would you say your background has influenced your approach?

I started working at an ASDA photo centre when I was nineteen. Playing with the cameras on display and processing people’s negatives gave me an initial interest in picture making. At the same time, some of my school friends started to post photos on Facebook of abandoned buildings they had been to. I borrowed a DSLR from a friend and tagged along to what used to be Deva Asylum in Chester, and from then on I was hooked.

Can you tell me about your key concerns as a photographer?

My personal work is very rooted in self discovery; I explore issues and stories related to myself that other people can identify with. I think this is the best way to have an authoritative voice in the work you create; to be able to speak from your own position rather than trying to represent someone else’s voice. I would find it hard to pick an issue in the world, seemingly arbitrarily, to take ownership of. I’m more interested in how fiction can be used to portray truth in an image or series; embracing subjectivity and narrative.

The Duke of Earl © Christopher Bethell

What was the starting point for your project The Duke of Earl?

It was a project that I had always wanted to shoot – I had this American passport that all my life had gone unused, this side of my identity that had gone unexplored. I was sat in our last tutorial session at LCC before breaking up to shoot our major projects, and everyone was going around the room saying what they were planning on doing. I was originally going to work on a project about gentrification in Whitechapel, following the building of the crossrail. But instead, when it was my turn to talk, I pitched the idea of America instead, despite not having much money at the time. I threw all my savings into booking planes and car rental and headed out two weeks later without any real idea of how I was going to shoot the project.

The Duke of Earl © Christopher Bethell

In what manner did shooting away from your home environment change how you approached creating the work? Would you say it’s constructive to shoot away from your immediate surroundings?

This is a tough one to answer because I have always treated America as a home I had not yet visited. I grew up relating more to my American identity than my British identity, so I felt as though I was going home when I boarded the flight to Boston. Stepping out of the airport though, I realised quite quickly that it wasn’t going to fulfil every expectation I’d had growing up. It was a confusing experience as my identity was so entwined with everything I was photographing and seeing. I found it hard initially not to photograph all of the cliches we’re so used to from the proliferation of America in the UK media, but after a while this faded and it became easier to see what was relevant and important to me.

Who/what influenced you in your approach?

I was hugely influenced by the work of Phillip Lorca-DiCorcia and Jeff Wall when I was studying, but I don’t have the concentration to witness something and then recreate it. I wanted the immediacy of finding these moments out in the world, but I was also interested in how I could find these little moments and exaggerate them – to place a grander narrative on them than what existed at the time, and to have them say something about me. Not just about the people pictured.

The Duke of Earl © Christopher Bethell

Do you have any advice for photographers who are thinking about making work out of their familiar surroundings?

No matter what your approach is, I think it’s imperative to spend a lot of time outside and walking around everywhere. Get lost – think about using a device to help you navigate a place, following a stranger until you see something interesting and then following someone else, etc. Or delve into the ideas of psychogeography. It doesn’t really matter as long as you are out and about and getting a feel for what the place is saying to you. Even if you’re going to make still lives in this new place, it’s so important to walk and see and feel.

What are your plans moving forwards?

I am going back to America at the end of September – specifically to Clarkston, Washington. This is the place that my Grandfather moved to to start repairing his relationship with his family. Clarkston is on the complete other side of America to where he was born, and the other side of the world to where my Mum & Grandmother lived. I want to try and understand why he moved to Clarkston; what is it about Clarkston that represents the morals and values he was striving for? So I’ll be spending four weeks there, working for the local paper, and using it as a device to meet people. Hopefully I’ll find someone who remembers him.

Enter OpenWalls, your invitation to Arles.

The Duke of Earl © Christopher Bethell
The Duke of Earl © Christopher Bethell
The Duke of Earl © Christopher Bethell
The Duke of Earl © Christopher Bethell