Photographic Education: An interview with Christopher Bethell

Photographic Education is an interview series from Loupe. Through conversations with successful graduates, we discuss why photographic education works, how to get the most out of it, and where it can improve. Each graduate shares their advice for current students and answers a guest question from a past tutor. The resulting series forms a useful resource for students and educators alike, as well as promoting work from the most encouraging new photographers.

Interview by Harry Flook –

For our second installment I spoke to creative documentarian Christopher Bethell, a photographer well-versed in education having studied the subject at Foundation, BA and MA level. Since graduating only a few years ago, Chris has earned an extensive client list, most notably including The Guardian, British Journal of Photography, Vice, and Huck magazine. Last year Chris won the RPS International Photography Exhibition’s Under 30’s Gold Award, for the work he produced on his MA, The Duke of Earl.  In this interview he shares his view of ethics in photography, advises students on project making, and talks photographic-truth.

HF: You studied your BA in photography at Staffordshire university, and your MA at London College of Communication. How did the courses compare?

CB: Both courses are deeply rooted in theory, or, the thinking behind why we make the photographs we make. The word ‘theory’ used to terrify me, it felt like this exclusive word that I couldn’t understand, and led to several failed attempts to crow-bar Camera Lucida into my own work. The course leader at Staffs, David Noble, helped me through. He taught me simply that theory is how we think about the work we make, pushing me instead into reading about realism and psychogeography, which was much more helpful to the work I was making then and continue to make now.

I expected the MA to be quite different. I thought it was going to be rooted in traditional practices of photojournalism, all of the ‘objective truth’ kind of stuff, y’know? I was surprised and happy to learn that it was pretty much a continuation of my studies at Staffs. We were pushed to question whether objectivity can exist, and encouraged to embrace our own subjective truths. The MA also made me rethink the ethics of image making. Previously I had gone by the typical street photographer’s idea that everything in the public domain was fair game, but I’m now more careful about who or what I’ll photograph, and how.

From 'The Duke of Earl' ©Christopher Bethell

From The Duke of Earl ©Christopher Bethell

HF: Ethics is an important point to raise, I’m thankful to the lecture that first gave me pause to consider good ethics as a photographer (props to Shawn). What’s your approach now? Do you ask consent from everyone you photograph? Or are you just more conscientious in terms of how you represent people?

CB: This is a really tricky question because I do worry about the extent to which I am exploiting people in my work. Looking back at The Duke of Earl, the entire project strips away the context of the people and places I photographed, appropriating them for my own narrative.

In 2006 Phillip Lorca DiCorcia was sued by Erno Nussenzweig; someone DiCorcia had photographed on the street as a part of his Heads series. Years after the image was taken, Nussenzweig had found his portrait in the exhibition catalogue and called his lawyer. The suit was later dismissed as the judge ruled that DiCorcia’s right to artistic expression was more important than Nussenzweig’s privacy rights.

To me, this case highlights the fact that even though something is legal, it doesn’t mean that it’s not exploitative of others. I disagree with how street photographers believe it is their right to take any image they want on the street – in some cases provoking a reaction through intimidation or surprise. And I disagree with how photojournalists believe it is their right to document anything they see in the pursuit of ‘telling the truth’.

I try to be as conscious as possible about who I’m photographing, in what moment, with who and in what place. All of these factors can contribute to the creation of a narrative that the subject is not happy to be a part of. Unfortunately, it would be impractical and severely limiting for me to ask permission from everyone I photograph. I tend to work in a frantic manner, moving quickly between people, catching a moment and then immediately hunting for the next one. I do my best now to catch people’s eyes after I take a shot to check that they don’t have a problem with me, but it’s not always possible. If not, then I try to consider how that person may perceive the image and the extent to which they may feel exploited by it.

From 'The Duke of Earl' ©Christopher Bethell

From The Duke of Earl ©Christopher Bethell

HF: To your mind, is there anything that can’t be taught at university? Anything that you really had to learn after graduation?

CB: I think all universities have a bad habit of overselling how much they will help student photographers to find their feet within the industry. Often the prospectus’ make it sound as though you will be spoon fed industry connections and be placed in front of people who can get you started on your career. This is in some sense true – the amount of amazing photographers, picture editors, curators, etc that we had through the doors of Staffs and LCC was phenomenal – the problem is that you, the student, need to be proactive in talking to them, discussing your ideas, being open to feedback, and making yourself vulnerable in the seminars, and maybe extending an invite for a beer later that evening.

Most of the things that can’t be taught at university are the things that you will learn from having closer working relationships. One of the downsides to university is the ratio of students to tutors and the lack of time you get in front of them. Previous to Staffs, I did the first two years of my BA as a Foundation Degree at Mid Cheshire College. For some reason Mid Cheshire paid roughly six different photography tutors to be at the college almost every day of the week. The result of this was that outside of lessons we would sit and chat with them for hours, whilst eating lunch or browsing through the library. This is how we learned the more colloquial side to the photography world, what it takes to set up your own business, email editors, start assisting at studios, etc. The kind of information that comes from personal stories that most likely don’t make it onto the syllabus. University students would massively benefit if time was rota’d in for students and staff to talk informally about photography or anything else.

From 'The Duke of Earl' ©Christopher Bethell

From The Duke of Earl ©Christopher Bethell

HF: I want to discuss finding a process to work with for graduate projects. Finding a clear structure to guide observations can really help when crafting a narrative. In a Pink Flamingo, Jack Latham followed the historic Lewis and Clark expedition, in Duelos y Quebrantos, Sebastian Bruno retraced Don Quixote’s fictional journey, and in The Duke of Earl you followed your grandfather’s steps through America. What do you think makes this framework so appealing to photographers?

CB: Firstly for me, I need some kind of framework in my photography or I feel like my head is going to explode. My thoughts scatter everywhere and I don’t end up photographing anything because I doubt myself; I think I should be somewhere else, photographing something else. Practically, making a project that follows a route provides a beginning, middle and end. You know where you start and you know where you’re ending, and you know that you need to take pictures between those two points. It can also create an easy narrative for the work you make – a chronological order for the project, although this didn’t work out for The Duke of Earl.

Also, I don’t think I’m just speaking for myself when I say that a lot of photographers started taking photographs because of the associated romance of it all. And, what is more romantic than heading out on a journey with a camera in your hand?

ChristopherBethell-2

From The Duke of Earl ©Christopher Bethell

HF: What advice do you have to help students develop a framework for their own observations?

CB: It’s hard to give out general advice because the way that people develop work is so different. Some people really benefit from taking the time to sit down and plan everything that they’re going to do: the locations, the people they’re photographing, the props, the time of day, lighting, etc, etc. But if you’re more like me then I think you need a bit of both. I really spent the time planning out where I was going to be and for how long – allotting a certain amount of days for each city I visited and the amount of time it would take me to drive between them. But I planned time within this for me to simply get lost, to wander, to explore and to look. To allow things to happen that I wasn’t expecting and occasionally for my intuition to lead me down a different path for a little while. Sometimes you just need a framework or a set of rules to guide you through the freedom of taking photos. This could be something as simple as taking a photograph every minute on the minute or photographing everything you see of the same colour. It’s sometimes hard to just wander out into the world and be looking at everything around you in the pursuit of your own truth.

ChristopherBethell-12

From The Duke of Earl ©Christopher Bethell

HF: We’ll end on a guest question from your former tutor, Max Houghton: ‘Universities have to choose names to market and identify their courses, which make them discipline-specific. How important was the ‘Photojournalism and Documentary’ aspect to you in choosing the LCC course? Do you feel an attachment to ‘the real’? Your work Duke of Earl was absolutely based on fact, but its success is its huge freedom to reimagine, and, if I remember rightly, some family  ‘facts’ turned out to be not quite so accurate after all? And related to all of that, does genre matter?’

CB: Hey Max! I briefly spoke before about how the MA at LCC embraces contemporary modes of storytelling, rejecting the idea that a photograph on it’s own can ever tell an objective truth – sometimes to the disdain of a few students. But, it made sense to me. If you take any photo that has ever existed and look at it, it will have edges. What is outside of these edges that the image taker chose to leave out? When was the photograph taken? How was it taken? And why was it taken? With each question and each decision, we get further away from having a universal truth. I have never understood why some people are offended by the idea of manipulating an image as everything we do with our camera is also a manipulation – a projection of our own reality.

Martin Parr uses a simple example for this in his talks – one image, of a bandstand taken in the daylight, it’s an overcast, cloudy day. The next image was taken seconds later, the same frame from a tripod, but with a flash. The image appears to be at night and shows the bandstand lit up against a black background. Which is true? I’d say that both are.

From 'The Duke of Earl' ©Christopher Bethell

From The Duke of Earl ©Christopher Bethell

I believed a fiction for most of my life about my Grandfather – throughout all of those years that fiction was my truth. It influenced how I watched films, how I incorporated them into my own identity and how I continue to do so. The truth is often fluid, we believe our own truths as though they are stone cold facts until we’re presented with another truth, one that may alter the reality we were once in. I think it’s egotistical to think that an image could be an absolute truth and that anyone viewing that image will also witness that same truth. Why not allow ourselves the freedom to experiment and to find a more accurate way of depicting our experiences? Surely the closer we can get in finding a device to communicate our own truths is the closest we can get to working as a photojournalist or documentary photographer. I think that genre can help a photographer/artist/journalist/person/whatever to compartmentalise and focus on what they want to achieve, but they need not feel constrained by the ‘rules’ of their chosen genre, and not be afraid to borrow from others.

HF:  Thanks for your time, Chris, I look forward to your next bout of truth-telling.

www.christopherbethell.com

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Harry Flook is a photographer, writer, and educator working at Hereford College of Arts, alongside writing and editing for Loupe magazine. You can follow his work and words at www.harryflook.com