Chris Bethell graduated from London College of Communication (LCC) in 2015, having completed the MA Photojournalism & Documentary Photography. His own work is incredibly personal, with his last project covering his journey across the US in the footsteps of his American grandad whom he never met. It was this project, The Duke of Earl, for which he won the Under 30s Gold Award from The Royal Photographic Society's International Photography Exhibition 161. We chatted to him about his project, what the award means to him, and what his time at LCC was like.
Why did you choose to study at LCC, and particularly on the Photojournalism & Documentary Photography MA?
In my second year of studying photography, my Mum got me a subscription to The British Journal of Photography as a Christmas present. The magazine was hugely inspiring as it would feature the work of exciting, early career photographers making fascinating work; people who were only a few years ahead of me in their practice. I continued my subscription and in the year after finishing my BA at Staffordshire University, I decided I wanted to do a masters - specifically the MA at LCC. Many of my favourite projects featured in the magazines had been made or at least started, whilst the photographer was on this course. And, after researching further about the course, I learned of the high calibre of not only their on-staff lecturers but also the dazzling list of people that acted as visiting tutors or lecturers too.
What is your fondest memory of LCC?
One memory that sticks in my mind was of the last day before breaking up for summer - we sat on the 14th floor of the tower block and took our turns in going around the room to pitch our major projects. I had been working on an idea about documenting the development and subsequent gentrification in preparation for Cross-rail. I was near the end of the circle but patiently listened as I heard my friends talk about their projects in all corners of the world - about half of our course were international students, so they were heading home for the summer; shooting their projects at the same time. I found this inspiring though, it got me thinking about the home I had never been to. You see, I’m a dual-national, American/English but I had never been to the States before. When it was my turn to talk I pitched my dream project: the one I had waited all of my life to start. I had no idea how I was going to finance it and the idea terrified me, but it was the start of a journey that I’m still on, pursuing what my identity means to me on the other side of the Atlantic.
Since graduating what have you been up to?
I’ve mostly been trying to survive financially in the crazy-expensive city that is London; budgets are being slashed all over the place but it’s still possible to carve out a career in editorial photography. I’m lucky that VICE gave me my first break into the media world seven years ago and have kept me busy with regular commissions ever since. Some of my highlights since graduating have been when they sent me to the Royal Wedding to photograph the crowds of obsessive royalists, to the US embassy to document the night Trump was elected and to Eurovision to follow SuRie, the UK entry, up to her performance. I’ve also been working on and off as a picture editor at Buzzfeed and taken on a few commissions for The Guardian, The Telegraph and occasionally the odd PR job or wedding.
Congratulations on winning the U-30s Gold Award at the Royal Photographic Society’s International Photography Exhibition 161! What does the prize mean to you?
Thank you so much! It means so much to me - it’s the highest accolade I’ve ever received and it’s a pretty prestigious award too. The other work selected for the show is of such a high standard that I honestly can’t believe that mine was chosen! But the award money helped me to fund a return to America - to go back to Clarkston, the place my Grandfather passed away and continue working there.
Was your grandfather’s story one you always wanted to document?
It certainly was a story I always wanted to discover. I found my obsession with photography when I was twenty, as soon as I picked up a camera I knew I had to find a way to cross the sea and find my feet in America. I’m glad that I didn’t go before doing the MA though - the course gave me the tools to really push how I documented my experiences and relationship to the man I’d never met.
How would you describe your photography style?
Haha, I think this is something I usually avoid answering as I always feel a bit pretentious in trying to explain it. I guess I photograph in a documentary style, documenting things in front of me - mostly without manipulation. But I then place these photographs into a context that appropriates the content of them - turning the real people I captured into actors that play out the scenes that reflect truth and understanding of my own life.
What is your proudest achievement?
It’s between two things I think. Firstly, and obviously, the Royal Photographic Award - to have this recognition for my work is an achievement I am really proud of. But also, having the work accepted and then shown at Format Festival was a really big moment for me. I visited the festival in my second year of study - 2011 I believe and I couldn’t believe the amount of incredible work on show, to see so many talented photographers descend upon a small city was incredible and I dreamed of one day showing my work there. Format Festival is biannual, and I found myself back there in 2013 as a volunteer - photographing the events and invigilating exhibitions. In 2015 I returned for a weekend whilst studying my MA, sitting in for all of the conferences and drinking pints with some of the photographers showing work. In 2017 The Duke of Earl was accepted to be shown.
What is next for you?
Well, I have recently returned from a month in Clarkston where I worked on my next project - the working title is ‘Blue Velvet’. While I was there I worked for the local paper, The Lewiston Tribune: they sent me on assignments and introduced me to interesting people in the Lewiston/Clarkston valley. Every week I would submit a small diary entry about my experiences of living in my Grandfather’s hometown and submit some of my favourite photos. Working for them gave me the respect of pretty much anyone I would approach on the street or at an event, people still really trust their local papers over there which is wonderful. I’m currently working my way through the body of work and figuring what to do with it next. Unlike The Duke of Earl, this project doesn’t have a definitive end point, so I’m hoping to return later this year or the following year.
The Royal Photographic Society's International Photography Exhibition 161 opens in RPS House, Bristol on 7 February – 24 March, before going on to Midlands Art Centre, Birmingham (30 March – 12 May); Royal Albert Hall, London (22 May – 23 June); Municipal Gallery, dlr Lexicon, Co, Dublin (5 July – 4 September); and HIP Festival, Hull (4 October – 27 October).
Chris is also giving a talk on his work and on freelancing at RPS House, Bristol on Saturday 9 February 2019 at 11am.