An interview with Chris Bethell, Documentary Photographer15th October 2018 // Bronya Bouchia
If you’re looking for inspiration from a photographer with heaps of talent and and an array of achievements under their belt, look no further than UK photojournalist, Chris Bethell. His unique storytelling skills and his focus on even the smallest of details, has helped Chris gain his quality status in the field and has given him the opportunity to work with the likes of The Guardian and Buzzfeed.
New to photojournalism and documentary photography? Find out more about this photography niche over at the Peli UK Photography Hub
We had the chance to speak with Chris, to find out where his interest in photojournalism comes from, as well as what he thinks it takes to succeed in the photojournalism niche. Read Chris’ words of wisdom in our interview with him, and if you want to see more of his brilliant, work, visit his photography portfolio here.
Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and the work that you do?
I am a photographer, journalist and occasional picture editor, working primarily for editorial clients including VICE, Buzzfeed and The Guardian.
In 2016, I graduated from London College of Communication’s MA Photojournalism and Documentary Photography, where I developed a body of work about my imagined family history and dual nationality with the USA.
With this work, I was nominated for The Magnum Graduate Award and the MACK First Book Award, won gold at Offspring Photomeet’s Portfolio Awards, won The Clifton Cameras Award at Format Festival and came first in ThePrintSpace’s Trajectory competition.
My work is interested in the acceptance of subjectivity within documentary photography and how fiction can be used to tell a truth.
Why did you choose to become a photographer?
If I’m being completely honest, I kind of fell into it. I went to university to study psychology when I was eighteen but dropped out three months later when I realised that I was spending more time partying than learning.
I moved to Manchester with some friends and spent a year being young and stupid. I successfully applied for a job at ASDA and was placed onto their photo centre where I messed around with their display cameras and learned how to develop film.
At the same time, I saw that some of my friends had started to post photos of abandoned buildings onto their Facebook. I wanted to see these places too, so I tagged along with them and borrowed a DSLR from my friend, Chloe. From there, I was hooked.
What drew you to focus on photojournalism as your niche?
This was mostly down to a few ‘right place, right time’ moments. During my studies, I took a Yashica T3 with me to Leeds Festival, taking some photos of my friends messing around in the campsite. A few months later, I decided to send them into the VICE photo desk, in the hope of getting a photo pass for the following year. I got a reply a few days later. They said no, but instead asked me to shoot a magazine issue launch party that they were throwing in Manchester. Obviously I agreed.
I continued to photograph these parties for a few consecutive months, building up a bit of a relationship with the team throwing them and the editor I was submitting photos to. The next time that I was in London after this, I met up with some of VICE’s editorial team for some after work drinks. I quickly made friends with a writer called Matthew Francey, who was interning there at the time. We chatted for a few hours and he invited me to photograph an article he was working on about Irish Republicans in Liverpool. After this, I found myself shooting protests, portraits and various documentary work.
What equipment do you typically take with you on a shoot?
I travel as light as I possibly can. If I can get away with having only my camera and a 50mm lens with me then I’m a happy man.
Occasionally I’ll bring along my 17-40mm or my 28mm if I need a wider angle - say I’m shooting a protest or I’m somewhere with limited space. On rare occasions, I will shoot in a studio, but even here I keep it basic with two flashes at most.
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Other than a good eye for photography, what else plays a key role in succeeding as a photojournalist?
I believe that there are two things more important than having a good eye. First is the ability to tell a story, to communicate your narrative in a single image or in a series of images. This is far more important than being able to take a pretty picture. Second is determination - growing a thick skin, tirelessly sending your work out, always making sure that you deliver the best you can, never giving up and rarely switching off.
If you’re not obsessed with photography then it’s going to be very tough for you. You need to be constantly thinking how you would photograph the things that you’re seeing - practice in your mind. How would you move around something, where is the angle, what would the image say? There hasn’t been a day since I started studying where I haven’t thought about photographing something or how to develop a project I’m working on.
What words of wisdom would you give to budding photographers looking to focus on photojournalism?
A lot of my work would be classed as photojournalism but I prefer to not identify with being a photojournalist. I don’t subscribe to the view that objective truth can be captured in an image and that a photograph on it’s own can change the world. Instead, I think it is important that all photographers embrace their own subjectivity and if they are working in documentary, that they accept their role in representing a story or a person.
A photographer’s presence in a situations completely changes the context of what is happening and has already altered the truth of the situation. For this reason, I believe that fiction is a valid device that can be used to tell a truth, as long as the photographer is honest about it being a subjective one.
Think about what stories you want to tell and why. Why are you the right person to tell the story? Do you have any authority in telling it?
It’s slightly different for the stories I work on for publications, as the nature of these is that you dip in and out of someone’s life for a day and you do your best to represent the truth of what you encountered. But when picking a long term project that is your own, make sure you know why you’re picking it.
Why should budding photographers choose a career in photojournalism?
I regularly hear from photographers and photojournalists my senior that the editorial industry is dying and on the face of it, that appears to be true - many magazines and newspapers have stopped their press and with their closure people have lost work.
Younger photographers need not get too caught up in this fear though. The majority of my career has been sustained on commissions from online publications. It is highly competitive work, yes, but a lot of these publications are growing and expanding.
What’s the most enjoyable part of being a photojournalist? What are the pitfalls?
It can be really tiring and stressful. I work six or seven day weeks - sometimes meaning that I don’t see my friends for long periods unless i’m working with them.
Being a photojournalist isn’t just about taking pictures, you need to stay on top of your accounting, marketing, research and pitches. For every day shooting there is another day or two on admin.
The trade off though is that as long as you are delivering good pitches and strong work, then you can mostly dictate the stories that you’re working on. You can do the things that interest you. Every week is different, finding yourself in new places meeting new people. It never gets boring.
Who or what are your biggest inspirations within the world of photojournalism?
My biggest inspirations actually come from the broader world of photography. Robert Frank is my hero - his work showed me that the most important thing in an image is the emotion you capture. A picture doesn’t have to be clean and sharp for it to be good, it’s down to whatever it makes you feel.
Then oddly, two big inspirations were Philip Lorca DiCorcia and Jeff Wall. I fell in love with their cinematographic photographs. Both stage their images - something which I have never really done. I wanted to capture the same energy in their photographs but instead of being a director, I wanted to take on the role of a witness.
Describe some of your favourite photojournalism shoots - what makes them so special to you?
This year, I have been working on a series of articles loosely based around Britishness - specifically at big events. So far in this I have covered Meghan & Harry’s Royal Wedding, 2018’s Oxford vs Cambridge Boat Race and the people watching England’s World Cup defeat at Hyde Park.
These are some of my favourite things to shoot, as I am not trying to shoot images to accompany a written story, but simply moving around, observing, and waiting for interesting moments to happen. Then I piece them together with other images to form diptychs that create new or amplified meanings when partnered together.
On a much more serious note though, my work never means more to me than when I am covering the aftermath of a tragedy. After the attacks in Manchester last year, I drove immediately back to my hometown the next day and spent the following week reporting on what was happening in the city. I found out that Manchester’s tattoo studios were all opening their doors to tattoo the Manchester Bee on anyone who wanted it, with all profits going to charity, so I spent a day in my friends’ studio talking to people about what it meant to them.
Not long later, I found myself back in London after the London Bridge attack. I headed to the vigil to document the unity and resilience of the people of London.
What are the biggest challenges that photojournalists face?
The biggest challenge that any photojournalist faces is finding the balance between their own code of ethics and telling the story in front of them. Sometimes you have to forsake taking the picture you need for the story - especially if you feel like it would exploit the person in the shot. As much as photojournalists like to think that their image will affect change in the long term, this is often not realistic compared to the short term effects it could have on the people photographed.
Many, many thanks to Chris for giving us an incredible insight into his work and for telling a completely honest tale of what it’s like to work in the world of photojournalism.
If you’re interested in starting out in photojournalism, or if you would like to find out more about other popular photography niches, visit the Peli UK Photography Hub for more information about various photography areas available.
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