Christopher Bethell is an award-winning photographer whose work has been featured in the British Journal of Photography, Buzzfeed, Refinery29 and VICE.
Born in Stockport, England, Bethell is a dual-national American-English citizen. His grandmother, Grace, moved to Boston from Ireland in her 20s, where she fell in love with his grandfather, Joseph “Joey” Leo O’Donnell. He never met his grandfather, but he grew up fantasizing about the man and the country he lived in based on photos and other family momentos.
In 2015, Bethell took a road trip across America to visit the places in his grandfather’s story. He’d once believed Joey was a jazz musician who toured the country, started a family and died a premature death in Las Vegas. He discovered that was only partly true. O’Donnell died in 1989 at age 48, and his grave is in Clarkston’s Vineland Cemetery.
This week Bethell, 29, arrived in the Lewiston-Clarkston Valley from London, camera in hand. He wants to understand what drew his grandfather west and what kept him here. He’s searching for anyone who remembers his grandfather. He’s also looking to meet people interested in his project who could show him what life is like in the valley. He wants to learn about the community, its history, businesses, religious underpinnings, social life and recreation. He wants to talk to people about what Lewiston-Clarkston means to them.
Over the next three weeks he’ll document his visit through the lens of his camera. While he’s here, Inland 360 will feature his work as an outsider’s perspective on the region.
Anyone interested in contacting Bethell can reach him by emailing email@example.com. Those without email can leave a phone message for him with Inland 360 editor Jennifer Bauer at (208) 848-2263. Please leave your name and phone number in the voicemail.
Before his first photo spread appears in next Thursday’s edition, we asked Bethell a few questions about his project.
Why are you so interested in learning about your grandfather?
I believed a fiction about his life throughout all of my childhood, only learning the real story as an adult. I’m not totally sure why, but even though I never met him, I feel a strong connection to him and want to understand my relation to him as well as my American identity to the best I can.
How did you become a dual-national citizen?
My grandmother moved my mum and herself back to Ireland in the ’60s, shortly after my grandparents split up. They lived there for a while with her family before moving to England. I inherited my American citizenship through my mother when I was born.
Was your grandfather a jazz musician?
Not really – he had played in a band when he was young but pretty much stopped after his voice broke. He was obsessed by music though, and he chased the crooner lifestyle to Reno (Nev.) after my grandmother moved the family to Ireland.
What do you know about his life in Clarkston?
He moved to Clarkston to escape the party life that he lived in Reno and also to try and escape his afflictions. He wrote a lot of letters to my mother while he lived here and was trying to repair relations with his family. Joey lived with a woman called Francis Stone who was much older than him – they had a platonic relationship. I think he used to spend a lot of time with horses. Apart from this, I’m not entirely sure what his life here was like.
You did a photo project about your grandfather during your 2015 visit to America titled “The Duke of Earl.” What’s the story behind that title?
My grandmother told me a story about when they first met. She had been on a night out in Boston, and Joey saw her across the room. He didn’t go to speak to her but instead got her number from a friend of a friend. The next day he called her and asked for her address. Turning up a few hours later, he burst into her living room singing the lyrics “You know I’m gonna love you, come on let me hold you darling, ’cause I’m The Duke of Earl.”
You fantasized about your grandfather, but it sounds like you also fantasized about the U.S. What did you learn about the country on your first trip that differed from the way you imagined it to be?
I quickly realized that it wasn’t the same country I had built up in my head. In the United Kingdom, we’re used to the proliferation of American media in our daily lives, but most TV shows and films will project a version of America, usually one represented by its cliches.
On coming for the first time, I found it difficult to see the extreme divide between the richest and the poorest here and to see the effects on people for not having a national health service. But I also met some of the warmest, most generous people I’ve ever experienced and felt what the word “community” truly means. It’s difficult to get a true sense of a place on a road trip though, not spending more than a couple of days in any one place. I’m really excited to spend the next month in Lewiston-Clarkston trying to understand what it is to live here and hope that lots of people will help to show me.
You visited Clarkston on your first trip to the states. What made you want to return?
I’m here to try and understand why my grandfather moved to Clarkston of all the places in the world. I want to understand what morals and values this valley holds that could have attracted him here. The last time I came, I spent but a few days here, but I felt at home and I want to know why I felt that way. I have also returned to set a proper headstone for my grandfather – my mum is joining me here in the third week to do this with me.
When photographing the people and places you encounter, what are you looking for? What elements make a compelling photo that tells a deeper story behind the image?
In the The Duke of Earl, I was looking for moments that could act as a metaphor for my grandfather’s story. This time I am hoping to work in a much more connected way with the people and places I’m photographing. I want to meet people who are willing to talk to me about what it means to them to live in Clarkston-Lewiston, what their dreams are, what their lives have been like, what’s important to them, etc. I’m hoping to photograph people in their family lives at home, at their place of work (I’m happy to help out!), at their place of worship and whatever they do for fun. I want to get to grips with what life is really like here. So, if anyone wouldn’t mind me hanging around with them for a bit then please drop me a message.
Anything else you would want to add?
I’m going to be in Clarkston-Lewiston until Oct. 22 and I’ll be wandering the streets and photographing any big events happening. So, if you see a big English man with a camera and a beard, then please come say hello.