Cerys Bocutt interviewed by Rosie Hannaford
R.H: Can you please begin by talking about your most recent project, ‘In the year of Our Lord’?
C.B: My project explores my family heritage and the impact that this has had on my identity. This initial idea was sparked by finding out that I had gravitated back to Bristol which is where my family had lived for hundreds of years. I began by piecing together a family tree dating back to the 17th century, compromised of birth, marriage and death certificates. I then started shooting the locations that were mentioned in these records. As the project has developed, I have looked more at themes of identity, home, memories and gender which has been the basis of the creation of my photographs that were taken later on in the work.
R.H: Am I right in assuming that you had no idea that your family were from Bristol, you always thought that you were from Wales?
C.B: Yes, I have always thought that my family had lived in Wales and then I got a phone call from my mum around six months ago saying that we once had family in Bristol. I then began doing my research surrounding my family history and soon realised that it could make an interesting photography project. It’s odd in a way because I moved to Bristol without knowing that I had so much family history in the city.
R.H: Is that where the project initially started then, from that one phone call from your mum?
C.B: Yeah, it did and then from there I looked at a lot of records and put together a family tree. I then looked at photography projects which had relevant themes which helped develop my work into something slightly more abstract. I also looked at photographers whose work was more abstract in their storytelling which helped too.
R.H: You mentioned photographers whose work has influenced you, who have been your main influences throughout this?
C.B: Dorothée Nowak inspired my work towards the beginning of my project. Her work ‘Tell Me Her Story’ photographically explores the journey her grandmother took from Poland to France at the beginning of the second world war. The photographs are beautiful, and the project has themes of family and history which obviously my work relates to. One of the things that Nowak is passionate about throughout her work is giving a voice to her grandmother which I suppose after all this time had been forgotten in a way. The project consists of portraits, landscapes as well as archival pieces. She creates a cohesive documentary project of these different techniques which is what I would really like to do with mine. Another photographer who I enjoyed researching and whose work influenced this work was Robbie Lawrence and more specifically his project ‘A Voice Above the Linn’. In this project he visits Linn gardens and the groundskeeper Jim. Over the period of a few years, he builds a deep connection with Jim which is conveyed through the photographs. The images feel very soft and intimate with some of them being quite abstract. His work was actually an inspiration for a shoot that I did at Greenbank Cemetery in Bristol. During this shoot I really took my time to slow my process down. I found things in the cemetery that related to my project and isolated them in my photographs.
R.H: Talking of isolating objects and composing your images, can you talk us through your process of how you shot the images?
C.B: I tried to be a little more experimental with this work as usually I stick to documentary photography. I have used mostly digital, but I have shot some film and I have also experimented with scanography. I feel as though digital allows me to make mistakes, it is the medium that I am most comfortable with and I personally think it is the most reliable. If I had all the time and money, I would probably use film. I love the effect it gives, and I like how it slows the image making process down. Scanography was an unfamiliar technique to me, I used memorabilia and things that I had found out on shoots which I felt were relevant to make the images.
R.H: I see what you mean with the film process, it’s not like digital where you can take quite a lot of photographs at once and you can afford to make those mistakes. There must be something therapeutic in that sense because you need to take the time and slow down to make sure you get things right; it really gives you the chance to immerse yourself?
C.B: Yeah, I agree, I think by slowing the whole process down and being more aware of what you are doing helps to make you feel at one with the location that you are shooting at.
R.H: I know that everyone is bored of talking about COVID, but it has undeniably impacted the way we work. How has it impacted your work?
C.B: I am usually so used to working with people, but I did not feel comfortable doing so during this time because of all of the restrictions and everything. I think that it has given me a new perspective and we’ve all been challenged to look inwards. After spending a lot more time at home than usual I have found myself reflecting on my family and my past, looking through my old family photo albums. Although my project is not labelled as a self-portraiture project, I have obviously looked at my past which has helped me understand my identity and how it has been shaped by my family’s history.
R.H: I think it’s crazy because half the time we don’t even know who our great grandparents are and actually it’s really sad because they loved, and they lived and it’s almost like they did not exist because we never talk about them. I think it is so nice that your project is thinking about your past but also in a way memorialising them too.
I know earlier you mentioned about different influences and you talked about gender roles having a large impact on your work, how so?
C.B: I looked at my family history from the 18th, 19th and 20th century and obviously the living conditions especially for women were not necessarily the best. Their rights, or rather lack of, gave me a better understanding of how poorly they were treated. It gave me motivation to give the women in my family a voice that they had not necessarily had before. I wanted the work to portray them as strong and independent but not ignore the domesticity of their lives. I didn’t want my images to reflect a stereotypical female. I did not want them to be pretty and dainty, and I did not want to ignore that part of their lives that was such a huge part; being expected to cook and clean and generally keep the household running by themselves. I wanted to photograph an old copper kettle that my great grandmother has because that was such a large part of the women in my family's lives, cooking and cleaning.
R.H: You have also included portraits in your work of your mum in your work, was that your way of connecting the past to the present?
C.B: Absolutely. Photographing the places that my family lived in Bristol was a starting point for a lot of my images, but I wanted to include the place that I was born which holds a large relevancy to me now and who I am as a person. I wanted to shoot somewhere that had a lot of meaning to me.
R.H: Something that I found interesting about your work is the use of empty spaces as such. You have the empty chair and the empty sofa, were these on purpose to hold significance? It feels as though there is a part of the image missing, I can almost visualise a person sat there.
C.B: Yeah, definitely and it comes back to that ideology of feminism. The chair at the cemetery was such an interesting thing to be at a cemetery because it is not really what you would expect to see, there’s a reflective element to it because people obviously sit there to remember people. The chairs like you said feel as though they are missing figures. I am not trying to take away from these women’s experiences, but I want to remember them. The empty chairs are a way of doing this without it being so obvious, it is to acknowledge their lives and their presence in my history.
R.H: The working title ‘In the year of Our Lord’, where did that come from?
C.B: It is a working title, but it means Anno Domini in Latin which I saw on many birth, marriage and death certificates. The translation of which is ‘in the year of Our Lord’. I liked the historical and religious link it had. I grew up within a Christian household and so I felt like it was quite a poignant title for the project that related to the historical context.
R.H: What do you believe the purpose of your work is?
C.B: I think that the purpose is something I have struggled with. Personally, it has a huge importance, I want to create something for myself and my future generations. But for other people I would hope that it encourages people to reflect on their family history, you know to wonder who their family are and who they have been. I think it is such a shame that so many people simply get forgotten about.
R.H: Going forward, what are your plans for the work?
C.B: I am planning a self-portraiture shoot as well as one with another member of my family. I want to carry on the female perspective and concentrate on the female gaze on my past. Ideally, I would like the portraits to come out quite similar to the photograph that I took of my mum at home.
R.H: What is your intended outcome of the work?
C.B: I would like to eventually present the work in a book almost like a family album. Something personal. I would also like it to include some of my family history archive. I am not too sure yet, we will see.