Q&A with... Celine Marchbank
When we first discovered Celine Marchbank's series 'A Stranger In My Mother's Kitchen', we knew straight away that we wanted to feature the project on F&A. We feel very lucky to have been able to interview Celine about her practice and this body of work, which will soon be available as a photo book.
F&A: When did this body of work start? How has it developed since then?
CM: This project started in 2010/11, it kind of carried on from my previous project Tulip; the story of the last few months of my mother’s life. I started to photograph as a way to understand the situation better, and to record and treasure everything in my mother’s life that was going to be gone soon too. I photographed many of the small details in the house, and this continued after her death, especially as we started to pack up the house to sell it.
As I was doing this I started to find her recipes, my mother was a head chef for nearly 40 years. I didn’t want to just put these beautiful records of her food history in a box, I knew I wanted to do something with them, but wasn’t quite sure what. Her recipes made me realise how much I missed her food; the tastes and smells. Food was at the centre of our relationship, she taught me so much, and there was still so much we didn’t get round to, her illness got in the way in the end. So I decided to cook them. I started with a few, and as I did it more, the more I wanted to continue. The smells were incredible for bringing back memories, it felt like mum was at home cooking me supper. I continued for many years, and when we sold her house I moved to my very first home with my first garden, so I started to grow the food from seed. I had without knowing replaced the caring for my mum, with the caring and nurturing of the plants. It was now a long process, that kept me very busy, but I discovered it distracted me from the grief I was feeling.
As I cooked I would photographed the things along the way, rather than cooking to photograph. The project wasn’t a cookbook, it’s wasn’t about pretty plates of food, it was my journey through grief and rediscovering my mother’s life. I revisited places we lived together, places she grew up, places we went together, and others we never got the chance to.
The work became my way to explore grief, to distract but to also face up to it, to work with it and come out at the other end in this new life, a life without a mother.
F&A: What do you think of when you look back at the project?
CM: Looking back now I can see the dark times I was in, but I can feel the importance of the project for me. I feel protective of my mother, of all she left behind. Food is one of the most important things she left me, and I’m glad it was this that helped me get through the dark places grief takes you.
I like the work, I feel my mother would have too. It’s about her but it’s also about me. Everytime I cook I think about her now.
F&A: How important would you say having a creative outlet was for you?
CM: Incredibly important. I don’t come from a large family, there was not really support for me after my mum died, so I found a way to cope on my own. I’ve always been very self-sufficient, and a bad side of that is keeping emotions locked inside, deep down. I’ve learnt, through creative means (photography and writing) that you can work things out, analyze and process painful emotions, and that sharing these with other people can really help.
F&A: Your planning on turning the project into a book, will that be the final chapter or will you continue?
CM: There is something final about a book, it’s a permanent object you are sending out into the world, it feels like it should give it a natural ending, but it’s also a beginning. A book is a story, new people will see and appreciate it, so the story will continue.
This project will never really ever end for me, I will always have this connection to food through my mother, smells will always bring back memories, I can always delve into her recipes to cook a favourite and I will always return to places we went together.
F&A: What camera have you used and why?
CM: This project was shot over the space of 5+ years, so I’ve used quite a mixture of cameras over this time. It started with a Hassleblad film camera, then a Canon 5D, then a Leica M, Leica SL and I think even a Phase One camera.
I first started with the Hassleblad, I wanted to shoot slowly and take my time, but then decided to switch to digital for ease and cost reasons. Part of the project was shot in America and Italy, and I wanted a camera I did not have to think about whilst carrying around. Also, during this time, I was made a Leica Akademia Ambassador so I started to shoot on their cameras, which really fit with the feel of the project. I teach at Ravensbourne University, where the students use Phase One cameras, so I tried out one of them, one of these images is actually a main image in the book.
I wouldn’t normally switch between so many different cameras, but it kind of worked for this, it reflects the passing of time and the different moods of the project.
F&A: You're a Lecturer of Photography at Ravensbourne, how did you get into this career?
CM: About 4-5 years ago I was invited to give a visiting lecture at Ravensbourne about my work. This was a couple of years after I had graduated from my photography MA. I think the students liked the fact I was not that many years ahead of them, I could offer relevant advice as I had actually done it all myself. After that the course leader invited me to become a sessional lecturer, I’ve been there part time on and off for 4 years now.
F&A: Does your role as a lecturer influence your creative practice?
CM: I’d say they both influence each other in ways. I’ve learn much about myself and mine and others photography work from having to stand up in front of a class and talk about it. I’ve also decided to take my own advice, I used to tell my students to do things that I never actually did (don’t tell them!), like document your research, I now see how valuable that is. I think being a lecturer has made me more methodical, not sure if that’s a good or bad thing.
F&A: Any advice for those starting out in the photography industry?
CM: Be prepared to work hard, it takes a good few years for most people to get anywhere, so find a part time job you can do on the side that will not distract you from your photography. Keep at it, I’ve seen many good photographers just give up after about 2-3 years after university, they get persuaded by money, but if you want to be a photographer you might have to learn to be poor for a while. I had already had a career in graphic design before I did my MA, which I was never happy in, I just couldn’t believe you could actually have a career as a photographer doing the type of work you wanted to do, so when I found that was possible I was just so determined to do it. I’ll always remember someone saying to me when I was studying ‘if you are good enough and work hard enough it will come’. It was the best piece of advice I’ve ever had.