Richard Billingham - Art as Coping Strategy?

I had never heard of Richard Billingham before and watched an artist talk in which he talks about his work and how he became a photographer. Billingham started taking photos of his father in order to have material to turn into paintings. From there on he photographed his family and the life they lived. Billingham's father was an alcoholic, unemployed and in a complicated relationship with his mother. The images give a very intimate insight in Billingham's parents, the way they lived and their relationship. After these projects Billingham went on photographing landscapes, his home town and animals in the zoo. 

What struck me most about the way Billingham talks about his work, is the distant, formal and non judgemental approach he has towards his own family. I kept on wondering how it was possible to speak in such a matter of factly way about an obvious troubling childhood, full of problems and struggles. Billingham talks about art being a way to escape his life. How he would go to the library as a child and look at paintings all the time. Even when he is photographing and filming his own family, he focuses on 'thinking formally, always trying to make a picture'

In the beginning of the talk, Billingham mentions that the concept of prison was appealing to him in the sense that in his parents' home, everybody could always just walk in and out without questioning. I think that this is reflected in the subjects that he photographs as well, like his father who stayed in a room, the behaviour of animals in prison and even the landscapes at night. 

Billingham's non-judgemental and formal approach to his work makes him almost seem indifferent to his own emotions and experiences of the situations that he photographs. I feel that besides his work being a narrative about his family, the quality and formality of working also show that the making of the work itself was a way for him to rise above his upbringing and childhood. 

In answering the question whether in his work he breaches the privacy of his family and whether it effects him personally, he answered that he hopes that 'the subject matter is protected by the quality of art'. In other words, you can rise above your emotions and personal attachments by creating good art. He said that 'he does get sad when he looks at the images that were not published and displayed'. When the form and quality of the images are not there, the guard of art falls away and he starts to feel his inner emotions and pain. 

Chobi Mela VIII (2013) Richard Billingham: Artist Talk@ Chobimela VII. Available at: (Accessed: 21 March 2016).