God's Promises Mean Everything: Filmaker And Photographer Mark Chapman Talks To Mag North

This capitalist system can be destructive
Colin Petch
May 9, 2024

The debut photobook of acclaimed North-East photographer, filmmaker and academic Mark Chapman, God's Promises Mean Everything is released today – published by internationally renowned Dewi Lewis Publishing, who over the past 30 years have published countless classic photobooks - including works by world-leading British and international photographers such as William Klein, Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, Martin Parr and Richard Billingham.

The book launched with this month’s Photo London as its backdrop, is described as ‘an immersive long-term character portrait that extends over seven years – but limits its perspective to a single room’.

It is much more than that. It is a book that we all need to see.

God’s Promises Mean Everything – and the project which led to its creation, seeks to reveal the hidden reality of our towns and cities. Haunted by the spectre of the family he lost, Derek – a Teesside hostel resident lives without the safety nets many of us take for granted. Significant life choices – involving financial difficulties, mental and physical health – are always close to the surface. The book is a personal, empathetic portrait of a man trapped in difficult circumstances. A story of disconnection and loss, but also of survival and daily rebellion.

The cover of 'God's Promises Mean Everything'. A photobook by Mark Chapman

Mag North talked with Mark Chapman recently in a café off Newcastle’s opulent Georgian Grey Street – a world away from a Wearside hostel – but at the same time, painfully close:

“Camrex was the second project with Derek and God’s Promises is the third. I like this idea of developing characters across projects.  

“I was shooting a topical project [at a notorious homeless hostel] and I just found Derek. He was always on the periphery basically. The guy who I had devised the idea around, was too drunk to take part – which is understandable – given [the residents are often] people with chaotic lives, histories of criminality, mental health issues, substance issues. I had to rethink the project and Derek was one of the people who just emerged.

“He was always on the periphery and was very striking looking, with his long hair – but he's very shy. We got talking and he was intrigued.”

Chapman explains that as a photographer or filmmaker, there is a constant search for a subject who will be invested in a project – hopefully guaranteeing they'll see it through.

'God's Promises Mean Everthing'. A photobook by Mark Chapman

Camrex was released in 2016. But why that hostel? Why Sunderland? How does a project like this materialise?

“I was doing lots of street casting at the time for a BFI-funded feature film called Bypass. Basically, I was just going up [to people] on the street saying: 'Do you want to be in a film?' I was looking for anybody I thought was suitable for the world of that story.

“We were working on a Gangland thriller – and it's typically in urban areas where we might unearth somebody who’s experiences we could draw upon for the characters. As part of that process, I was going into hostels – I was working with Addiction Services. I was working with the Police and the Fire Service. We went quite deep.

“A project like that is long term and I got to know the environment I lived in, in a more intimate way than I had before. I visited a few homeless hostels – one of which was Camrex House. It has a real reputation in Sunderland.”

When the feature project had ended, Chapman subsequently returned for an accompanying photography project. which then turned into his short hybrid documentary Camrex. It was then that he says relationships with residents developed further.

“Camrex ended up being a long-term investment. You're not jumping in doing a job and dropping it. I can’t spend a couple of hours and say that I've told somebody's story. I think you need more to really get below the surface of things, because people present themselves in a particular way: I’m doing it now – I’d probably act quite differently if I'd known you for a year. This is how humans interact, so you get to a kind of deeper truth and that's important with what I do, because I don't just turn on the camera – it’s not observation.

“It's me having ideas about who they are and interpreting these people's lives to conceptualise a film or photography project. It's important to know who they are, to interpret who they are. Otherwise, it lacks the ethical stance. I think a strong project needs that.”

Camrex was released in 2016. After the Camrex project Chapman lost touch with Derek, due to Camrex House closing. An appeal to the Probation Service (to try to reconnect) because he was aware Derek had been involved with them, proved fruitful:

“Derek’s Probation Officer got in touch – and I visited him at his new hostel in Teesside.

“This project [God's Promises Mean Everything] is set in one room across seven years. That's quite an intimate space – and it developed organically.”

'God's Promises Mean Everthing'. A photobook by Mark Chapman

How did the single room concept idea emerge?

“It developed as it went along. The uniformity of the space is what's really compelling about the book. We never go beyond that [the room]. There are very compelling stories also going on in the next room – but they’re immaterial.

“The title of the book was a misremembering of a tattoo that he's got on his arm and says: ‘Forever God'/Promises Mean Everything’. When I was thinking about titles for the book, I thought about something that was written on his body. The title that I misremembered was just a better title. But it also felt very personal to Derek. There's a lot of religious icons and items around the room – and I'd ask him about them – but he'd get very shy, so I didn't press him too much on it.

“One challenge is making the photographs visually interesting because as they're just in one space, they could be very repetitive. So, the biggest task I set myself was how do I make the space feel like a different room in every image? I don't know if I achieved it, but that was certainly the intention. And it does feel like this kind of expansive landscape to me when I look through the edit.

“He would just bring in stuff all the time and then get rid of stuff. The residents are trading stuff all the time. I'd go in and there'd be a fridge and it would be gone the next week. He’d been given a sofa and swopped something back.

“There was a TV that he would pawn for cash at one of these ridiculous [items for cash] businesses that are so exploitative. He'd be saving up to get that TV back, but it’s a cycle of him getting it back, taking it back in, getting it back. He's always chasing his own tail financially.”

Is there a message with this book? Is Chapman trying to say something specific? The adjective that might immediately come to mind for the reader is ‘Harrowing’. This work that holds up a lens to one distinct aspect of northern life is sadly beautiful, but harrowing.

“For me, when I talk about the project with certain people, all they see is the degradation. They don't see the humanity and that's problematic. It says a lot about the people who are viewing. I think [the book needs to reach out to] people who can see beyond that and see the character in the world. That's a healthy thing in terms of message, I guess.

“The main intention is to allow an audience to sit in somebody's emotional experience, and in that sense, there is an educational value to it. I hope it helps people be a little bit more empathetic about somebody's experience.

“Also, he looks fucking amazing, right? There is an interest in sitting in his world, in his emotional experience, sharing what he feels and seeing the value.

“It's more of an emotional message than anything else. Obviously through that you're trying to articulate other people's experiences, which has value in terms of that social education."

Chapman is clearly challenging himself to emotionally connect Derek’s experience with an audience:

“What I admire [about Derek] and what really jumped out at me when I was making this book, is his resilience. People take advantage of him sometimes and don't give him money back [that he’s loaned them] – because he's not very physically imposing. I try to make him physically imposing in the images, but in life he isn't really.

“I feel like it's worth doing to this project just to get his experience out there – and he is excited about the book.”

While Chapman isn't seeking to make an overtly political statement with this photobook, he is nonetheless.

“Hopefully it just gives people a deeper understanding of the world around them and how others live their lives. That in a sense, creates empathy. And that's the intention."

'God's Promises Mean Everthing'. A photobook by Mark Chapman

And who does the filmmaker photographer want to notice the book?

“Everybody. It would be nice if people who made decisions about those who are impacted by the living conditions in hostels saw it. I also want people who just like good photography and who have a sense of the art to enjoy the book, because again that's him able to transcend his everyday experience.

“Of course, it's this capitalist system that really is destructive for a lot of people's lives, I think it's stronger to give a sense of somebody's experience on that emotional level – and that's what photography – that’s what films will do. That's what I try to do.

“It's not 2.4 children for everyone – I've seen it again and again. The reality of someone in a hostel: It can be anybody. I've met people with PhD’s. I've met a lot of ex-military people, with a range of experiences. Because there are no adequate mental health and other supports services available – it just requires for you to have one or two ‘hits’ and no safety net underneath you.

“Derek lost his kid. He lost his marriage. He is in an environment we think we're far away from, but the reality is: if something devastating was to impact you emotionally – and because of that, you lost your job and because of that, you're then in a space like a homeless hostel – and because everybody's taking drugs, you might think ‘I'm going to try that, because they seem really comfortable and relaxed when they’ve taken it – and the anxiety is such that I need something like that’ – It’s a slippery slope. We don't realise how close it is."

'God's Promises Mean Everthing'. A photobook by Mark Chapman

And after the book, Chapman is committed to continuing to present an alternative view of the North-East.

“I guess it's because I don't see it anywhere. I see it in [the TV series] Vera, but do we get a sense of stories anywhere else? I don't. I just want to make work here. I can't really explain it in a deeper way than that: when I think of stories, I think of things here [in the North-East]."

Ahead for Chapman is a short film and he’s also developing a feature, both set in the region. With a working title of Truant, he explains that the feature filmwill be his biggest work to date – and possibly the culmination of the hostel project.

“It's specific for me – and goes back to questions of intention. It's specifically working-class stories that I'm interested in. I can work with Derek and the people around him in the hostel, because they're just like guys I grew up with in County Durham.

“I remember going to the Photographers Gallery [London] for the Chris Killip exhibition. He's an amazing photographer – and I was overhearing very posh Londoners commenting on the work and it just ‘clicked’: That's the only representation of the North-East that they might see, something that is many decades old.

“That's what they have in their mind: ‘Do they have electricity yet?’ So, I’m trying to tell more contemporary stories that give people a more nuanced, up-to-date understanding.”

Mark Chapman’s work can be found on his website HERE

Mark will be signing copies of his new book on Saturday 18 May, from 4.00 to 5.00pm at the Dewi Lewis Publishing stand at Photo London

‘God’s Promises Mean Everything’ is available to buy now HERE