Life viewed through a lens brings Héctor Bellerín renewed perspective

Héctor Bellerín remembers the epiphany he experienced after speaking to a friend who, partly through working with art, had overcome mental health troubles. “That experience was very powerful for me,” the Arsenal defender says. “I really saw art very differently after that. I used to pass by and say I liked things, but then I started to analyse the meanings more.”

It has been a valuable resource over the past two years. Bellerín was only just getting back into his stride after a nine-month layoff with a ruptured cruciate ligament when football’s Covid-19 shutdown hit last March, but he felt better equipped to deal with another gaping chasm in his calendar.

“The injury was such a wake-up call in my life: I’d never had an injury or experience like that,” he says. “What was most important for me was to accept the situation straight away and look for things I used to enjoy and hadn’t done for a long time. We all have such busy lives and people usually put their hobbies and the things they enjoyed when they were younger to one side.”

For Bellerín, whose wide range of off-pitch interests is well documented, that partly entailed an immersion in artistic pursuits. As a child he would draw with his mother for hours on end; now that particular talent was revived. Meanwhile, his girlfriend had bought a point-and-shoot film camera and, during those barren days between rehabilitation sessions, he found himself inseparable from the apparatus.

“It was like one of my companions throughout my injury,” he says. “It did a great deal for me and brought me a lot of happiness in those moments. Whether I am going on a walk or going to the grocery store, I always carry it with me because I like to snap things that I just see around me.”

The point the 26-year-old wants to make is that, in the hustle of everyday existence, it can be all too easy to dabble in new skills rather than master them. He used to be as guilty as anyone. “I see one day someone playing piano and suddenly I want to play piano – I play for two weeks and then I give it up,” he says. “Nowadays we have cameras on our phones and digital cameras, but I’ve been trying to live my life a bit slower than how we live it now and using film photography gave me that slowness. If I want a picture, someone has to manually develop it and turn it into what it is. I really like the slowness of that process – it’s almost handcrafted.”

He speaks lovingly of that procedure and the thought it entails, as opposed to “just picking up a phone and taking loads of photos”. Lockdown has, he feels, offered a chance to recalibrate and embrace a more considered, considerate way of living. Bellerín was no more immune than anyone else to the churn of the working week and, given the fixture pile-up footballers have faced since September, it has reared up fully once again. But he senses a cultural change that society must not let slip from its grasp.

“I feel like a lot of people were caught up going through life but not really living, and this has given us the opportunity to realise so many things and put things into perspective,” he says. “It’s a really hard situation and a lot of negativity has come from it, but we can learn so much from it too and turn it into a positive for the future. I hope we can really learn from this that the way we were living our lives before wasn’t the right way of living. To be more mindful of our communities and not so selfish in ourselves.”

Bellerín recently co-curated a collection of photographs taken by Syrian children living in the Za’atari refugee camp, as part of a Coaching For Life programme run by the Arsenal Foundation and Save the Children. The youngsters were given instant cameras and asked to document their lives in a project marking 10 years since their country’s devastating war began. Arsenal players have contributed to football-related programmes at the camp but Bellerín is keen to help inhabitants broaden their range of interests.

“When I had to stop playing football, photography was something that took me away,” the Spaniard says. “For the children, it’s also giving them the opportunity to see that outside of football there is so much more you can do. It’s a great way for them to learn that side of themselves because when you just play football or just stick to one thing, you don’t see all the possibilities you have as a human to develop yourself in other ways.”

Art can “help you become better”, he believes, as long as you take enjoyment from it. That is something he did not necessarily have much chance to consider while coming through at Barcelona’s La Masia production line and then, at 16, moving to north London. “I feel at my age, being on the journey I’ve been on, I had to sacrifice a lot in my childhood and teenage years,” he says. “I’m so happy with how it all worked out, but I also look back sometimes and wish I could have had a little more fun than I did.”

The extent to which football and art are, in fact, intertwined resonates when Bellerín explains what he finds most beautiful about the latter. “As the creator you can mean one thing, but the viewer can bring whatever perspective they want to it,” he says.

That may become apparent when he scrolls through the reactions to Arsenal’s next turbulent 90 minutes; if a little pause for thought is injected into the football sphere then Bellerín may, in a roundabout way at least, begin to get his wider wish.