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Interview Johny Pitts new Exhibition: “Home is Not a Place” explores notion of home

Interview Johny Pitts new Exhibition: “Home is Not a Place” explores notion of home

Johny Pitts is a British writer, photographer, and broadcast journalist. He was born in Sheffield, England, in 1978 to an African American father and a white English mother. Pitts’ diverse background and experiences have influenced his work, which often explores themes of race, identity, and culture.

Pitts is the author of the critically acclaimed book “Afropean: Notes from Black Europe,” which was published in 2019. The book is a travelogue and memoir that chronicles Pitts’ journey through Europe, exploring the experiences of black communities in cities such as Paris, Berlin, and Stockholm. “Afropean” was awarded the Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour in 2020.

In addition to his writing, Pitts is a photographer whose work has been exhibited in galleries across Europe. He has also worked as a broadcaster for BBC Radio 4 and has written for a variety of publications including The Guardian and The New York Times.

Pitts is a sought-after speaker and has given talks and lectures at universities, festivals, and cultural events around the world. His work has been praised for its honesty, insight, and thoughtfulness, and he is widely regarded as one of the most important voices in contemporary British culture.

In 2021, photographer Johny Pitts and poet Roger Robinson rented a red Mini Cooper and circumnavigated the British coast clockwise in search of Black history and communities. 

A majority of photographs in this exhibition were made between 2020-22. Pitts has included a few additional works dating back to 2010. They have been made using film cameras such as Yashica T4 and Konica Pop.

If you’re looking for a thought-provoking and visually stunning exhibition, look no further than “Stills” by Johny Pitts. This exhibition showcases a selection of Pitts’ photography, which explores themes of identity, culture, and place.

What sets “Stills” apart is the way that Pitts uses his photographs to tell stories. Each image is carefully composed and tells its own unique story, but when viewed together, they create a powerful narrative about the experiences of black communities in Europe. From portraits of individuals to candid shots of everyday life, “Stills” brings the beauty and complexity of black Europe to life.

Pitts’ photography is both intimate and expansive, capturing the nuances of human experience while also highlighting the wider social and political context in which they take place. Whether you’re a seasoned art enthusiast or just looking for a new perspective, “Stills” is not to be missed.

Overall, “Stills” is an exceptional exhibition that showcases the talent and vision of one of the most exciting photographers working today. If you have the chance to see it, I highly recommend that you do.

How did the union with Robinson come about and how does the creative energy work that you decided to embark on this together?

I’d known Roger for years, and we always had these great, sprawling, creative discussions, with various epiphanies along the way. I lent one of my photographs for the cover of his collection ‘A Portable Paradise’, and when I was living in Marseille, Roger came to visit for my birthday, and gave me a copy of Roy Decarava and Langston Hughes’s Sweet Flypaper of Life, which set off some light bulbs.  So this collaboration really felt like an organic fruition from our friendship.

So after taking the pictures how would you describe what is Black Britain in terms of what is captured in the exhibit?

Roger was approached by various publishers after A Portable Paradise won the TS Eliot Prize, and, not to sound cynical, but also the murder of George Floyd and the discontent that followed.  There’s no doubt that that collection, and possibly my book Afropean, both published in 2019, tackled some eerily prescient themes. Well, not for us, we were just on the ground reporting on the complexities of Black life, but I think publishers were looking for some answers in our work. There seemed to be an economy opening up for Black creatives in general that stemmed from the death of this Black man. I think it was important to Roger to use any opportunity that arose out of that moment to not merely provide the publishing industry with a tick for a diversity box, but take it somewhere new. So he suggested a collaboration with me – photography and poetry mixed in a way that didn’t serve the industry with what Roger calls ‘trauma porn’. The first thing I thought about was taking the notion of Black Britain out of its comfort zone, which is to say out of London. On a Geographers A-Z map I kept sketching various possible itineraries, and, beginning in Brixton, realised that one way out of London was along the River Thames, going East towards Tilbury Docks, where the Empire Windrush famously docked in 1948. But if you kept going clockwise out of the mouth of the River Thames, and followed the coast you had other obvious stories connected to the Black community out of places like Dover, Plymouth, Bristol, Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh. In the end you had a portrait not only of Blackness, but of Britain that was counter-intuitive, messy, hard to pin down. I think that’s where the beauty is.

When taking the pictures were there natural nuances and/uniformity?

In the book I wrote, with half a smile, that we went searching for brown skin in marine light and ended up with a colour palate that was more ‘kente cloth in fog’. And what I meant by that is you might find a Caribbean flag in a restaurant in Blackpool, or the Nigerian community coming out of a church in Thanet, and there would be these colours from the diaspora, but seen through a veil of British weather. So that was the uniformity – the bad British weather. It was important for me to capture that, and so in my images you see lots of rain, gusts of wind; a student’s tie blowing wildly, or someone standing by a bus stop in Edinburgh with their hair flying around. That  juxtaposition of the Black community in British weather, and a rejection of the sensational, was key.

What are the images that you found that spoke to you the loudest?

To be honest, this isn’t really a book of loud images – it’s a book of quieter moments, that don’t necessarily draw attention to themselves but hopefully demand repeated views. We live in an era of social media, where loud images rule the roost, so I wanted to provide, especially for the Black community, a moment to pause, sit and reflect. There are moment of joy and moments of melancholy, but in both cases I wanted this work to offer a place of contemplation. Two images in particular do this for me. One was taken in Glasgow, of a silhouetted man standing by a bus stop. In the left corner is what almost looks like some electric blue lightning, which is a mistake – I think it’s the remjet that hasn’t been washed off the Cinestill film properly. I began to really embrace those failures you get with film as an antidote to the overconfident notion of the ‘decisive moment’  you get in a lot of street photography. Another image I love, which is really banal, is of a green door I found in Dover. This door was for an NGO that had been defunct since 2010, called ‘Refugee and Migrant Justice’. Something about that door seemed haunted, and showed me that an image of the black experience doesn’t always need to take the form of a portrait.

What were the processes of these images and what made you want to take a picture?

When I read Roger’s poetry, I saw images, so that gave me the thought that with my images, I should try to make poetry. Except for a loose itinerary, a lot of the journey was unplanned, with us meeting people through chance encounters, and being introduced to other members of the community. What I didn’t want, however, was staged portraits, which we see so often when it comes to the Black community. Many of these images were taken when Roger and I were in the middle of a conversation with someone. At other times I took a photo of someone just walking by, though I was never trying to be ‘invisible’. Shoair Mavlian, who helped me edit some of the images, said she noticed in my work these ‘moments of recognition’, where somebody catches eyes with me and that’s when I’ve taken the photo. I like that idea – it reminds me of the ‘Black Nod’ you give to to other members of the Black community in a place you aren’t necessarily expecting to see a Black person.

How did you select what went into the exhibition?

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We went through a very thorough process when we edited the book. I printed out a wide edit of about 300 images and laid them out on a massive table at Harper Collins, then our editor Shoaib Rokadiya, and Shoair Mavlian and Raquel Villar-Perez (both then at Photoworks), Eddie Otchere (a great influence of mine), the poet Nick Makoha, Roger and I went through them all, picking our favourite 100 or so images and sequencing them. For the exhibition, we used the content of the book as a starting point and honed them further. It was so interesting – some of my favourite images in the book just didn’t speak in the exhibition, and some images that are key in the exhibition don’t jump out in the book. I learned a lot working with the Photoworks team putting this show together.

As a creative person do you think alternative narratives are being heard?

I think alternative narratives are being heard, but we have to be careful that they aren’t the ‘sanctioned alternative narratives’. What I mean is that as a Black community, when we get commissioned to do something, we are often having to deal with the expectations of someone who is not from the community, even if those expectations are all about ‘alternative narratives’. We must work very carefully to tell our truth, even if that doesn’t fit with the agenda of algorithms and market forces. I sometimes worry that work is being made under the guise of an alternative narrative that simply reinforces the mainstream.

How would you say Stills celebrate Black spaces?

That’s not a question for me to answer, but Ben and the team at stills have been very supportive of my ideas, and we’re working with Eunice Olumide, who is based in Edinburgh and some extra stuff to celebrate the Black community in the city. What I will say is that it’s my job to turn the gallery space into just that – a celebration of a Black space.

What did you shoot the images on and are there any processes you can share?

I shot most of the images on Cinestill 800T 35mm film, using a Konica Hexar and a Yashica T4. The few images on digital were taken on a Fuji X-Pro 3 with a Classic Chrome preset and a Leica Summicron 28mm lens which, when adapted for an APS-C sensor, works out to a focal length of about 40mm. 40mm is actually my ideal focal length.

Do you use a dark room?

I’m currently setting up my own dark room in my studio, but for this project some of the prints were made in a very makeshift dark room in Brixton with Eddie Otchere, others at Photofusion, also in Brixton. When it came to making prints for the exhibition, I went to the maestros. I got three handmade C-type prints done with master printer Chris Ashman on his last day at Artful Dodgers, and once we got the colours right for those prints, we used them to colour match the rest of the prints at Spectrum in Brighton.

Home is Not A Place Runs until 2 June 2023. The book, Home is Not a Place, by Johny Pitts and Roger Robinson was published by Harper Collins in 2022.

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