A.J. Pretorius was born in Pretoria, South Africa. Following undergraduate degrees in mathematics and multimedia, he pursued graduate studies in Europe. He holds a doctorate in data visualisation from Eindhoven University of Technology, the Netherlands. As a photographic autodidact, Pretorius is interested in the interaction between material circumstance and ideological context. He has lived and worked in Belgium, the Netherlands, South Africa, the United States, and the United Kingdom, where he is currently based. He shares his work and photography of a project, Unhome, that explores the psychological suspension between the familiar and the foreign. 

How would you describe your photography?

In the first instance, I make photographs to reconcile experience and patterns of thought. It allows me to develop a personal perspective – that is, a visual representation consisting of a series of photographs – relating to a theme of interest. I am conscious of the ambiguity of photographic communication – to a viewer, there are many plausible meanings. Consequently, I aim to produce an artefact consisting of a series of photographs that, to some extent, will invite reflection. The scope that photography offers to both creator and viewer to revisit their readings is certainly part of its appeal, however, the ability to frame the interpretation of my work more precisely is something I hope to develop further.

Second, the act of photographic production is also important to me. It offers a way to draw into question, and to defy role allocations and institutionalism.

Unhome, the project you are showcasing, depicts what you described as the sense of being ‘here, nor there’. You draw theories from renowned investigators, but I’m curious to know about your conclusions. What was the experience of this exploration, considering you, yourself, are an immigrant as well?

That relocation is taxing, especially psychologically. The state that you end up in – neither here, nor there – is tough and I think hard to conjure up if you have not been there yourself. I once saw an interview with the Dutch author and poet Ramsey Nassr, where he spoke of how immigrants are prone to start defining themselves in negations, which I think is an excellent description of what UNHOME is about. That is what I tried to convey.

Now, there is a tendency to portray immigrants, in particular the most desperate, as unwarranted opportunists. In Britain and elsewhere, promoting xenophobia often scores political points. Yet, if I as an immigrant with at least some economic means experience this degree of isolation and disorientation, I can hardly imagine what it must be like for the displaced. Can I even conceive of what it must be like to have set off with the clothes on my back, without the option to go “home” because it has been destroyed? This is an extreme scenario, but I question why someone like me should have the right to call himself an expatriate, placing myself in another category, in order to escape from the label of immigrant.

The concept of home has become very globalized. There was a recent Leica blog post about Syrian refugee homes, which reminds me of what you also suggest, the portrayal of immigration in contemporary discourse. What is your perception towards this topic?

Yes, Andrew Reed Weller’s photographs give a thought-provoking view of what “home” is to Syrian refugees. It also invites you to wonder what “home” must have been like before. To me, that is the tragedy.

In UNHOME, I chose not to represent immigrants as such, but rather what you could call the state of psychological suspension between the familiar and foreign. It is not looking at immigrants, but at the environment and actors in it as experienced by an immigrant. Although it is quite narrow in this sense, it is also personal and I hope that will afford some reflection on attitudes toward immigration.

Another point to make is that, although we talk of globalisation, despite the free movement of capital and its agents, severe constraints remain for the majority of the world’s population. These include systematic mobility restrictions.

As a data visualization scientist and photographer, you must have an inclination towards seeing things quantitatively, how can you compare both disciplines, photography and data visualisation?

It is true that both disciplines operate in the visual field. However, with data visualisation, there is a clear trajectory from problem to technological solution. It is a design-led discipline with strong links to the engineering tradition, where there is an underlying assumption that something can be done better and faster.

Photography is not about achieving better or faster. Rhetorically, it is in a different class. For instance, photography also says something about what is not depicted, like the homes that the subjects in Andrew Reed Weller’s project left behind. Photography means many different things to many people. It serves many modus operandi. As a result, compared to my visualisation work, photography requires a different, far more open-ended approach.

When setting out to work on this project, what was your main creative objective? What was your approach when taking these pictures?

I aimed to produce a coherent set of photographs that explores “unhomeliness,” the “here, nor there” that characterises relocation. My approach was opportunistic: the “raw” material for the photographs was what I encountered around me. I did not set out to assemble a comprehensive snapshot of immigration or immigrants; it was more about describing this state of suspension.

Of the people you documented, can you recall and share one or two stories that called your attention?

Many of the people I photographed remain strangers. And that is really the point. The sense of “unhomeliness” has a high hurdle associated with it. It is difficult to find your place, literally and figuratively, and to find the resolve to keep attempting to associate with people when your own status as stranger is continually reasserted. On the other hand, as immigrant you have also seen and experienced something that makes it difficult to relate to those you have left behind.

The Unhome book was recently published by Fast Foot Press, what was the curation process like, and what other plans do you have for the book itself?

The first major cull happens as soon as I upload photographs to my computer. At this point I select maybe 10% of the images that I feel have potential. For this, I largely trust my intuition and it is a relatively quick process. I then revisit these images over an extended period of time and more-or-less repeat this selection process. I will also start post-processing the remaining photographs; typically this involves light editing such as adjusting contrast and saturation. I rarely crop, and when I do, it is very limited.

I worked on UNHOME for about five years and was left with probably a hundred or so candidate photographs from which I made the final selection. Sequencing the photographs required a few revisits, because some choices are dictated by the physical characteristics of the book. For example, you ideally want to place a full spread at the centre of a signature, and two photographs positioned on opposing pages play off each other more than ones positioned overleaf. Simon Hawkesworth at Fast Foot Press gave very useful input and came up with a good scheme to add some dynamics to the book through the placement and sizing of photographs. We also had many constructive discussions about typography, paper stock weights, and so on, and their impact on the physicality of a book. It was an educational and really enjoyable experience.

You’ve used the Leica M9 in the majority of this project, can you describe your experience with the camera and its performance?

In my experience, it is a solid and reliable camera. I was able to develop a sense of what I could expect from the M9 relatively quickly and, as a result, I did not spend too much time being conscious of it. It is good size, it is straightforward to operate, and the way it renders my favourite 50mm lens has become a benchmark for me. I find that the photographs do not require much post-processing.

I’m curious about the with the gigantic, yellow excavator. Talk about being ‘out of place’. Why did you take this picture or what’s the story behind it?

It was taken in Antwerp, a city that was “home” for a few years and, you are right, the depicted scene is somewhat surreal. The digger seems malign and menacing at the same time, almost like a giant insect that, for the time being, chooses to behave. The people in the scene seem oblivious to it, barely noticing its presence in an otherwise deserted street, which creates an odd sphere. To me it depicts a sense of the disorientation that I mentioned before.

This also links to what I mentioned earlier about using photography to come to terms with circumstance and reasoning. At the time of making the photograph, I doubt I had time to really reflect on the “significance” of the scene. It somehow piqued my interest and I made the exposure in order to reassess it later. At that later point I saw that there was a stylistic, and rhetorical consistency with the theme I was exploring.

Lastly, what other projects are you working on in the pipeline and is there anything else you’d like to mention to the readers?

I am currently working on a project on the theme of “common ground”. This is ongoing work, but a key part of it involves two sites in a Northern English town.

The first is a community centre, where I made portraits of the people who use it. Initially, I was interested in how the centre as a public space enables a social dynamic. The second is a plot of scrub, wedged between old industrial buildings, a playing field, and marshland. Before the landowner abruptly fenced it off, it had served as shared public space for generations. Here, the vandalism and weathering of the “no trespassing” notices intrigued me.

There are larger issues that link these sites: the notions of public versus private, social currency versus financial capital, and of course, what constitutes common ground? It struck me how the intimacy of making the portraits – how I was able to find common ground with every subject – contrasts with the enmity directed at the notices – action born of outrage at what is perceived as a rash appropriation of common ground by an offshore holding company.

The project is intended as a provocation to highlight the tensions, contradictions, and questions raised by conflicting claims to shared physical and ideological space. I think it would work well as an exhibition, but I aim to also publish it.

Thank you AJ!

To know more about A.J. Pretorius’ work, please visit his official website and the book’s website.