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Johny Pitts, Home Is Not A Place (2022)
Johny Pitts, Home Is Not A Place (2022)Photography Johny Pitts

Johny Pitts’ photos capture the beauty of Black British culture

In his rich and evocative images, the Sheffield-born photographer explores ‘how complicated this country is’

“For me, home is like a vibration,” photographer Johny Pitts explains. “Not to sound new age about it, but home is a feeling. More than anything, it’s the people around you… your friends, your family, and your community. I came up in the 90s, in a specific part of Sheffield. Everybody’s left and moved on, so every time I go back, it feels a little bit less like home because the people that I call home aren’t there anymore.” 

Reflecting on this diffuse notion of home – and how it intersects with identity, community, and memory – is at the heart of the acclaimed photographer’s latest project, Home Is Not A Place – a travelling exhibition and book (published by Harper Collins). Collaborating with poet Roger Robinson, the pair spent a year together in a Mini Cooper touring the British coastline seeking out manifestations of Black British culture. 

In a conversation over Zoom, Pitts explains, “I began by thinking about Black Britain. Britain is such a strange, amorphous thing. And the notion of Blackness is really quite an abstract concept, and trying to apply that to a landscape is tricky. I knew we couldn’t be definitive because that’s just an impossible task, but we could try and tell an interesting story that has maybe been left out of British consciousness and even, in some ways, Black consciousness.” 

Beginning in London and following the Thames out toward the sea, their tour traced the county’s furthermost edges, from Margate to Land’s End, to Glasgow and John O’Groats, excavating the histories and stories of Black Britishness. “I felt we needed an itinerary for our journey. Paul Graham's book A1: The Great North Road (1983) tells a really coherent story of Britain, photographically, by just looking at this one road,” Pitts tells Dazed. “I thought, ‘What if we circumnavigate the coast?’ We began in London and we tell the story of Brixton and Peckham where I live, but then we go along the River Thames out to Gravesend where Pocahontas is buried, then to Tilbury where the Empire Windrush docked. That’s usually where the story of Black Britain begins and ends but, of course, there were Black communities before the Empire Windrush arrived, and there are Black communities who are making Britain their home now. So, to tell that story, we just continued on and went clockwise around the coast… Bristol, Liverpool, Somali dockworkers in Cardiff, all these stories that emerge.”

Below, Johny Pitts shares the circumstances of one particular image from Home Is Not A Place. The picture (featured below) holds particular significance for the photographer, who describes in his own words why he felt so compelled to pick up his camera to capture this particular scene of everyday life and how it encapsulates the complexity of the UK. 

“Konica occurs a lot in my work, I use it as this haunting logo and motif. I have memories of briefly living in Japan as a child with my parents, and they would always use Konica film. I remember this commercial, ‘Konica colours are calling me’ – this really vibrant 20th-century optimism that never quite worked out. I see Konika as indicative of this failed optimism; this globalisation that became transfigured into something different. But Konica, through its colour wheel logo, seemed a story of togetherness and promised the 21st century was going to be multicultural bliss. 

“This is one of the few photographs on our coastal trip that was really researched in advance. I couldn’t believe it when I was wandering around Gillingham and I saw this massive Konica sign. It was a photo lab that’s been defunct since the 2000s. I went back on a few different occasions to think about how I might photograph it and what I noticed is that very often it was members of the Black community who were using it, especially West African people going in and getting photographs done for passports. It made me think of the notion of borders. 

“I waited for the longest time and then I saw this couple. The guy was waiting outside and I saw her coming out. When I took the image, I was like, ‘Oh my god, that is the image.’ I went up to them and said, ‘I just took your photograph. Do you mind? Can I use it?’ So we shared details and I sent them a copy of it and they were happy. 

“Outside of the big cities you get this other Britain that has its own colour and its own challenges... I suppose I wanted to capture some of the hinterlands of Britain” – Johny Pitts

“If you look closely you can see it says ‘Kent’s premier imaging centre’. But what I love about that image is that most people see it and think this is an image taken somewhere in Africa, because you can still find these Konica photo labs all over India and places in Africa. I love the fact that this is Britain now, but it could also be Lagos. It just shows how complicated this country is. And I think that’s why sort of really resonated with me.

“Outside of the big cities you get this other Britain that has its own colour and its own challenges. That was one thing that was scary actually, for me, was just seeing how so much of this country is just like a carcass. After ten years of austerity and the Coronavirus, it's just like dead high streets… betting shops, Poundland. Once you get out of London, it’s amazing how many places are like that. I suppose I wanted to capture some of the hinterlands of Britain – the small towns and the high streets.

“These landscapes are so ephemeral, so I wanted to capture some of the independent commerce still trying to cling on and survive. I think about that a lot when I’m taking photographs. St. Paul’s Cathedral or the houses of Westminster, all of the narratives they suggest will be preserved for centuries. Whereas these little places that are important for the Black community – not just the Black community, but for working class people – they’re not always preserved. So it feels important for me to document these spaces while they’re still here.

“These landscapes are so ephemeral... so it feels important for me to document these spaces while they’re still here” – Johny Pitts

“I wanted to think beyond only photographing people or, when I do photograph people, it’s important that the backdrop is suggestive of something as well and that we think about those layers and spaces where these hidden histories have taken place, even if we can’t always see them clearly. The great thing about taking a photograph is it allows you to just ponder and to look really carefully. They are like these fragments of the past that sometimes get lost to history, but if you look closely enough there’s an echo that’s still there. Capturing that echo is really what my work is all about.”

Home is Not a Place by Johny Pitts and Roger Robinson will be published by Harper Collins late September 2022. The exhibition by Johny Pitts [commissioned by Photoworks for the inaugural Ampersand/Photoworks Fellowship] will be exhibited at Graves Gallery, Sheffield Museums, from August 11 until December 24 2022 and Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, March 9 until June 10 2023.