Master’s study culminates in poignant photographs of Pretoria

4 November 2020

Almost three years ago, when Hein Grové, a lecturer at the Department of Visual Communication (Photography), commenced his Master’s degree studies documenting images of an empty city, little did he know that these photographs will become so poignant during the time of Covid-19. Hein, who has just obtained his M Tech degree, titled Photographing a city as liminal space (cum laude), during the University’s Spring graduation ceremonies, says this photographic journey has shown him the beauty of the capital city and her people.

Hein Grové, a lecturer at the Department of Visual Communication (Photography), has just received his Master’s degree with distinction.

WHAT INITIALLY SPARKED YOUR INTEREST IN PHOTOGRAPHY, AND WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO MAKE A CAREER OF IT? I can ramble on about how I got my first Kodak camera; how it was meant to be blue and turned out to be pink when opening the box; that I was allowed one film per holiday as it “was expensive to develop;” how I subsequently made plans to convert a room in our house into a darkroom to save money doing the processing myself (which never materialised!); or how our first family digital camera made it possible to capture the world while “saving” money on processing. I can also mention the people at school who helped me to improve my photographs. But in reality, I wanted to do something creative that was different from what my friends were pursuing.   

TELL US MORE ABOUT THE TITLE OF YOUR DISSERTATION, ESPECIALLY THE MEANING OF LIMINAL SPACE? Let me explain with an example: When you are driving and get stuck in traffic, it does not matter whether you are driving a Porsche or an old VW Beetle. Everyone in that traffic jam is equal during the activity of commuting – a period of liminality. With long exposure photography, movement is rendered equal in terms of the object that starts to blur and even “disappear,” depending on the exposure length. While the long exposure blurs or “disappears” the movement of the subject (liminal activity), the space in which the liminal activity takes place becomes the focus –termed the liminal space. So, in essence, I captured activities in Pretoria during various stages of “disappearance” to highlight the city. Never did I think that these photographs of an empty city would become reality overnight with the advent of Covid-19 and subsequent lockdown measures.  

HOW MANY IMAGES DID YOU CAPTURE, HOW LONG DID THIS PROCESS TAKE, HOW DID YOU GO ABOUT IT, WHAT SPECIAL PHOTOGRAPHIC TECHNIQUES DID YOU APPLY, ETC.? I settled on 47 photographs for the final exhibition. Some consist of 18 combined photographs to depict my representation of the city. Because the photographs were captured digitally, ultra-long exposure (around 8 hours) would not be possible without a lot of digital noise. I used three techniques: Neutral density filters to reduce the shutter speed during daytime to blur movement, shoot on New Year’s day, early Sunday mornings, or during the lockdown, to get the city as empty as possible. Lastly, I used software applications to either reduce or remove movement through a combination of multiple photographs. I often combined techniques to achieve my vision.  

WHAT HAS BEEN THE MOST INTERESTING INSIGHTS THAT EMANATED FROM THE STUDY? Apart from the academic and photographic value, the kindness of people was overwhelming. Imagine a flamingo with a black turban and aviator sunglasses. This would be an accurate description of what I looked like while taking the photographs. I often spent large amounts of time in the same space to capture long exposure photographs, or readjusting the composition. I must admit, the flamingo would have been a less conspicuous scene! The camera on a tripod with a large mirror-like filter and cloth to cover it from light was overshadowed by me standing next to the setup with a timer in my hand, looking at everyone passing by. For the brave at heart or those with a healthy curiosity, the scene was too peculiar not to ask what was going on. I had numerous interesting conversations (often longer than the long exposures!) with people from all walks of life. I heard interesting stories, we shared photographic tips and talked about family and the beauty of the city. People also offered advice on where they think my next “shot” must be captured. This was often a valuable source of location scouting. I was introduced to a whole new side of Pretoria, one where I was not feeling anxious about crime, or litter in the streets. I was emerged in what makes a city intriguing, from the sounds of the accordion player entertaining people to the street vendors hustling cigarettes (Yes, during the lockdown!). Pretoria showed me her beauty – her people. 

It was a surreal experience to see my photographic representations coming to life during the lockdown. Now that we went through the brunt of the lockdown, I hope that people can relate more to my representations of the city, and see the beauty around us that we so often miss due to our hectic lifestyles. 

HOW WOULD YOU ENCOURAGE A CURRENT STUDENT TO PURSUE POSTGRADUATE STUDIES? Nissan had a slogan: Life’s a journey, enjoy the ride. This is so true about any studies. It is not so much about the paper at the end of the journey, but rather the skill, experience (including mistakes and how you recover from them), and, most importantly, the self-growth that you experience, realising that you are capable of much more than you actually think.   

YOU’VE OBTAINED YOUR QUALIFICATION WITH DISTINCTION. YOU MUST BE QUITE PROUD . . . I enjoyed the process so much that when I received the news I was very surprised, humbled, and relieved that other people saw the study in the same way I did.  

AS AN ACCOMPLISHED PHOTOGRAPHER, WHAT SUBJECT MATTER IS YOUR MAIN INTEREST, AND WHAT EQUALS A GOOD PHOTO? After three odd years of focusing on cityscapes, I enjoy photographing, or as photographers say, shooting (the word might cause panic) people. The energy that takes place between the photographer and sitter during a photo session is a feeling that can only be experienced. The moment you capture the fleeting, split-second where the combination of personality, beauty, lighting, and mood is in perfect harmony, is a unique privilege that this career offers. The emotion that a photograph evokes from the viewer is what constitutes a good photograph for me.   

WHICH PHOTOGRAPHERS DO YOU LOOK UP TO, AND WHY? The world is filled with amazing professional, amateur, and hobbyist photographers, but my inspiration comes from our students. Where else, but at TUT, will you find students that in the face of the lockdown, difficult situations, and restrictions on social gatherings, can still muster creativity, passion, and dedication to produce spectacular photographs? 

YOU RECENTLY ACQUIRED A DRONE LICENCE. TELL US MORE ABOUT THIS NEW FEATURE IN THE PHOTOGRAPHY CURRICULUM. What an interesting experience! The Remote Pilot Licence (RPL) tested my knowledge of aviation, engineering, science, coordination, and common sense to prepare me for the professional world of drone flight. Drones, undoubtedly, opened a whole new world of possibilities and benefits for photography, such as cost-effectiveness (just think about the cost to hire a helicopter). Also, portability provides the photographer in any genre with a powerful tool in our photographic arsenal. A drone allows the photographer to gain access to a previous elite clientele. The sky is literally the limit (pun intended!). We introduce the Advance Diploma in Commercial Photography student to the process of obtaining an RPL for commercial use, and the possibilities drones have in their respective fields of interest. This may offer them an advantage above their competitors.  

ARE YOU PLANNING A DOCTORATE? Well, I did quote Nissan before, so I guess I will enjoy the journey some more… 

  • The study was supervised by Dr Flip du Toit, and co-supervised by Prof Rudi de Lange and Dr Selma Schiller.

Some of the photographs that form part of Hein’s study, titled Photographing a city as liminal space.

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