"Leaving-Returning" Managing our absence from home

Hélène Jagot

Leaving home. Managing absence. Coming back.
A pattern that is constantly repeated, whether we’re working around the corner or travelling around the world.
What we take with us. What we leave. What we bring back.
Trying not to forget anything.
Making lists. Programming computer alerts. Leaving notes for ourselves.
Tasks that we repeat over and over again, that have become so automatic that we sometimes can't even remember if we finished them. Memory is tricky, time becomes elastic in these moments between two states: leaving, returning. What’s in-between? A trip, a journey, wandering - beings always on the move.

Hortense Soichet, a photographer, and Benjamin Pradel, a sociologist, took a closer look at the places we leave behind when we close their doors to go elsewhere, the places we call “home,” our “dwelling,” or simply our “house,” by questioning what our absence produces in them, how we manage the void created by our constantly repeated mobilities (work, leisure, travel), and which strategies we put in place to remain present even though we’re not physically there.
Born of an unprecedented collaboration between the Mobile Lives Forum and Leroy Merlin Source, two research institutes with complementary concerns – traveling and dwelling - the work of Benjamin Pradel and Hortense Soichet began at the end of 2017/early 2018 when the former’s sociological work on garages as intermediate spaces met the latter’s exploration of housing and ways of dwelling. Through this collaboration we could examine simultaneously issues of mobility and issues of dwelling by questioning what’s in-between: places where the inhabitants are absent.

To do this, they conducted 18 interviews among a wide variety of individuals. Benjamin Pradel led the interviews according to a predefined sociological method, while Hortense Soichet developed a specific methodology for her photography work. Before each interview, she contacted the inhabitants to get them to prepare objects related to their absence: keys, alarms, travel bags, basic necessities, official documents, plants that need watering, postcards, to-do lists, phones and laptops, favorite toys and lucky charms.... The challenge was to capture the inhabitants’ absence without photographing them. As such, objects necessarily became projections of their owners, like a kaleidoscope or an “Exquisite Corpse”. Moreover, by the choices they make, the inhabitants expose what they want to reveal from their interior, how they want to be perceived by the photographer, the sociologist, and perhaps even by the public who will see the pictures. It's all about perception and projection. What we associate with these places that cease to be "living spaces" as soon as they’re empty - without paradoxically becoming entirely devoid of life - leaves a trace of their inhabitants’ absence.

Hortense Soichet became like a field investigator, a detective, meticulously recording the evidence of how absence is managed. The framing is deliberately cropped; the powerful flash illuminates smooth surfaces; every detail is captured and archived by the photographer. The inhabitants’ absence reinforces this impression of looking at a crime scene. The collections of objects sometimes reveal the fantasy of a traveler, or the habits of an obssessive cleaner; empty closets and packed suitcases signal long-term departures; magnets on fridges, postcards spread out on a table and little notes stuck on doors bear witness to the inhabitants’ communications with each other. These contemporary still life tableaux depict different temperaments, life stories, yearnings to be elsewhere. Work and family life intertwine, holiday memories become anonymous, connected objects take over the territory while the others await their owners’ return.

Conducted over three years, this investigative effort took on various forms, from research reports to photographic portfolios, with the requirement of not making the other’s work illustrative, all the while making the most of the complementary sociological and photographic approaches.
The idea of completing their research by recreating ideal-types of homes, constructed from the corpus of dwellings, to better understand the various connections maintained by the absence from home, allowed them to interesect their experiences even more. By avoiding the pitfalls of a monographic approach per inhabitant/home - since each interview/photograph is dispatched within several ideal-types - they give their data an exemplary and universal dimension, able to involve all readers who will necessarily find reflections of their own personal and singular relationship to being absent from home, as well as their own way of living and mobility.

They identified seven ideal-types of “home,” based on the major themes that emerged from the residents’ interviews about how they manage their absence.
First of all, the “home of elsewhere,” filled with memorabilia reminding the inhabitants that they are resting here to go back there, which is the opposite of the “home on-the-go” that gets reinvented as mobility progresses, one that we take with us everywhere but that we can’t truly call “home.” From the luxurious motorhome to the travel bag, this “home on-the-go” reveals a preference for a life on the move, sometimes lived too fast. It’s closely related to the “working home” where the boundary between private life and professional life is blurred. A fluidity that is sometimes welcome, but sometimes alienating. As for the “autonomous home,” it’s like a connected version of the stone house in the tale of the Three Little Pigs: modern, reactive, protective, it secures its inhabitants by acting as a steward or a guardian. Sometimes, however, machines go on strike, make the wrong decisions or fail in their duty, becoming a source of disappointment, anguish or stress - even though they themselves are not sentient beings. The “shelter home” is the one we all want. A place to rest away from the agitation of the world and the frantic pace of our mobile and connected lives. A home for friends and family but also to be alone. A holiday home that we would return to every night. Then, at the opposite end of the spectrum is the “pivotal home,” at everyone’s service so much that it becomes impersonal, but that sometimes manages to become a “manifesto home,” the one that we build with others who share a commitment to giving life to a project.
All these living spaces often coexist in each of our “homes,” even though we aren’t aware of transitionning from one identity to another. By decoding our mobile lives in this study, Benjamin Pradel and Hortense Soichet open a door to the representations associated with our ideals for life, torn between here and elsewhere.

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