Gavin Preuss profile piece: Esther Lafferty follows the journey of an Oxfordshire photographer from war-ravaged countries to The Cotswolds.

Gavin Preuss is full of enthusiasm about staging his first exhibition, a photographic record of the delicacy of the natural world recorded in the wonderful local scenery, bright coloured flowers against a black background, and his delight in these tiny wonders within a lush English backdrop is clear.

‘I’ve been trying to capture the Cotswolds,’ he laughs. ‘Things become so familiar when we inhabit a place that we stop appreciating their beauty. My wife and I love walking in the English countryside, perhaps particularly as neither of us grew up here both were city dwellers originally. My wife was the daughter of a diplomat, living all over the world, and I grew up in the suburbs of Cape Town. Maybe that makes us see the countryside in a different way? And having the time and freedom to explore it seems an enormous privilege.’

‘Wherever I have gone, I’ve taken pictures of the things that are different from the familiar and so now it is interesting to capture intricacies of my home environment, a dragonfly or a blossom flower within a panoramic view, for example, real moments rather than perfection. ‘

‘I bought my first camera when I was eight, from a toy shop. It was made of plastic and had no focus or other capabilities. It took terribly blurred photos but I loved it. I’d always coveted my parents old Kodak which was too precious for me to use and it was a long time before I had a camera where I could control the aperture and shutter.’

‘My family was a working-class family, but being white in the 1970s gave you an automatic place. The culture of South African society at the time was racist and yet Christian too and I never questioned either belief system until I was in my early twenties. As my thinking broadened, and I increasingly worked with communities of all backgrounds I began to see the reality more clearly. I made some good black friends having never previously conversed with anyone from a different background, and slowly discounted the stereotypes white children in South Africa were fed at the time.’ This was the start of a journey away from religion and into activism.

‘I became involved in conflict resolution, training monitors, mediators and peace builders for the first democratic elections in South Africa. It was an incredible time. On Election Day I was presiding officer at a polling station. The queue was huge, over a mile long by the time we opened the doors. The first person through the door was a tiny wizened black woman with a walking stick and I wept: this was what people had been killing each other for and it had finally happened. It marked such a profound shift for so many people and I had such violent emotions, hope, excitement, anguish and shame for the past, and an overwhelming sense of relief.’

Gavin was running an organisation dealing with violence in KwaZulu-Natal, the bloodiest province in South Africa when he was offered a job for an NGO in Kosovo designing and managing projects to bring Serbs and Albanians together. He spent two years in the Balkans before becoming Oxfam’s Global Conflict Advisor, moving to the Oxford in 2003.

‘My wife and I loved it here from the moment we arrived, the freedom to move through the countryside and that feeling of safety relative to previous places, and the people too.’

‘I was meeting amazing people in the most conflicted corners of the globe, facilitating conversations between warring factions about how to move forwards despite savage histories. The key was finding the common denominator of humanity –asking what would make your own family safe and secure, and how do we take steps towards that goal? We built grass roots relationships with everything from football to agribusiness!’

These trips are documented in colourful photos, of people going about their daily business, perhaps taking a moment of peace in decimated places, or portraits of people living in areas of utter deprivation and yet humanity shines from their eyes.

‘I kept a camera slung over my shoulder and took photos as I went along as a way of sharing the stories. I wrote thousands of words in reports and recommendations but when a picture tells a thousand words, why not use it?’ says Gavin.

When Gavin’s time at Oxfam came to an end, he was offered roles in Sierra Leone and Indonesia but he made the conscious decision to settle here. ‘Although I loved seeing the world and working with people in difficult circumstances, I wasn’t enjoying being away from home. I have now lived in Balscote, a small village near Banbury, for eight years, and it’s the longest I have ever lived in any dwelling.’

Gavin and his wife now run their own company, Beyond Conflict, providing mediation and restorative justice services for local businesses and councils, and family group conferencing. In addition, Gavin has taken the time to focus more on his professional photography, which he loves.

‘Eyes are natural high-definition sensors, more amazing than any camera! The view and experience from these remarkable organs is often forgotten as people rush to capture their experiences on screen.’ This interest in how people see the world and try to place themselves in the bigger picture led Gavin to take a striking series of monochromatic shots of people with their selfies sticks and cameras within the landscape.

Gavin is a recent convert to digital photography, and most of his pictures have been taken using film. He bought his first digital SLR camera three years ago, joining Banbury Camera Club which was both inspirational and supportive with their advice.

Describing himself as a ‘portfolio careerist’, Gavin is also an occasional instructor at Shenington Gliding Club. ‘There’s a serenity in the sky,’ he remarks. ‘It gives you another perspective on the world which, seen from the sky, is bright and ultra-panoramic.’

Through a lens, through a philosophy and from a height, are three different views in which Gavin finds moments of beauty. A selection of his most recent photographs will be on show alongside previous series of images in St Mary’s Church, Chadlington from 21st-30th May as part of the Oxfordshire Artweeks festival (11 am-6pm; venue 345). For more information visit