Pieter Hugo

Pieter Hugo, Cape Town, 2004 (click pic to go to his website)

Photography’s strength is not in straight, historical documentation. This is because photographic truth is always a distortion of reality. To accept the reality inside a photograph as actual reality is to negate the unique and important relationship between the photographer and the viewer. Pieter Hugo has added, saying, “The power of photography is inherently voyeuristic, but I want that desire to look to be confronted.”` This is an attitude with pedigree; one which many photographers, as opposite as Graciela Iturbide and Ansel Adams, adhered to in some degree, but Hugo pushes the example one step further. In the photographs of his home continent of Africa, Mr. Hugo seems to question the role of his viewers (and himself) in the situations that he photographs, and although his images often seem exotic, it is impossible to avoid experiencing an underlying human connection to the pictures. In an Aperture story“ on the photographer, Bronwyn Law-Viljoen quoted the novelist John Fowles to explain this phenomena: “All human modes of description (photographic, mathematical…) are metaphorical. Even the most precise scientific description of an object or a movement is a tissue of metaphors.”“` Law-Viljoen commenced to add, “Hugo understands that a photographic metaphor, a way of describing something through reference to something else, is created as much by the elements inside the frame of the image itself as by the carefully chosen distance, what I have called the critical zone, from the photographer’s lens to his subject. It is within this zone that Hugo maneuvers through the muddy waters of political engagement, documentary responsibility, and the relationship of these to his own aesthetic.”

Pieter Hugo was born in Cape Town, South Africa in 1976. He taught himself photography after receiving his first camera as a 12th birthday present. This was in the fading light of the era of apartheid in his country, and the resulting conflicts and general mood of excitement mixed with reservation propelled him to begin photographing his environment. He soon experienced the stigmas associated with being a white photographer in a black country. “My homeland is Africa, but I’m white. I feel African, whatever that means, but if you ask anyone in South Africa if I’m African, they will almost certainly say no. I don’t fit into the social topography of my country.”~ Hugo’s early photographic exploits led him into photojournalism, where he first accepted the limitations of photo-documentation. “People didn’t have much time for photography as an art form. Photographers usually sat within a liberal camp and used their skills to articulate the political reality- anything less was thought frivolous….[working as a photojournalist,] I would get a brief along the lines of: ‘Go to Rwanda and find a girl who was raped during the genocide and has a child who has AIDs but is receiving antiretrovirals and is leading a happy life.’ It was absurd.”* It was realizations from this point in his career that finally encouraged him to pursue a deeply personal and more artful look at the Africa outside his door. He began by focusing on its colorful subcultures with a newly acquired, used Hasselblad.

Regina Kambule, Johannesburg, 2003

First exhibited in 2004 as “The Albino Project”, Hugo’s “Looking Aside” series forces the viewer to observe, directly and unmediated, people who under normal circumstances we are instructed by cultural mores to “not stare at”. These photographs take the simple but effective approach of isolating the subject in front of a nondescript, white background, under undramatic, even lighting. This forces a tete-a-tete between the viewer and the person photographed, resulting generally in a feeling of inescapable discomfort for the one viewing the images. The photographer hopes to force you to question what it is, about people who are different than you, that makes you feel this way. Of course, this concept has been explored elsewhere by other photographers, most notably, Richard Avedon and Diane Arbus, but the degree of “otherness” represented in the subjects put forth by Hugo expands and twists the dialogue established by past photographers. Arbus once remarked, “You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw.”** With this body of work, I think that Hugo’s statement is a bit apart; something more along the lines of, “You see someone so different from you on the street and essentially what you notice are the flaws in your self.”

Gatwaro Stadium, Genocide site, Kibuye, Rwanda

Also first exhibited in 2004, “Rwanda 2004: Vestiges of Genocide” explores the scar left by the 1994 genocide of up to one million people in the central African country of Rwanda. This 100-day long massacre between the country’s minority Tutsi and majority Hutu populations was the culmination of decades of ethnic cleansing and genocide perpetuated between the groups. At the time, the Tutsi faction was in control of all major infrastructures within Rwanda, and the Hutu uprising represented a retaliation of sorts for many years of suppression. Nonetheless, the retaliation was beyond brutal. “Tutsi men, women, and children were massacred in the Red Cross refugee camps where they sought protection. Tutsi patients and staff were hacked to death in a hospital as foreign doctors watched. Tutsi families huddling for sanctuary inside a mission were blown up with hand grenades, then doused with gasoline and set on fire; the few survivors who tried to run away were cut down with machetes. Estimates of the number dead ranged as high as half a million [later raised to a full million], whose blood and bodies literally flowed out of that small, beautiful country. Sweeping along the muddy Rusumo River into Tanzania, ‘piles of corpses bobbed like rag dolls,’ according to a reporter for Newsweek. Authorities in Uganda estimated 10,000 bodies had washed down the Kagera River, out of Rwanda and into Lake Victoria, where they washed up against Ugandan shores.”*** In his series of photographs, Pieter Hugo explores genocide sites, locations of mass graves, places of defacement, and even the preserved remains of individuals fallen in the massacre. The resulting pictures have a sort of elegiac quality, but one which simply presents the evidence left behind in a manner meant for individual contemplation or reflection that does not necessarily attempt to sway history in either direction. This is inline with Hugo’s self-description as a “political-with-a-small-p photographer”; something that is more or less inevitable when taking pictures that focus to any degree upon the complex cultural heritage of Africa. This is a point of view that Hugo has returned to over and again in his work. One which would concur with Eudora Welty’s self-assertion, “My continuing passion, would be not to point the finger in judgment but to part the curtain, that invisible shadow that falls between people, the veil of indifference to each other’s presence, each other’s wonder, each other’s human plight.”+

Martie and Morkel Smith, their son Stephen and his fiancée Illze Venter with their dog Snooze

In 2006-2007, the photographer exhibited three, new bodies of work, one of which, would place him permanently on the international stage. “Messina/Musina” refers to the colonizers’ mislabeling of a town established by the Musina people. This is significant because it hints at the breakdown of race relations in this place where black Africans and white Africaners coexist. “It’s a fraught place,” said Hugo, “Continually, I met the most racist people I’d ever met in my life…I met people there whose racism would normally give me immediate reason to get up and walk out of a room…However, the most integrated bar I’ve ever been to in my life is the only bar in Musina….The barman at this establishment imparted some wisdom: ‘What you eat and drink, you leave in the toilet. What you put in your heart, you take to the grave.’”++ Hugo’s photographs of this place weave a complicated web, one that illustrates an obviously working-class community in a town seemingly on the border of civilization. His images betray the traditional notion of Africa as a picturesque, natural paradise, where everything is ordered and the landscape is unaffected by human intervention. Speaking of his pictures in this series, Hugo commented, “What’s interesting to me is that there is this stereotype of how Africa gets depicted- a baobob [tree] with a sunset behind it. And this is not, of course, what it’s like at all. People fuck the trees up, carve their names into them. It’s not a whitewashed, idealized view of the African landscape.”+++

Abdullahi Mohammed with Mainasara, Lagos, Nigeria, 2007

“The Dog’s Master” or the “Hyena & Other Men” is Hugo’s best known work to date. The images in this series reflect the culture of the Gadawan Kura, Hausa for “hyena handlers/guides” (roughly).^ The boys and men in these photographs live in the West African country of Nigeria, and travel from town to town. Parading the animals through urban areas provides the handlers with income; essentially, this is a creative solution to a common economic problem within the country. However, the images go beyond mere depiction. They hint at mankind’s subversion of the natural world for its own purposes. Said Hugo, “The motifs that linger are the fraught relationships we have with ourselves, with animals and with nature.”^^

Emeka Uzzi, Enugu, Nigeria, 2009

Also in 2007, Hugo first showed a slightly lighter-hearted and somewhat surreal group of photographs entitled, “Nollywood”. These pictures show actors of the famous Nigerian film industry in costume and juxtaposed against common urban settings. “In Africa, Nollywood movies are a rare instance of self-representation in the mass media.”^^^

Ibrahim Sulley

Most recently, in 2010, the photographer embarked on a mission to bring his unique viewpoint to the slum of Agbogbloshie in Ghana (referred locally as Sodom and Gomorrah). This settlement borders an enormous dump for much of the western world’s discarded electronics. Here the residents survive by scavenging raw materials from the detritus, but are exposed as a result to noxious fumes and dangerously high levels of lead, mercury, thallium, hydrogen cyanide and PVC.# “The UN Environment Program has stated that Western countries produce around 50 million tons of digital waste every year. In Europe, only 25 percent of this type of waste is collected and effectively recycled. Much of the rest is piled in containers and shipped to developing countries.”## The resulting images evoke an unsettling feeling of desperation rooted in the collapse of the environment. The dump and surrounding slum appear to reference a potential outcome for a humanity that continues to behave carelessly with regard to the natural world. One which values commodities like digital information over sustaining the ecosystem, a value system proven by the pictures to be ultimately evanescent.

Spoek Mathambo’s Control (Joy Division cover); Directed and shot by Pieter Hugo & Michael Cleary

The Italian scholar, Claudio Magris, wrote, “Squalor has a mysterious majesty of its own.”### This, along with Camus’ declaration, “No man is a hypocrite in his pleasures.”$, can be singularly applied to Pieter Hugo’s work. He makes no qualms about choosing tough subjects because they appeal to him as an outsider, and offers no solutions to the problems represented. “I’m interested in people. If I’m interested in people, then there is some aspect of humanism present. But there is an array of human experience, a spectrum of emotions- not all of them are going to be benevolent.”$$ To atone for the lack of resolution in the stories that his pictures reflect is not his mark; further, to focus on it is to miss his point altogether. “I think that [when the work makes people feel uncomfortable] it relates to the way people usually photograph Africa, which is either about suffering and misery or a beautiful baobab at sunset. I think most things that show some kind of complexity or nuance about a particular culture have the capacity to make people uncomfortable. They have to acknowledge that their lives- and photography- are much more complex than is usually represented. I don’t think art has a responsibility to be pretty.”$$$

-Bibliography-
`”Africa united: Photographer Pieter Hugo casts a new light on tired stereotypes of his home continent”; The Independent; 2011.
“ Bronwyn Law-Viljoen; “Pieter Hugo: The Critical Zone of Engagement”; Aperture, Spring Issue; 2007.
“` John Fowles; The French Lieutenant’s Woman; 1969.
~ Sean O’Hagan; “Africa as you’ve never seen it”; The Guardian; 2008.
* “Africa united: Photographer Pieter Hugo casts a new light on tired stereotypes of his home continent”; The Independent; 2011.
** Susan Sontag; On Photography; 1977.
*** Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson; Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence; 1996.
+ Robert Hirsch; Seizing the Light: A Social History of Photography, 2nd edition; 2008.
++ From interview with Joanna Lehan, co-organizer of the exhibits, “Triennial of Photography and Video” at the International Center of Photography in 2003 and 2006.
+++ From interview with Joanna Lehan, co-organizer of the exhibits, “Triennial of Photography and Video” at the International Center of Photography in 2003 and 2006.
^ http:www.pieterhugo.com/the-hyena-other-men
^^ http:www.pieterhugo.com/the-hyena-other-men
^^^ http:www.pieterhugo.com/nollywood
# Result of a 2008 Green Peace soil examination.
## http:www.pieterhugo.com
### Walker Art Center; From Here To There: Work of Alec Soth; 2011.
$ Albert Camus; The Fall; 1956.
$$ From interview with Joanna Lehan, co-organizer of the exhibits, “Triennial of Photography and Video” at the International Center of Photography in 2003 and 2006.
$$$ From interview with Joanna Lehan, co-organizer of the exhibits, “Triennial of Photography and Video” at the International Center of Photography in 2003 and 2006.

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