Pieter Hugo’s photographs are problematic. That is part of their power and their resonance. He is a white South African who came of age as apartheid crumbled and, though he cites the great David Goldblatt as a formative inspiration, his photographs possess none of the powerful political thrust of an older generation of South African photographers, who had no choice but to deal with the harsh realities of the world around them.
“Hugo is known for his quasi-documentary images of contemporary sub-Saharan Africa,” writes the academic TJ Demos in an essay for This Must Be the Place, a retrospective of Hugo’s work. “Though, as we’ll see, the status of documentary is precisely what his portrayals put into question.”
As Demos points out, Hugo often works in, and undercuts, established traditions. If his portraiture questions the very validity of the portrait as a means of expressing anything meaningful about the subject, his human typologies – honey collectors, workers on a vast technology dump in Ghana, actors working in “Nollywood”, the Nigerian film industry – are notable, too, for the ways in which they comment on identity, belonging and self-expression in post-colonial Africa.
Hugo’s most famous – some would say, infamous – series, The Hyena and Other Men (2005–2007), consists of dramatic portraits of a group of Nigerian men, often in urban settings, who have captured and tamed wild hyenas and baboons.
Their life is a nomadic one, lived on the fringes of society, and they trade on myth – the still widely held belief that hyenas are reincarnated humans – and exoticism. But, as Demos points out, they are also “self-exoticising figures that define a mode of informal survival in the challenging economic circumstances of Nigeria’s urban periphery.” Here, the old and new Africa collide, as they do even more brutally in Hugo’s large format portraits of the young men who eke out a living among the discarded technology and toxic fires of the Agbogbloshie dump.
The photographs here are mainly taken from Hugo’s six published books and range from the stark studio portraits of South Africans with albinism, Looking Aside (2003–2006) to the ominously evocative landscapes of Rwanda: Vestiges of a Genocide (2011). The book culminates with a long series entitled Kin, South Africa, which features landscapes and portraits, including several of his family.
They evince a sense of belonging that his previous work could be said to question in various ways. What he is questioning most, though, is photography itself, its limits as well as its myriad, increasingly complex, strategies of representation.
Link – The Guardian