The Reciprocated Gaze
On the Photographer Pieter Hugo
He points his camera where others look away: Pieter Hugo is interested in people on the fringes of African society, the outcasts and outsiders-albinos, for instance, or showmen who wander from city to city with their hyenas. Works from Hugo's series "Nollywood" are part of the Deutsche Bank Collection New York. Achim Drucks on Hugo's work and his portraits of the quirkily costumed actors of Nigeria's (bad) dream factory, where more films are produced than in Hollywood.
||Cruelty to animals: this is the frequent response people from Western countries have when they see Pieter Hugo's photographs of the Gadawan Kura for the first time. For his series The Hyena & Other Men, the South African accompanied itinerant minstrels traveling through Nigeria with their baboons, pythons, and hyenas. The animals serve to attract potential customers, because the group earns their living by selling traditional medicine. The men proudly present their wild animals, which they lead around on heavy chains. Some of these scary creatures are wearing muzzles, while others bare their impressive fangs. A pitbull seems like a harmless puppy next to a fully-grown spotted hyena: its powerful jaws can crack the femur of a giraffe or a hippopotamus. The Gadawan Kura retain control over these animals which for many Nigerians possess magical powers. To do so the men use herbs and amulets. But they also use heavy sticks to beat the hyenas and baboons when they don't obey.
"When I asked Nigerians 'How do you feel about the way they treat animals,' the question confused people," Hugo writes in a text on his project, which he made in 2005-07. "Their responses always involved issues of economic survival. Seldom did anyone express strong concern for the wellbeing of the creatures. Europeans invariably only ask about the welfare of the animals but this question misses the point. Instead, perhaps, we could ask why these performers need to catch wild animals to make a living. Or why they are economically marginalized. Or why Nigeria, the world's sixth largest exporter of oil, is in such a state of disarray."
Prior to any consideration of the socially critical aspects of these photographs, however, is the fascination they exert on the viewer. These are images that one does not easily forget, and this is not merely due to their powerful subjects. Hugo deliberately declines to show the group in action: the traffic jams in the streets, for instance, when the men take their hyenas out for a walk; the crowds and astonished looks. The spectacle. Instead, he takes portraits of the Gadawan Kura before or after their performances, always from a respectful distance and in full view. Hugo photographs the men in empty streets, beneath highway bridges, in the desolate no-man's-land on the outskirts of the big cities. He does not document moments winnowed out of everyday life; on the contrary, his photographs are orchestrated to lend the men and their animals an incredible, almost sculptural presence. Some of them seem as though they were from another time-mighty archaic warriors beamed into the present together with their "hellhounds." Others show a close, loving relationship between the performers and their animals.
In 1976, the series The Hyena & Other Men, which was later published as a book, made the photographer famous. But success also brought with it the accusation that he was exploiting his protagonists as the embodiment of the "exotic other." This misses the point entirely, however, because Hugo's working method gives rise to a far more intense relationship between people on both sides of the camera than happens with an ordinary snapshot. He uses middle- and large-format cameras; the setup they require automatically turns the photographic process into a time-consuming procedure that requires communication among those involved. The photographer has to convince people of his project in order to gain their cooperation. Hugo himself has voiced his response to the allegation of exploitation: "I reject that view utterly," he explains in an interview with The Observer. "There's always an element of condescension in it, the notion that the people I photograph are somehow not capable of making their minds up about being photographed. And, you know, it always comes from white, liberal, European people, which suggests to me that there is something essentially colonial about the question itself."
The hyena men live as a "traveling people" on the fringes of Nigerian society. Pieter Hugo is interested in outsiders like these-people and phenomena that cause many to simply look away. The photographer takes a closer look and even photographs in places of unimaginable horror. In 2004, ten years after the genocide in Rwanda, he documented the remaining evidence of the crime: landscapes with mass graves, mortuaries, churches whose floors were still covered in the victims' bones and clothing. These are subdued photographs whose reserve makes them all the more haunting. They try-as far as that's possible-to counter the terror with aesthetic consistency. The images of Hugo's series Rwanda 2004: Vestiges of a Genocide have just been published in book form, accompanied by a text by the journalist Linda Melvern, who has closely investigated the events of that time.
In 2004-05, for his project Looking Aside, Hugo made portraits of people we usually like to turn away from. The works are studio portraits resembling monumental passport photographs of the elderly, the blind, and albinos, the "white-skinned blacks" who are frequently discriminated against and often persecuted in Africa. One of the images in the series is a picture of the photographer himself, because Hugo regards himself as an outsider, as well: "My homeland is Africa, but I'm white," he says. "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 and that certainly fuelled why I became a photographer." Following a brief time as a photojournalist, Hugo realized that as a six-foot-tall white man, he brings a presence into many situations that makes it impossible to remain in the background as a "neutral observer." At the same time, the act of photographing and the power structures it implies seem more and more questionable to him. To this day, he ponders the broken relationship to photography and the medium's intrinsic mechanisms. He frequently states that his mistrust of photography goes deep.
During the Apartheid era, the medium primarily served to document South African society. Its goal seemed clearly defined: "Photographers usually sat within a liberal camp and used their skills to articulate the political reality-anything less was thought frivolous," says Hugo, who graduated from high school in 1994, the year the first democratic elections took place in South Africa. Following the end of white rule, the era of clear fronts was over. "Now we're in a completely different era, a different place. The complexities have become far more nuanced." Photographers react to this situation and increasingly depart from a "culture of realism" to find new ways to investigate themes such as politics, race, class, and gender roles. The wide diversity of photography in South Africa today can also be seen this year in the comprehensive show Figures and Fictions at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Along with Hugo, Guy Tillim, Sabelo Mlangeni, and Roelof Van Wyk are also in the exhibition, as well as Zwelethu Mthethwa, who has an entire floor in the Deutsche Bank Towers in Frankfurt dedicated to his work.
For Hugo, a departure from classical reporting in favor of working with middle- and large-format cameras was a decisive step on the path to his artistic projects. One of his key themes was clothing and costume: his portraits of black judges from Botswana in traditional British official garb-the red robes and white wigs-raise numerous questions, particularly in the mind of the Western viewer. How long will it take until it's completely self-evident that blacks can also wear the insignia of power? Why, in a former British protectorate, is authority still expressed through this kind of "uniform"? Do the judges seem especially dignified in their roles, or merely in costume?
Hugo's predilection for the surreal can be seen in his images of eccentrically costumed fans of the Orlando Pirates Football Club or the works from his series Nollywood, which are part of the Deutsche Bank Collection. These portraits celebrate a film industry that's hardly known outside Africa and the African diaspora-despite the fact that it surpasses Hollywood in terms of the number of films produced. Only India produces more films than Nigeria. As video CDs and DVDs, they're sold in the tens of thousands at a low price, which carries them to Africa's remotest regions.
Nollywood cinema is one of the few examples of African self-representation in the mass media. Cinematic art is not, however, part of the program here; instead, the branch is dominated by extreme dramas containing action, romance, or horror-or everything rolled up into one. Scenes are filmed on the street or on site, in the shortest period of time and with a minimal budget. The plots are based on traditional legends and gangster stories á la Hollywood, with themes like love, superstition, intrigue, prostitution, murder, AIDS, and cannibalism-and even corruption or Nigerian politics. The Nollywood aesthetic is garish, violent, and excessive. The actors don't just speak; they shout.
Hugo shoots his series in Enugu and Asaba, cities in the southern part of the country where numerous films are produced. Using local actors and make-up artists, he creates an ensemble of figures typical for Nollywood. Just as in the films, his photographs juxtapose everyday life with absurd staged scenes: a woman in traditional garb sits imperviously next to a half-naked demon with bloodshot eyes and devil's horns; axe murderers pose in the middle of traffic. Mercenaries, zombie families, and wolf men drinking cola inhabit a world suspended between terror and dark humor that mirrors the violence in a society riddled by ethnic and social conflict, the everyday chaos of Africa's most densely populated country. The images suggest a society caught in the tense relationship between archaic myth and urban life, as well as the incredible entrepreneurial spirit of a film industry that didn't emerge until the 1990s.
With his most recent project Permanent Error, the photographer turns back once again to real horror. Sodom and Gomorrah return in the form of Agbogbloshie, the part of town with a huge garbage dump in an outer-lying district of Accra, the capital of Ghana. This is where countless tons of digital junk from Europe and the USA end up; this is where children and youths earn a living by smashing old computers, monitors, and cell phones and burning them to get at the metals they contain. Low tech meets high tech; what remains is a tremendous amount of toxic waste.
Hugo's post-apocalyptic landscapes are both terrible and idyllic in a disturbing way. Cattle whose predecessors still grazed on grassy meadows not very long ago now rest between hills of electronic junk; today, the ground is covered in discarded computer discs. There are fires burning everywhere, and their dark smoke rises up to the sky. The boys work among the flames and toxic vapors. In a very direct manner, Pieter Hugo shows us the consequences of our way of life and production. But he shows far more than that. Like the hyena men, the judges, and the Nollywood actors, the children and men look right into the camera's lens and meet the photographer's and viewer's gaze. This gaze, the posture they assume before the camera, demonstrate the sense of self-confidence among the people of Agbogbloshie-their determination not to give away their dignity even under these brutal circumstances-certainly not to a camera.
Pieter Hugo - Permanent Error
December 1, 2011 - April 29, 2012
MAXXI - National Museum of XXI Century Arts, Rome
Pieter Hugo: This Must Be The Place - Selected Works 2002-2011
March 3 - May 20, 2012
Fotomuseum Den Haag