Pieter Hugo: Hyena and Other Men
@ Foam - Fotografiemuseum Amsterdam
September 2008

by Aaron Schuman

This essay was first published by Foam, in the exhibition catalogue for 'Pieter Hugo: Hyena and Other Men'.

     In the introduction to his monograph, The Hyena and Other Men, Pieter Hugo describes his preparations before making a second trip to Nigeria, in order to pursue additional portraits for his now infamous series on these itinerant minstrels and their animals:  ‘The project felt unresolved and I was ready to engage with the group again.  I looked back at the notebooks I had kept while with them.  The words “dominance”, “codependence” and “submission” kept appearing.  These pictures depict much more than an exotic group of traveling performers in West Africa.’  In many ways, the same could be said of Hugo’s entire oeuvre.  Within all of Hugo’s work to date, themes of dominance, codependence and submission have provided the underlying foundations for the unnerving power of his imagery, helping to support his remarkably unique and captivating perspective on individual subjects, on contemporary Africa and its infinite complexities, and on photography itself.

    On several occasions, Hugo has publicly remarked that ‘photography is finished’; when pushed on the matter, he has repeatedly clarified himself by declaring, ‘The portrait is dead.’  These may seem like oddly provocative if not damning assertions for a contemporary portrait photographer to make, but in fact they reveal Hugo’s inherent and intricate understanding of his chosen medium.  Despite the persistent fallacy that photography represents veracity – a misconception that has plagued the medium since its invention – most experienced photographers know that their imagery has very little to do with the bare facts that appear before their camera – as John Szarkowski put it, ‘A beginning photographer hopes to learn to use the medium to describe the truth; the intelligent journeyman has learned that there is not enough film to do that.’  The renowned twentieth century portraitist, Richard Avedon, once wrote, ‘A portrait photographer depends upon another person to complete his picture. The subject imagined, which in a sense is [the photographer], must be discovered in someone else willing to take part in a fiction he cannot possibly know about…All photographs are accurate.  None of them is the truth.’ In this sense, the death-throws that Hugo repeatedly refers to are not those of portrait photography – in fact, portraiture has experienced a remarkable revival within photography since the turn of the century – but are instead those of ‘photographic truth’ within the eyes of the general audience.  And in recent years, perhaps no one could be implicated more so in its assassination – at least within the realm of portraiture – than Hugo himself.

     Hugo’s most recent series, Nollywood (2008, contains the most explicit and obvious examples of how he as a photographer directly engages with fictions rather than facts.  The work is the result of Hugo’s exploration of the Nigerian film industry, and all of the photographs were made in collaboration with actors and assistants, who helped to stage Hugo’s portraits of characters pulled directly from movies that are specifically made for the pan-African market.  In one, a man in a suit stands barefoot over a bleeding bull, enigmatically cradling its internal organs; in another, a charred zombie-warrior brandishes a machine gun, and poses triumphantly next to three young boys in front of a smoking rubbish pile.  Such images are both surreal and disconcerting, but allude to their own falsity so overtly that the viewer can immediately decipher their fictive nature, and can clearly understand that these are ‘subjects imagined’ rather than documented.  That said, the pictures remain incredibly provocative, at least to a Western eyes, expressly because they present graphic, violent and unnerving myths and symbols, which are deeply embedded in our understanding of contemporary Africa itself.  Yet, when deciphering this work, there is no longer any safety in the late-twentieth century notion that photographs are simply the realization of the photographer’s own prejudices and preconceptions, since we can clearly see that they are collective imaginings, shared by both the actors portrayed and the intended cinema audience as well.  Rather than ‘a fiction [the subject] cannot possibly know about’, these are fictions that the subjects know everything about, and ones about which both the photographer and his Western audience presumably know very little.  One of the most unsettling images in the series depicts three solemn women dressed in rags, playing the role of slaves; their hands are shackled, their necks are bound in chains.  Yet any discomfort that might be experienced when encountering this image is not derived from the actual facts captured by Hugo’s camera; in truth, these are simply and obviously actors whose sole purpose is the provision of entertainment.  Instead, such uneasiness is more likely caused by the viewer’s own predispositions towards guilt, remorse, anger and shame when faced with such blatant representations of this deplorable aspect of our collective histories.

     From young Liberians posing stoically in their Boy Scout uniforms, to Botswanan judges and Ghanaian barristers proudly donning traditional Anglican wigs and robes, Hugo has regularly used the conspicuousness of costumes – and all of the historical and cultural associations that accompany them – to explore issues surrounding personal, national and African identity within his portraiture.  Again, although the suggestions may be subtler than in the Nollywood portraits, by dressing up in such attire these subjects are not simply presenting themselves as individuals, but are playing a distinct role; they are representations of something greater.  Yet, it is important to recognize that the merit badges, legal wigs, and official regalia adorned by the sitters are worn without irony – they worked very hard to earn them, and in collaboration with Hugo they earnestly display them before the camera with great pride.  Again, any sense of tension or apprehension potentially felt by viewers is solely a reflection of their own reservations when faced with visions of an Africa that is still profoundly influenced by colonialism to this day. 

     In the 1990s, the Ghanaian portrait photographer, Philip Kwame Apagya, came under severe scrutiny, particularly within America, for posing his subjects in front of painted backdrops that depicted their fantasies of a more materialistic Western lifestyle – large refrigerators, brand-name televisions, quintessential suburban houses and so on – rather than ones which accurately reproduced the assumed African experience.  ‘My picture of Africa is one that my African clients can completely identify with,’ he stated in his defence.  ‘Our people are interested in modern, new things and in the future – that is the driving force and object of their ambitions…It is nonsense to say that I betray our traditional African values.’  Paradoxically, Hugo has occasionally faced harsh criticism for ‘confirming’ Western stereotypes of Africa – with intonations of primitivism, savagery, violence, disease, dated colonial provincialism, and so on throughout his work – and has often been accused of exoticizing or exploiting his subjects.  ‘I reject that view utterly,’ Hugo has angrily responded, ‘There is always an element of condescension in it…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.’  At least in part, perhaps the reason that Hugo’s photographs are so often misconstrued as confirmations of Western expectations – rather than understood as valiant confrontations with such stereotypes – is because he himself is white, and is therefore perceived as an outsider, even when addressing issues that permeate his own experience and dominate his own continent.  Noting that his family has lived in South Africa for four generations, he argues, ‘I was born here. My language is an African language; it’s not spoken elsewhere. This is my landscape…[so] it’s absurd. I’m only interpreting the things that are around me.’
     As Hugo has experienced himself, things grow ever more complex and dangerous when identity becomes associated solely with race rather than the full spectrum of one’s experience.  It is therefore unsurprising that several of Hugo’s portfolios have addressed the issue  of race head on.  Most notably, his body of work, Looking Aside, includes a series of straight studio portraits of South Africans with albinism.  In a country where skin color has historically been (and despite recent political shifts, continues to be) the definitive factor in determining one’s place in society, the repetitive presentation of ethnically black yet physically white subjects poses a confusing, challenging and provocative quandary.  Furthermore, in these portraits Hugo brings the camera uncharacteristically close to the sitters, and has them make direct eye contact with the lens; for the viewer, there is no escaping their defiant gaze, no avoiding the difficult questions that their existence itself pose, and no hiding from the absurd contradictions that such base efforts of classification inherently expose. 

     Ultimately, Hugo’s images offer an arresting argument for the untrustworthiness of photography, and at the same time reveal the striking vitality that remains at the heart of the medium when a practitioner bravely dares to pose difficult questions, rather than attempts to provide clear-cut answers.  Whether they allude to the domination of man over nature or of one culture over another, the codependence between photographer and subject, or the submission of a photograph to the prejudices and preconceptions of its audience, these astonishing portraits complicate rather than alleviate our troubled relationship with photography, and in doing so poignantly offer a refreshing way forward for a medium that might otherwise perish in this new century.  As Hugo’s work insinuates, the burden of accuracy no longer weighs heavily on the shoulders of photographers; along with beauty, truth is also now firmly and finally in the eye of the beholder.


Aaron Schuman Photography
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