Lenses and Limitations - An Interview with Pieter Hugo
May 10 2012
South African photographer Pieter Hugo’s work focusing on contemporary Africa is now well-known around the world. For him, documentary photography is a "type of ecstatic experience where one looks at the pictures and one experiences truth, even if it's not the truth of an accountant." We talked with him a while back about his experience shooting Nigerian entertainers-cum-debt-collectors known for their pet hyenas, which the townfolk consider to be witches. Now the Hague Museum of Photography is exhibiting photographs from this series, as well as his other work, in a comprehensive survey from the last eight years. The exhibition, called This Must Be the Place, has also spawned a book by the same name. All of it questions photography itself, its limitations as well as its myriad, increasingly complex strategies of representation. And that is what we ended up talking to him about.
VICE: How do you decide what to pursue?
Pieter Hugo: A lot of my inspiration is reactionary to images I see in the media. The Hyena Men started with a picture that someone took on a cell phone. Apparently he was an employee of a mobile phone network in Nigeria and he photographed them from a car window. He posted it on the internet, saying, "These are debt collectors from Nigeria." The Nollywood series was made because while I was doing the hyena work everywhere in West Africa, every hotel I went to, every bar I went to, people were watching these movies. At the time it really just annoyed me. It later became apparent that it was something quite amazing and worth exploring. Permanent Error started because I had read an article in National Geographic on global recycling and there was a photograph of a computer dumpsite. The Rwanda work came from an article I read in the Economist on a plane one day. It's born from literary or media stimulation, out of something I see.
There are a lot of symbols, icons, and costume in your portraits. The portraits of the Liberian boy scouts, for example, are quite interesting. Can you talk about these images?
That was really serendipitous because I was on assignment in Liberia to photograph Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female African president, for an American magazine. I finished the shoot and decided to stay in Liberia for a while, so I was having a beer on my hotel porch and these boy scouts walked past. The fixer I was working with, it so happened that one of the boys was his son. He explained to me that most of the boys were ex-combatants during the civil war. I guess if you're aware of what your preoccupations are, if you keep your eyes open, they'll show themselves. It also made me realize that you don't need to go to the jungles of the Congo to make interesting photographs. It can be around you. You just have to open your eyes to it.
There's a quote in the text of your new book from MoMA's curator of photography John Szarkowski: “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." On several occasions you've said, “Photography is finished.” Can you talk about what you see as the medium's limitations?
Shoot. Tough question. I think it's important that it goes on the record that I made that statement when I was completely drunk.
It is an interesting issue for a photographer to confront.
At some stage, after practicing for a while, you're going to become aware of your idealistic intentions in the beginning and the shortcomings of your work when it gets published. Your intentions and the way it's being read by a wider audience are different. I guess that's really what it comes down to. At the same time, running parallel to that, photography has always been a struggle for me to take serious as an art form. In the process of working in any medium, at some stage, you become aware of its limitations. For me it was realizing that photography could only describe the surface of things. It's symbolic. It can't do much more than that. Its true seduction lies in its foot in reality. It still has the pretense of being a quasi-document. It’s something literature figured out years ago, and it's something photography got quite recently.
Let’s talk about your new book and exhibition, both called This Must Be the Place, and how they came to be.
I currently have a touring survey show that started in the Hague Fotomuseum. There are more than a hundred prints in the show, so producing a catalog for it seemed only natural. Then the catalog became a book! And the experience of putting it together is fantastic. I always have a feeling that I'm sitting around not doing anything with my life. A little Calvinist guilt that I should be more productive, but producing this catalogue I realized I can relax a little—I actually have been quite busy!
I'm sure it's cathartic to put these things together and see themes arise. What kind of threads did you see while editing the work?
After I finished school I went straight into becoming a photographer; I didn't study. In my early 20s I became a practicing photographer, whether it was commercial work or editorial work or working as a photojournalist. There really wasn't a space where one would get an education about theory and history of photography. That was just something you learned along the way. This survey has been a good opportunity to sit down and look at what my work has been about, to see the different threads that have emerged, and get a clearer sense of what my preoccupations have been throughout the last couple of years. There are a few major themes, of course, like "What is real?" I think that's a big question my work poses. Secondly, it seems to provoke a lot of debate about the rights to representation.
The photographs tenuously balance specificity in subject matter and posing questions rather than answering them.
I feel like I've developed a vocabulary. I feel articulate using that vocabulary, but I’m also getting bored with it. That work can become formulaic. I think the exhibition and book came at a very good time. I'm fortunate it happened at this stage of my career as an artist. One can begin investigating new avenues and new ways of doing things.
You graduated high school in 1994, the year the first democratic elections took place in South Africa. Can you talk about how this influences your work?
I grew up in the middle-upper class, with fairly liberal sentiments, but to me it was always very obvious that the society I grew up in was not ideal and needed to change. Since I was a kid it was apparent it was going to change—it wasn't sustainable the way it was going on. My work is deeply tied to my experience growing up in South Africa. It's very hard to separate that, as much as I'd like to think it's based on completely personal prerogatives, it's still tied up in the topography of where I grew up and the constant negotiation of that space. It's a problematic place. One constantly questions where you fit into it, or don't fit into it, or if you should even bother fitting into it. I guess photography, in the beginning, gave me an excuse to really go out and engage with that, which I think is what good photography is about. It comes down to an engagement with the world.
How were photographers working before? What was the mission before and is it different now?
It's completely different now. Up until not that long ago, the idea of collecting photography in South Africa did not exist.
So it was very functional?
Very functional, though there have always been photographers doing work that wasn't purely functional. There was a cultural boycott. One never grew up seeing fine art photography in museums. The work one saw in museums wasn't international. If sports teams played in South Africa you were blacklisted around the world, international sports were boycotted during the period I grew up in. So it was really an isolated place, in a weird way. You were acutely aware that you were at the end of world and the rest of the world didn't like you and didn't approve of your political paradigm.
You can feel this in your work, but there is something distinctly different from your work and that by a news photographer. Why do you think that is?
I don't really operate within that beck-and-call paradigm anymore, and that really creates a different vocabulary. I do assignments, but the kinds I do are, like, for the New York Times Magazine, where they really take time to let me explore something properly. It's a very different type of journalism, like slow journalism, as opposed to the daily mull of a newspaper. It's no disrespect, but it's not particularly interesting to me, that world. I'm not suited to work in that world.
I obviously see your photographs referenced in the Beyonce video, but also I see Ed Kashi's work and the visual language of a variety of photographers. Borrowing isn't anything new, but to see the work taken for a glossy commercial purpose is a bit jarring. An homage? An appropriation?
I honestly don't give it that much thought. A part of me just thinks an original idea is original sin. It happened a long time before you were born. I am indebted to so many people. I guess if you acknowledge it in some way or another, it's OK.
As long as you’re not Richard Prince.
[Laughs] Exactly. The Beyonce thing I kind of laughed about, but when I saw the hyena men in the Nick Cave video, I was pissed off, actually, because I would have loved to do that video. I've always been a big fan of Nick Cave.
Tell me if I’m wrong, but in the Nollywood work, I see some comedy.
A lot of people have missed that element of it. It was my Tarantino. I wish more people would see that. But you know what is happening also, there's a lot of reaction to that work. There were particularly strong reactions. One of the Nigerian authors who worked with me on Nollywood had threats made against him for collaborating with me. He was called a race traitor! It’s quiet scary when academics start dictating to artists that they should be politically correct or follow certain rules of behavior, which means we have to start making dishonest work, which means it becomes didactic and propagandist in nature. I find that very troublesome. Very problematic. It's taken me a long time to figure out why it affected me so deeply. It really upset me. It was never my intention in any way.
How is the reaction, if you were to show the image to a Nigerian as opposed to a European or American?
It depends. When you want to look at the Nollywood work and read it as an itinerary of the Nigerian film industry, of course it's inaccurate. But if you want to read it as a creative person's interpretation of the phenomena, one that's drawn inspiration from the aesthetics of the phenomena and the audience's reading of the phenomena, then critique the work on its own merits. Then you can say, "It's boring photographs where everyone seems to be placed in the middle of the frame." Of course I'm not an anthropologist. That's not what my preoccupations are. For a long time I found those criticisms debilitating. It took me a long time to work through that. My experience with that vitriolic criticism that has come from that work has been making me very conscious of how damaging it can be to engage your work on that level and to try to dictate to people what they should or should not do or how they should or should not approach subject matter. And of course on another level it's completely condescending, assuming custodianship of other people's culture. In Nigeria you are dealing with the third largest film industry in the world; the majority of the people read newspapers every day. There's something incredibly patronizing in doing that. In a way, the critic is more racist and more condescending. The racist word, using racism to critique anyone, unless it's completely overtly so, is a very dangerous thing to do. It's not something that should be taken lightly or thrown around without careful consideration.
Do you think it is your responsibility as a photographer to provide interpretation?
As an artist it's not my responsibility to provide a responsible rendition of how the rest of the world should perceive or not perceive Africa. Firstly, I'm not really concerned with Africa, I just happen to work here and it's become an extension of the world that I inhabit, and continually ghettoizing it in that way is also very dangerous. Thinking of things as purely "Africa," all you are doing is perpetuating this notion of "otherness" in some way.
How do you see the work of someone traveling to Africa and photographing there? Is the approach of someone from Europe or America different? What about the work of someone like TIm Hetherington?
In many ways, I think Tim Hetherington was a much more dedicated photographer to his themes than I am to mine. He lived in Liberia for years. I definitely wouldn't have stuck it out there for that long. Tim had an interesting hybrid of preoccupations and influences that comes through in his work. He was quite unique in his own way. He wasn't scared of experimenting and definitely wasn't scared of taking the time to do so. Tim Hetherington was a friend of mine. The day I photographed the boy scouts I went to his house.
I spent a good bit of time with Chris Hondros, here in NY, but didn’t know Tim. You knew him well?
I never met Chris. Tim was so happy moving to New York. He found it incredibly liberating. I think he was just one of those people who was an outsider, even in England. He found it frustrating that he went to very posh private schools, but his family had made money just recently. He always found himself to never quite fit in. That's why he found America so liberating. You can move somewhere and reinvent yourself. We had a good dialogue around that issue, the experience of being an outsider. This is part of the process of why I need to go away to make work often. It's not so much that the theme is exotic. It rather awards me the isolation of not being distracted and allows me to get on with what I really want to look at.
Pieter Hugo – This Must Be The Place with essays by T.J. Demos and Aaron Schumann is out on Prestel.