The Hyena Men of Nigeria.
The hunt for extraordinary African scenes has taken photojournalist Pieter Hugo to the darkest corners of the continent. He's shot wild honey collectors in the Liberian rainforest, football fanatics in the shantytowns of Soweto, and the vestiges of genocide in Rwanda. But Hugo is best known for his portraits of those gnarly Nigerian dudes with pet hyenas and baboons. We met up with Hugo in London and had a little chat.
Vice: Who are these hyena men?
Pieter Hugo: They live on the periphery of society and they do what they can to survive and make a living. Primarily they're entertainers, but they do sideline in debt collection. Usually they'll move to a new town and a crowd will gather and they'll do a show with the hyenas and the other animals.
In Nigeria there is a lot of superstition and mythology that surrounds the hyena. Both the male and female hyenas have labias, which makes it very hard to tell which is which. People think they're witches that take human form, so they're pretty feared creatures. This isn't a normal thing to see in the street, not even in Nigeria. The crowds believe the men are protected by charms that stop the hyenas from attacking them.
How did the locals react to seeing a tall blonde guy walking around with the troupe? Did you almost become part of the act?
I totally became part of the show. It must have been a weird sight for some of the people. I've been to Nigeria five times and it's rare to see white people, especially in the more rural areas. Who knows what these guys were thinking when they see some hyenas, baboons, pythons and a tall white guy coming into their village.
Were you ever scared when you were hanging out with those wild animals?
There was one time when we basically hijacked a cab. I was hiding in a bush with some of the guys and the animals while another one of the guys haggled with the taxi driver. When they'd agreed a price we all jumped out and bundled into the cab. He was driving like a madman and I had this baboon on my lap looking at me with real fear in its eyes.
Isn't there a massive case for saying all this is serious animal cruelty?
I've got mixed feelings about how the guys treated their animals really. This is a country that should be thriving, but people have to resort to things like this to make a living. In Europe it's easy to take a moral stance that animal cruelty is wrong. It's a nice western problem. These guys can't afford to have that attitude. They treat the hyenas quite well, but they are really harsh with the baboons, which is a bit harder to take because they are so close to humans.
Do they get problems from the police?
These guys never stay more than a couple of days in one place. They move around because that's the nature of what they do. In Nigeria there are a lot of roadblocks and bribes that have to be paid. But when the police stop these guys and look in the truck they probably think it's not worth the effort and let them move on.
Do you still keep in touch with the hyena men?
They actually phoned me recently. They wanted me to bring them and the animals to America. It was quite hard to explain to them that it would be impossible. There is a language barrier with these guys. They only speak Hausa.
One guy can speak pigeon English, but if you're not in that environment every day it's easy to forget. Sometimes I'll get a phone call out of the blue. I won't really understand what they're talking about so the conversations just become a bunch of noises that neither side really understands.
Were you surprised by how popular those photos became?
Yes. I think people get too caught up in the spectacle of these pictures
saying "Wow, look at these hyenas!" But there's something much more
interesting going on with the pictures. Like, why is this country with
so much oil in such a state? And what is our role in it? There are lots
of nuances like that which get missed by people just engaging with the
craziness of the pictures.
You're working on a project about the Nigerian film industry aren't you?
Yes. They call it Nollywood. I originally took pictures from the film sets themselves, but the pictures didn't convey the craziness of the films. So I hooked up with an art director and we started shooting our own scenes inspired by the Nollywood aesthetic. We were working with forty actors at a time and trying to create spontaneous moments which really capture how mental these films are.
Why did you choose Nollywood films?
One of the most interesting things about Nollywood is that it's the first mass self representation of African people through drama. It's not like Hotel Rwanda where it's a French budget, French-controlled film shot in South Africa. Nollywood storylines are authentically African. Some people can't stand the acting, but these guys often get the scripts the day before they shoot so they can't internalise them and they end up looking like soap operas.
What are you working on now?
The Nollywood thing is ongoing, but the next thing I'm working on is a project about the shanty towns in South Africa that were set up by the government. They shipped everyone out to these tribal homelands that were supposed to be dynamic, but in reality are totally unsustainable.
Are they like housing estates?
Yes, but on a massive scale where people get killed most days.
Sounds grim, but fascinating. Thanks for your time.
*The Hyena & Other Men is published by Prestel, £25