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Lenses and Limitations

From Nigerian hyena men to Liberian boy scouts, Pieter Hugo figures shit out as he goes along.

by Noah Rabinowitz
16 May 2012, 12:00pm

South African photographer Pieter Hugo’s work is well-known around the world. For him, his documentary photography approach to contemporary Africa 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.

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.

The portraits of the Liberian boy scouts 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.

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 realising 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.

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.

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 behaviour, 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, 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. And of course on another level it's completely condescending. 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 patronising 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 ghettoising 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.

Pieter Hugo – This Must Be The Place with essays by T.J. Demos and Aaron Schumann is out on Prestel. 

The Hyena Men of Abuja

The Honourable Justice Moatlhodi Marumo Lobatse, 2005

Abdulai Yahaya, Agbogbloshie Market Accra, 2010

Junior Ofokansi, Chetachi Ofokansi, Mpompo Ofokansi Enugu, 2008

Sophia Hugo on the day of her birth Cape Town, 2010

A wax mannequin of Louis Washkansky, who in 1967 became the world’s first human heart transplant recipient, at the Heart of Cape Town Museum 2008