29 July 2008

Africa as Freak Show ~ Pieter Hugo

Mallam Galadima Ahmadu with Jamis, Nigeria.
Photograph © Pieter Hugo.

At The Guardian you can find this slideshow and this story on South African photographer Pieter Hugo. I have been wondering about his work for a while now but have been uncertain what I think. So, here you go:

Much of Hugo's work seem to me fairly unexceptional - more or less standard portraits albeit some of albinos or members of various Christian sects. Those that stand out, like the one I've lifted here, seem to me to portray Africa as a freak show - men and boys posing with baboons dressed in human clothes or huge, slouching hyenas on leashes. Is he trying to recreate the exotic? Is he trying to portray menace? Is he establishing a continuum between the local fauna in Africa and its human inhabitants? Beats me.

Sure, we need to see Africa as much more than as series of civil wars, refugee camps, famines, epidemics and droughts. I could not agree more [1] [2]. The alternative, however, is hardly just to present the continent as an open-air circus. Hugo has won a bunch of awards. And in The Guardian piece "Elisabeth Biondi, visuals editor of the New Yorker magazine and one of the most influential taste-makers in modern photography," is liberally quoted singing his praises. Count me among the skeptics though. Biondi exaggerates by way more than half.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

Not to say that there aren't photographers who have no qualms about exploiting their subject, but I'd tend to be less judgmental here. As a photographer, you're naturally drawn to the "unusual," and sometimes you may actually have the opportunity to downplay the visuals to present a less sensational view of an already uniquely dramatic subject, as seems to be the case here- as well as in most of Mr. Hugo's work.

Photographing environments foreign to the western mindset can be a double edged sword since everything, in effect, is exotic- it's easy to fall into picture postcard/National Geo mode, so you're forced to look beyond the cliche.

I'll give the benefit of the doubt that Mr. Hugo displays both restraint and respect in his portraiture, in and out of the studio, though not in the grand humanistic tradition of documentary photography. His photographic style is rather reserved and objective (some may say detached and clinical) in character, and perhaps more closely aligned to the typologies of the Bechers- and therefore more open to criticism (and praise) of all manner.

29 July, 2008 18:45  
Blogger Christoph Hammann said...

Saw Mr. Hugo's pictures displayed in Arles first week of this month and I must say they fit right in with the curatorial theme of this year's Rencontres: They're fashion photographs, or perhaps lifestyle. The posing of the people and animals gave that distinct impression. Certainly not documentary and I couldn't discern much typology either.

29 July, 2008 22:36  
Blogger Tom White said...

I rather like his portraits. The book he published includes some interesting writing which grounds the pictures and for me counteracts the freak show aspect of the images, putting them in context. One thing I noted was that he claims he had tried to document the activities of these people but thought those pictures were less successful than the portraits. I do wonder though if by 'successful' he actually means 'commercial'.

30 July, 2008 11:05  
Blogger slidelines said...

i cannot agree with the statement regarding the images portraying the images as freak shows. They show an aspect of the culture that has hitherto not been seen, also i see no connection with fashion or lifestyle, people seem to have difficulty with the use of colour when considering serious photography . I think that we do a diservice to the african continent and its people when we discount images that do not fit in with our own western cliched idea of what constitutes africa. We in the west should reign in our sometimes rather condescending attitude.

31 July, 2008 07:01  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks for the comments. I want to be clear. This is not about Mr. Hugo's talent which is evident enough. His portraits are indeed quite good, but not out of the ordinary.

My take on the 'freak show' quality of his hyena/baboon images is that if we want a view of normal life in most parts of Africa (including Lagos, where he took the images), it may be best to look at things other than disasters but not adopt an updated Arbus approach as the obvious alternative either. SInce wrting the post I have read some of the text Hugo wrote to accompany the images. He is clearly a smart fellow and has perhaps got doo intentions. But how do we (as he suggests) get to worries about Nigeria's oil economy from the images he provides? Seems like a stretch to me.

Finally, we should be skeptical when "taste makers" from the U.S. pronounce yet another white man as the premier photographer on the continent.

31 July, 2008 11:12  
Blogger jenga said...

We must not forget that he is simply documenting an element of culture that is hidden to us.
I think his ideas are original and they steer far from the conventional images that portray Africans.
Whether his style is brilliant or not, he deserves to be praised.
Some people are only scared to be a little playful and acknowledge the truth.

Long live Pieter Hugo.

08 July, 2009 17:22  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Jenga ~ No fear here. Indeed, judging by the earlier comments on this post, I am sticking my neck out and disagreeing with virtually everyone. I stand by my assessment. My basic qualm is that the photos in question present the marginal, not 'the truth.'

08 July, 2009 18:12  
Blogger Unknown said...

My reaction to "the Hyena and Other Men" was wooow look at those people with pet hyena's, I wish I could of taken those shots. I didnt regard the people in the shots as freaks and I wanted to know more about them.

My other reaction was, One of those prints would look great on my wall!

13 October, 2009 22:57  
Blogger Unknown said...

Jim, you open up a new can of worms when you start talking about photography in the same sentence as 'the truth'. And a lot of conversations about photography generally come back to two opinions. Those people that believe photographs are depictions of reality and tell the truth and those people that believe a photograph is what it is, the thing it self.

In my opinion the photograph is what it is and has nothing to do with reality, but has everything to do with what the photographer has to say.

13 October, 2009 23:48  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


There are two things. First, I used 'truth' in quotes; and I did so because one of he commentors raised the concept. Second, it is not clear to me that photography - which I see as a technology for showing and communicating - can get away from truth or some analogous concept. The problem, of course, is that we tend to operate with some sort of correspondence notion of truth and that won't do here. So, perhaps Hugo's photographs are valuable after all! He can help us sort out what we are talking about.

14 October, 2009 08:25  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Regarding truth:

Africa is an odd place. It's daily realities are not my own. I live in Chicago and though I have traveled across all of the US and much of Europe, I have never met anyone who keeps a heyena as a pet--let alone one that wears clothing. Africa has its troubles--everyone is aware of this--but why should we require that all the photography done in Africa show starving children, hard-working mothers or tribal peoples on their traditional dress? Africa is not like Europe and Africa is not like America. Africa is its own place, and there are men there who keep pets that we consider wild and sometimes they dress them in clothes. This truth, like all others, says something about the culture. What that something is, I can not say with certainty, but it speaks to you and it speaks to me, and for this I am greatful.

14 October, 2009 23:46  
Blogger Unknown said...


I am sure you will never see this reply as your comment was made many years ago now.

However, I think the fact that you treat Africa as one huge, homogeneous entity reveals that you are not in any position to comment on whether Hugo's work 'says something about the culture'. In fact, it would be almost impossible to say something about some aspect of one of the cultures in Africa without the opposite being true somewhere else in the continent.

06 September, 2012 07:59  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

And how, precisely, would you suggest that I refer to a continent - large, diverse, and so forth, as it may be? After all we talk about "Europe" all the time. I am dong nothing other than that. And, in fact, part of my comments (in this post and others) has been to say that "Africa" as a place-holder contains an ridiculous variety of cultures, polities and histories.

06 September, 2012 09:23  
Blogger Unknown said...

You seem angry about this and I am in no mood to argue with someone who is angry.

06 September, 2012 09:27  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Since you don't know me, how do you have any idea how I feel? Don't project. I simply asked a question in response to your comment.

06 September, 2012 09:43  
Blogger Unknown said...

I am sorry for my previous comments. It was senseless to try to provoke you. In fact, I thought your post was insightful and I agree with nearly all of the sentiments of the post.

You are one of few people that I know of who are saying what needs to be said about parts of Hugo's work and other pieces like it. I think that even racism itself has fallen victim of stereotyping; we have an idea of what 'racism' is, and wrongly it is only really constituted of the overt and intentional. In photography, the result is that more subtle instances are not caught by the majority of an audience. Another and perhaps even more worrying effect is that those, such as Hugo, who are producing work which is so ridden with these pernicious themes that perpetuate a damaging image of 'a place like Africa' are not even aware of their own wrongdoing. In an interview with Vice (http://bit.ly/PmFmCD), he states "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." I believe it is absolutely his responsibility, and that of other photographers. Particularly in the west where, to the average person, the only image of 'Africa' is determined by photography (due to a lack of related written or televised mainstream news) it is up to people like him re-assess and develop a more nuanced understanding of what racism actually is in today's world and to thus actively avoid producing work like that which you wrote about in the post.

Anyway, I hope you can accept my apology and would love to hear your thoughts on the above, particularly if you disagree with any of it. It would be good to have an adult discussion, which was not what I was inspiring before with my belligerent first comments.

14 September, 2012 07:55  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

No offense taken. No apology needed.

14 September, 2012 08:47  

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