30 December 2011

Pieter Hugo

On route to Kigali International Airport, Kigali, Rwanda.
Photograph © Pieter Hugo.

Gatwaro Stadium, Genocide site, Kibuye, Rwanda.
Photograph © Pieter Hugo.

Some years ago I wrote this not-terribly-enthusiastic post comment on South African photographer Pieter Hugo and his work. Earlier in the fall seemed to be getting a fair share of quite positive exposure - from Sean O'Hagan here at The Guardian, for instance, or here at The New York Times Magazine - so I thought I'd see if it might do to reconsider. Hugo has done two major projects recently. One, Permanent Error, documents the environmental and human disaster of a massive dump outside of Accra, Ghana. The second, Rwanda 2004: Vestiges of a Genocide, focuses on just what the title suggests. I suppose there is nothing wrong with either of the two undertakings. Permanent Error seems fairly derivative - I think of Edward Burtynsky's images of computer salvage in the Chinese countryside or of Salgado's images of impoverished scavengers at massive dumps across the developing world. The same might be said of at least parts of the "vestiges" project - think of Nachtwey or Peress or Salgado. But there are some images of Rwanda that are strikingly provocative. These depict the Rwandan countryside, mostly now tangled overgrowth, all seemingly banal, where atrocities took place.

In the end, I have not updated terribly much. Hugo seems more able to resist the 'Africa as freak show' thrust of his earlier work. But he has now turned instead - with only mixed 'success' - to 'Africa as disaster zone.' (Note: in many respects the other photographers I mention above might be accused of falling prey to a similar pre-occupation.) He clearly is a talented photographer. But he is caught in the tropes that dominate photography of the African continent. I wonder if he might some day break out from those constraints. That, in my mind, would warrant some of the superlatives that rain down around him now.

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Blogger John Edwin Mason said...

I just saw this post, so I apologize for the lateness of the comment. You're probably thinking about other things by now.

I've generally agree with what you've had to say about Hugo's work, now and a few years back.

What interests me, however, is the way that he's been embraced by the market. To put it another way, few contemporary photographs have been able to play the market as shrewdly as Hugo. He seems to have a preternatual sense of what will excite editors, curators, and gallery-goers, when it comes to Africa.

So the most interesting questions, for me, have to do with why presumably sophisticated, well-informed westerners have been so enthusiastic about Hugo's vision of Africa -- a vision that, as you suggest, has its roots in the mythologies and stereotypes created during the eras of exploration and colonialism.

Part of it, I think, has to do with the way that the "tropes" that you mention -- the myths and stereotypes -- have shaped the ways in which westerners see and understand Africa. Few people want their understanding challenged, and Hugo certainly doesn't do that. Instead, he offers reinforcement and reassurance.

But it also seems to me that he's clever enough -- or has been throughout most of his career -- to make sure that his reassurances doesn't feel like the same old thing.

Is it because he dresses creaky old stereotypes in hipster garb that editors and collectors can have their cake and eat it too? That is, does he allow them to assume an ironic stance while in fact reveling in Africa's presumed exoticism, danger, and decay?

04 January, 2012 12:00  
Blogger Patrick Dinneen said...

I had written a much longer comment but it was lost due to a server error. The condensed version is that I disagree with the idea that Hugo presents Africa as a freakshow. To specifically address The Hyena Men concern from your previous post, I don't believe Hugo is attempting to make any kind of statement about the continuum of nature or anything of the kind. These photographs are often encountered with no context, which would make them perplexing to read. The men in the photo's have raised hyenas and travel around Nigeria as a sort of circus troupe with a debt collecting side service. That said, this series is the one that I find troubling to some extent.

As for Nollywood and Permanent Error both deal with the boundaries of fiction more directly. Nollywood in particular doesn't even suggest depictions of Nigeria, it is a representation of the Nigerian film industry and the appropriation and reinterpretation of elements of Western genre films.

As for Permanent Error, while it might share similarities in subject matter with Burtynsky the treatment is considerably different, though sadly the NYT slideshow does little to highlight his overall approach as it omits some of the most significant establishing images, so I understand that it might initially appear to be working the same ground as Burtynsky, whose work is often troublingly seductive in my opinion.

09 January, 2012 17:14  

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