by Ed Young (April, 2006)
'But isn't it a problem when you photograph black people, because... you know... we steal "their" souls?' asks wretched-Friends-of-the-National-Gallery-middle-aged-lady. An astute response from our photographer: 'I don't know my dear, but I have not YET encountered this myth.'
We all have 'our' collective prejudices and staggering wide-eyed ignorance. The problem is what we do with this. Pieter Hugo is a photographer who is sharp, clear and to the point. He has no intention of circumventing deeply rooted South African 'norms' of the stereotypical Afrikaans white boy. He is a fearless, self-taught photographer who has sprung from a documentary background into the realm of what is commonly known as Fine Art. During the past few years, Hugo has established himself as one of the hottest, freshest contemporary artists to emerge from this small Southern dwelling known as Cape Town.
'I am six foot tall. I have blond hair and blue eyes. I stick out like a sore thumb in the locations I visit. I quickly realised that the traditional photojournalistic approach of capturing a fleeting moment wasn't going to work for me. Firstly, my reflexes are too slow, and secondly I am not a fly on the wall, I have a presence.' (Discussion with Sean O'Toole for text published in Creative Review, April 2006)
'My work stretches, re-interprets and often subverts the traditions of documentary and portrait photography. My eye is drawn to the peripheral, particularly in Africa, and I negotiate contexts where the cultural nuances of our time are amplified.'
Subject matter aside, Hugo remains an absolute perfectionist. His aesthetic sensibility, eye for quality and notoriety for spending hours perfecting prints does not go unnoticed. Combine with this a photographer so indulged, and performing purely from inside the situations with which he is confronted, and we have a winner. Hugo engages with his subjects far beyond the means of our average documentary photographer. It is his interaction with his subjects that determines the end result. This is primarily why his pictures are good.
In Hugo's case, it is not purely taking images, but actually becoming part of those surroundings. It is not a hit and run. And it is this that electrifies his images.
Hugo burst onto the local and international scene after a very successful residency from 2002 - 3 at the Benetton-funded interdisciplinary school of the arts in Treviso, Italy (better known as Fabrica). He has also worked a lot with Colors magazine. We are constantly reminded that these influences have had a heavy hand in the development of Hugo's aesthetic. This is not a bad thing.
Through this process Hugo has come to carve his own niche in the swamp of South African documentary photographers. This is particularly evident in his Albino Series, and more recently and more personally, developed in The Hyena People of Nigeria.
'... the constructions to which he confesses sit a little uncomfortably in the mind of the viewer.' Linda Stupart, www.artthrob.co.za, April 2006.
'Instead of speaking in words that court emptiness and the void, Pieter Hugo's images confront viewers with the necessity of speaking in a new vocabulary, one that celebrates the fullness of being.' Sean O'Toole, Art South Africa, Volume 03, Issue 01, Spring 2004.
'But he's not just a magazine contributor; he works as a camera-for-hire with organisations that allow him to indulge his fascination with displaced, marginalised, obviously - but not always sadly - broken people (and, sometimes, places). He also has his own projects.' Michelle Matthews, www.artthrob.co.za, December 2004.
Hugo was recently awarded the 1st Prize in the portraits section of World Press Photo 2006, for his piece Mallam Gahadima Ahamadu with the hyena Jamis, Abuja, Nigeria. He is included on the exhibition 'ReGeneration: 50 Photographers of Tomorrow, 2005-2025' which opened at the Musée de l'Elysée, Lausanne, and travels to Aperture, New York, in April 2006. The exhibition identifies 50 young photographers from around the world who will be considered great by 2025, and is accompanied by a book published by Thames & Hudson.
He has been selected by Getty Images as one of their Young Photographers 2006, 31 artists who 'represent new directions' and was selected as one of '100 artists on the cusp of international success' in the December 2005 issue of Art Review magazine. He is also included on the photography exhibition 'Black, Brown and White' at the Vienna Kunsthalle from February 24 - June 18, 2006 and has recently held his second solo exhibition, 'Presence', at Michael Stevenson Contemporary, Cape Town. The show included recent projects such as The Hyena People of Nigeria, Wild Honey Collectors, Taxi Washers, Durban and Judges, Botswana.
In October 2004, Hugo held his first solo exhibition at Michael Stevenson Contemporary. This show included the projects Albino Portraits, Rwanda 2004: Vestiges of a Genocide and Malawi 2003: Tuberculosis and guardian care. In the same year he presented 'The Albino Project' at both Fabrica Features in Lisbon and the Museum of Modern Art in Rome.
In 2002, Hugo took up his successful internship at Fabrica, Benetton's Research and Communications Centre in Italy. He also started working with numerous local and international publications and organisations. In 2001 he began a working relationship with Colors magazine (see Curriculum Vitae).
Apparently Hugo has one or two books in the pipeline. He is also working towards two new solo exhibitions, one in New York and the other in Geneva.
- The Wild Honey Collectors - photographs wild honey collectors from Ghana
- Hyena Men - Travels to Nigeria and photographs a series of portraits about a street gang who use hyenas and baboons to entertain and collect debts.
- Selected by Getty Images as one of their Young Photographers 2006, 31 artists who 'represent new directions'.
- Selected as one of '100 artists on the cusp of international successes in the December 2005 issue of Art Review magazine.
- The Bereaved - A new project exploring the spaces associated with mourning and the bereaved families of the deceased in South Africa where HIV and Aids-related illnesses are devastating many in the prime of their lives.
- Looking Aside - In this ongoing series (continuation of The Albino Portraits) the photographer looks directly at people whose appearance makes us look aside. In doing so, he forces us to confront ourselves and our preconceptions and prejudices, and question why we are so awkward when we encounter people who are unusual in some way, whether for reasons of albinism, blindness or a skin disorder.
- The Judges - This series presents portraits of African judges and barristers dressed in official regalia. The series, shot in Botswana and Ghana during 2005, is a work in progress.
- Various editorial assignments over the African continent for The Sunday Times, The Sunday Telegraph and The Guardian.
- 2004: Vestiges of Genocide - Initiates book project about the development of Rwanda 10 years since the genocide happened. Stays in Rwanda for a few months researching and photographing the structure and remnants of the genocide.
- Starts project in USA relating to cultural identity in contemporary American society sponsored by Corrier della Sera and Rizzoli Publishing.
- World Health Organisation - Various photo essays throughout Southern Africa and Rwanda concerning access to ARVs for women who contracted HIV through violence.
2002 - 2003
Residency at Fabrica (Benetton's Research and Communications Centre in Italy.)
- Commences work on the Albino Project - a photographic project about people afflicted with albinism throughout the world (countries include South Africa, Italy, Malawi, UK, Brazil.)
- Editorial clients during this period include: Colors 53 Slavery - Lost Property, a photographic essay about child slavery in war torn Sudan. Colors 55 Birmingham - A photographic essay about the city of Birmingham - its people, architecture, history and future. Colors 57 Slums - Rocinha, a photographic essay about the largest slum in Brazil. Story published as a book.
- The New Yorker - Visions of Hope (Sept 11: One year later) Commemorative photo essay.
- Max Italy - Welcome to Italy, a photographic story about illegal Kurdish refugees in detention centres around southern Italy.
- De la Republica delle Donne - L'Ulitima Apartheid, a photographic story about people afflicted with albinism in South Africa.
- Gulliver - Sacred Caves. A photographic story about the Sangoma University in the Maluti Mountains on the border of Lesotho and South Africa.
- Tank - Photographic story about the history of the Akropole Hotel in Khartoum, Sudan which was destroyed in a terrorist attack.
- World Health Organisation - Tuberculosis. Photo-essay shot on Directly Observed Treatment System in Malawi for fund raising publications.
1999 - 2001
- Freelance photographer for various local and international magazines, corporate and advertising clients.
- Starts working relationship with Colors magazine: Colors 43 Old Age - Photographic story shot in Guguletu about South Africa's first retirement home for black citizens. Colors 44 Government Housing - Photographic story shot in Delft Township, South Africa. Colors 45 Space - Various locations. Photographic story on modern day observations about space and our relationship with it. Colors 47 Madness - Photographic story shot in Ward 20, Valkenberg Psychiatric Hospital about a ward for the criminally insane.
1995 - 1998
Freelance Property Master/Art Director for cinema and television commercials and feature films.
- 'Presence', Michael Stevenson Contemporary, Cape Town (South Africa)
- 'Re:Generation: 50 Photographers of Tomorrow', Aperture Gallery. NY (USA)
- 'Black, Brown and White', Vienna Kunsthalle (Austria)
- 'Re:Generation: 50 Photographers of Tomorrow' Musée de l'Elysée, Lausanne (Switzerland)
- The Albino Project. Fabrica Features, Lisbon (Portugal)
- The Albino Project. Museum of Modern Art. Rome (Italy)
- Rwanda 2004: Partial Remains and Personal Affects. Michael Stevenson, Cape Town (South Africa)
- Staged Realities - The Studio in African Photography. Michael Stevenson Contemporary, Cape Town (South Africa)
- From Chaos to Order and Back. DDD Gallery, Osaka (Japan)/ Ginza Graphic Gallery, Tokyo (Japan)
- Margin. The Cold Room Photographic Gallery, Cape Town (South Africa)
- Positions of South African Photography Today. OMC Galerie, Dusseldorf (Germany)
- New South African Art. JAK Gallery, London (United Kingdom)
- Emergency. The Bell-Roberts Gallery, Cape Town (South Africa)
- Selected editorial and advertising clients: Sunday Times Magazine, Colors, Aria Big, Tank Ojodopez Eight, The Sunday Telegraph, The Guardian, Zoom, Creative Review, Sport & Street, The New Yorker, The World Health Organisation, Unicef Anti Slavery International, Save the Children UK, T Mobile