South African artist Pieter Hugo speaks about his provocative photography

Interview with South African artist Pieter Hugo by Diane Frankel.

Pieter Hugo‘s museum retrospective,This must be the place, which is  touring in Europe,  is bringing him lots of attention.  Hugo was born in Cape Town in 1976 where he resides now. Trained as a photojournalist he now favors portraiture. He chooses to focus his lens on marginal communities in Africa, and the particular  community or topic is suggested to him by articles in the media that catch his attention. In part he is interested by the press ability to distort, to create “stories” .

His photographs are compelling, powerful, and disturbing. They appear to be documentary and therefore a record of the truth.  Yet, it is that very quality that Hugo makes us wonder about as we look at the photographs. The art like quality of the images, the extraordinary choice of subject matter, and the sense of a deliberate constructed scene makes us doubt the truth of what we are seeing.

Hugo monumentalizes his subjects. Very often centered on the page and photographed in a deadpan manner, the people dominate the space by their sheer presence as they stare straight back at the viewer with pride, and defiance. The above image Obechkwu Nwoye from the Nollywood series, which depict Nigerian actors portraying rogues, demons, prostitutes, illustrates Hugo’s fascination with issues of power as he describes in the following interview. The provocative, confrontational look, reddened eyes, and full lips against the whitened face of this female actor dressed in a Bundes Marine uniform, who is coolly smoking her cigarette and holding a pose á la Lauren Bacall makes it clear that power is the subtext here. Besides the inferred reference to the relationships of power during Africa’s colonialist past, it is her power that the photographer (and the viewer subsequently) has to reckon with now.

Hugo, self taught and trained as a photojournalist, is himself a force to reckon with.  It is as if he chooses projects where he tests his own measure. Keenly aware that being a tall white man will always set him aside in Africa – he can never blend in or be unnoticeable – he makes his presence as he says “ the crux of his practice.”  He immerses himself in these marginal communities, aiming to convince them to work with him.  The process can be quite arduous, the people can be tough negotiators and in the case of the The Hyena and Other Men series, hanging with hyenas and monkeys can be unnerving!  Photographer and members of the community take measure of each other, and while an understanding is reached so that the photograph can be taken, the power dynamic remains and is palpable in the resulting photograph.


The retrospective look on his work has led to some criticism regarding his choice of subject matter, which has frustrated Pieter very much recently. He defends himself in this other interview with Noah Rabinowitz.



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