Pieter Hugo was born 1976 and grew up in Cape Town, South Africa. He is a South African photographer who primarily works in portraiture and whose work engages with both documentary and art traditions with a focus on African communities. Hugo is self-taught, having picked up a camera aged 10. He remembers the first image he printed, which was a homeless person in Johannes. After working in the film industry in Cape Town, Pieter Hugo spent a two-year Residency at Fabrica, Treviso, Italy.
Hugo has called himself a political-with-a-small-p photographer... it's hard not to be as soon as you pick up a camera in South Africa'. He believes that "the power of photography is inherently voyeuristic but I want that desire to look to be confronted."
He also states that he is "deeply suspicious of the power of photography."
Early on in his career he noticed that, "he often found himself being critically scrutinized by the subject he was photographing. It was then that he decided to switch to a larger and more cumbersome format of photography, one that would require negotiating consent and dialogue with the person being photographed - a more sedate and contemplative approach."
He is known to use a Hasselblad camera and regularly shoots in the 4x5 format. His influences range from South African photojournalist David Goldblatt to Boris Mikhailov. However, his work reacts against 'the culture of realism that defined South African photography in the struggle years.' Hugo's first major photo collection Looking Aside
consisted of a collection of portraits of people "whose appearance makes us look aside"
, his subjects including the blind, people with albinism, the aged, his family and himself. Explaining his interest in the marginal he has said, "My homeland is Africa, but I'm white. I feel African, whatever that means, but if you ask anyone in South Africa if I'm African, they will almost certainly say no. I don't fit into the social topography of my country and that certainly fuelled why I became a photographer."
This was followed by Rwanda 2004: Vestiges of a Genocide
which the Rwanda Genocide Institute describes as offering "a forensic view of some of the sites of mass execution and graves that stand as lingering memorials to the many thousands of people slaughtered."
His most recognized work is the series called The Hyena & Other Men
and which was published as a monograph. It has received a great deal of attention.
Hugo won first prize in the Portraits section of the World Press Photo
2005 for a portrait of a man with a hyena. In 2007, Hugo received the Standard Bank Young Artist Award 07. Hugo was also working on a series of photographs called Messina/Mussina
that were taken in the town of Musina on the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa and which was published as a monograph. At the time Colors
magazine asked Hugo to work on an AIDS story and he was fascinated by the marginal aspect of the town. This was followed by a return to Nigeria with Nollywood
, which consists of pictures of the Nigerian film industry. Permanent Error
followed in 2011 where Hugo photographed the people and landscape of an expansive dump of obsolete technology in Ghana. Sean O'Toole
writes "if Nollywood was playfully over-the-top, a smart riposte to accusations of freakishness and racism leveled at his photography..., Permanent Error marks Hugo’s return to a less self-reflexive mode of practice."
In 2011 Hugo collaborated with Michel Cleary
and co-directed the video of South African producer/DJ Spoek Mathambo's cover version of Joy Division's She's Lost Control
, the fourth single from his album Mshini Wam.
Commissioned by Italian luxury label Bottega Veneta
, Hugo photographed models Amanda Murphy
and Mark Cox
for the brand’s spring/summer 2014 campaign, with the images shot in a wood in New Jersey.
In the Spring of 2014, Hugo was commissioned by Creative Court to go to Rwanda and capture stories of forgiveness as a part of Creative Court's project Rwanda 20 Years: Portraits of Forgiveness
. The project was displayed in The Hague in the Atrium of The Hague City Hall for the 20th commemoration of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. A selection of the photos have also been displayed in New York at the exhibition Post-Conflict
which was curated by Bradley McCallum
, Artist in Residence for the Coalition for the International Criminal Court.
Flat Noodle Soup
(2016) chronicles Hugo's lengthy engagement with the city of Beijing, exploring how concerns with expressing personal identity within societal norms and pressures are universal and transnational. La Cucaracha
is a 2019 body of work made during four trips to Mexico over a two-year period. The photographic series explores Hugo's perception of the flamboyant and violent environment of Mexico with overt art historical references to the nation's visual canon of pre-colonial customs and revolutionary ideology.
Between 2006 and 2013, Pieter Hugo worked on a project that he called Kin
. This deals with home, proximity, identification and a sense of belonging – something that, in South Africa, he has always experienced as being critical and riddled with conflict: How can one live in this country, which only shed its colonial heritage relatively recently, and which is plagued by racism and a growing chasm between rich and poor? Hugo shot photos at home, in townships and at historical sites, taking portraits of his pregnant wife, of domestic servants and of homeless people. The calm and clearly composed shots show beauty and ugliness, wealth and poverty, private and public, historical and topical. Without either idealising or dramatizing the subject matter, they paint a portrait of the complex society in South Africa today.
This is because any notion of harmony in the “Rainbow Nation” is wishful thinking. Even twenty years after the end of apartheid, black and white South Africans are still very much divided. In the series of 94 platinum prints There Is A Place in Hell for Me and My Friends
(2011-2012), Pieter Hugo explores the supposed differences between skin colours. To do so, he took portraits of himself and South African friends. The close-ups, generally in the form of frontal head and shoulder portraits, were digitally processed afterwards. The image manipulation, whereby the colour channels were translated into grey tones, emphasise the pigmentation of the skin, using UV irradiation to render visible skin damage and small blood vessels directly beneath the skin. The results are quite astounding: on these photographs, all people are coloured. There is no longer a difference between “white” and “black” skin, but rather a variety of individual shades. The portraits show the powerful presence of each individual and, at the same time, the fragility of all people and the softness and utter vulnerability of their outer shell.
With his various photo series, Pieter Hugo has put together an impressive body of work in the space of just a few years. Through this intense perception of corporeality, he captures the complexity and inconsistency of society. Constants in his work include seriousness, neutrality and an underlying respect for his protagonists, whose dignity always remains intact. In this regard, his works are comparable with the monumental portrait works of August Sanders
, who created a contemporary picture of the Weimar Republic with his large-scale cycle “Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts” (People of the 20th Century).
Source: Priska Pasquer