Friday, July 20, 2018

A Conversation with Photographer Pieter Hugo

I look at a lot of photographs, both in galleries and books, but I was stopped in my tracks when I recently came across an image from “The Hyena & Other Men,” an astonishing and disquieting new book by the gifted South African photographer Pieter Hugo. At a time when we’re constantly bombarded by images, many of them clich├ęd and derivative, Hugo’s pictures astonish because one simply has not seen anything like them before. They’re disturbing because they conjure a place and a time (today, it turns out) in which the line between the wild and the tame is thin at best, and the tension, beauty and sorrow of that precarious relationship is frightening and poignant.

Because I couldn’t get Hugo’s photo out of my mind and I wanted to see and know more, I went to his website where he tells how he came to travel with the Nigerian performers, their hyenas, baboons and snakes. Then I gave him a call in South Africa, and as the Cape Town wind howled in the background, Hugo answered my questions about his pictures and the men called “Gadawan Kura.”

The first thing one notices is the incredible discrepancy, a divide, between those who have and those who have not. Pretty much the entire infrastructure in Nigeria is set up around the oil industry. If there’s a highway, or something that works, it’s due to oil. People don’t pay income tax there. The other thing about Nigeria, it’s by far the most populous country in Africa. One in five people in Africa is Nigerian. Lagos is one of the largest cities in the world, a completely sprawling mega-city. [The hyena men] are constantly on the move between different cities and they often stay on the peripheries — although city peripheries in Nigeria are a vague concept; they extend for 50 kilometers, or 100 kilometers sometimes. I’ve gone to Lagos and driven 400 kilometers and you’re still on the periphery of Lagos.

Exactly. And I think that’s very much what defines Nigerian existence. But to get back to your question, “What’s it like to live in Nigeria”: Either you live in a compound with bodyguards and make a lot of money, or you don’t. I feel uncomfortable with people seeing the photographs in some sort of apocalyptic way, even though that is what it looks like over there. I think there is something quite celebratory in the pictures. There’s also a sense of humor in them. Often people get overwhelmed by the spectacle and miss the nuances.

They were slightly wary, but they got into the swing of things after a day or two. At the end of the day, they’re performers, and, like actors, love being photographed. That’s why they do what they do: They enjoy the attention. It’s also a means to an end, an economic means to an end. By the second trip, of course, I’d become much closer to them and we’d gotten to know each other. You know, if you spend two and a half weeks with someone, you get to know them. You get to know them in some respects, at least.

There was money being exchanged. I feel that if I’m taking time away from someone that they could be using to earn an income that some kind of remuneration needs to happen.

You know, initially it was completely impulsive. It’s only after the fact that I’ve deconstructed what part of it was interesting to me. I look at my contact sheets and the diaries that I kept and what I tried to photograph initially was that in-between existence, that place between urban and rural. And also the unbelievable spectacle of it, which I tried photographing and failed miserably.

I don’t want to get anthropomorphic, comparing people to animals, but Nigeria’s a hard place, a dog-eat-dog place. Any engagement is fraught with confrontation immediately. It’s a difficult place to work. It’s a difficult place to live. Anyone who lives and works there will tell you as much. And anybody who doesn’t agree with that is lying.

Yes, often, often.

You know, these guys and the kid were hanging on these animals all the time, playing with them.  I’d sit next to them, and I’d photograph them, and I got close to them, but to be honest, I never felt comfortable with the hyenas. At the end of the day, they’re wild animals. Whether they’d ever do anything to me or not, psychologically I couldn’t overcome what I’d call a primal fear of those animals. I didn’t want to push that envelope.

I have no idea what they are. There are both Christians and Muslims [in Nigeria], and those forms of imported religion are still mixed with animism. People believe that ... for instance, these guys [the hyena men] have some kind of spiritual protection from wild animals. But I have no idea what herbs they use.

They’d get hundreds of people out in the street and the crowd would be completely engaged as the men walked along with wild animals, but I just didn’t find it that interesting. What I realized early on was the dynamic between these guys and their animals was what I was interested in. When the crowds gathered, all I saw was what I expected to see in that type of situation. The thing that was really interesting was the interaction between the [hyena men] and the animals and what that represented, and the issues that it brought forth.

I have a preoccupation with our relationship to nature, our relationship to animals. And, along with that, issues of domination and submission and the contradictions and paradoxes that play out within that paradigm.

Yes. Sometimes they would be incredibly affectionate with the animals, but if the animals didn’t do what they wanted them to do, they could be quite brutal.

I didn’t initially go only to photograph these guys. There were other things I was going to photograph in Nigeria. And the first time I went I was completely broke. I could only afford, like, 20 rolls of film. And it took a lot of time to get in a position where I could go back. Also, in my head, I’d matured a lot and I had a better idea of how to ... complete the work I set out to do at first. [The two-year gap] gave me time to reflect on my intentions.

If you look at the pictures, very few of them have defined shadows, and that’s because most of the pictures were taken during the season of the Saharan dust storms, and it creates a natural scrim [a fabric screen photographers use to diffuse light]. And you’ll see there are not very contrasty shadows in the pictures, it’s flat, diffused light. I shot on 120 film. I used a Hasselblad and Mamiya [large format] cameras. Sometimes I used a tripod because often I shot very early in the morning or very late in the afternoon. Everything’s covered in the dust, which gives it the washed-out look. Early on I did desaturate a slight amount, but when I went back to scan them I looked at the contact prints and realized I hadn’t really done very much. The final prints are pretty close to what the contacts look like. It’s an interpretive print, no matter what you do with it, but I purposely kept it flat because they were shot at that time of the year when everything is covered in dust.

See Pieter Hugo's photographs here:

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