Taking the camera outside

2008-01-12 00:00

Pieter Hugo has made a career out of photographing outsiders. From his series of albino people to blind people to men and their performing hyenas, Hugo’s work brings the periphery to the centre. With Messina/Musina, the body of work he produced as Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year 2007, Hugo continues this narrative arc, chronicling a reality that exists on the margins of South Africa.

In this respect he is similar to Roger Ballen, who has gained fame and notoriety for his images of very small town SA. But, while Ballen’s haunting images emphasise the outsiderness of his subjects, and, in fact takes them to the edge of surrealism, Hugo gives his subjects a humanity that is both sympathetic and devoid of sentiment.

Messina, renamed Musina to correct the colonial corruption of its original name, is one of the Northern most places in SA. It is on the edge of the Zimbwean border and is both literally and figuratively a place that is peripheral to what is considered to be broader reality. With its hunting farms, diamond mines and North/South Access, Musina attracts a disparate collection of people drawn to the town by the opportunities offered in a barren landscape.

Hugo documents this landscape in disturbing detail, chronicling an uncomfortable relationship with a landscape that is at once beautiful and uncaring, god’s country in a time when god seems to be dead. And there is indeed something strangely religious about Hugo’s work, something which becomes particularly resonant when looking at his portraits of the individuals and families who occupy this landscape. Transfusing studio light into people’s living rooms, the result is an unnerving and knowing blend of family snap shots and kitsch, but immaculate studio photography. Collectively, the images ask questions about race, nationality, difference and sameness, without even beginning to suggest that the questions are answerable.

There is no doubt that the images, like most of Hugo’s images, are provocative. But, more than being provocative, the pictures are beautiful, despite the fact that they exist very far from the conventions of beauty. They are by no means pretty — Hugo himself says, and echoes the sentiments of thousands before him, that art should not be pretty. But even when his images are of litter or road kill or the detritus of civilisation encroaching on immaculately unspoilt landscapes, this strange, slightly disturbing, perhaps slightly unsatisfying beauty, remains.

Hugo believes in honesty, and he is honest enough to suggest that his own subjectivity is also paramount. So he believes in honesty, rather than truth perhaps. But his images are not ideologically or politically intentioned. Instead, in their strange fusion of documentary, fine art and the large format most familiar to us in the realm of advertising, they create another world very much like this one.

Joanna Lehan, in her conversation with Hugo in the catalogue for Messina/Musina, labours the point that Hugo’s images are laden with irony, or taken from an ironic distance. To which Hugo replies fairly emphatically that they are not ironic images. I ask him why he thinks that so many people presume an ironic approach to work that is in fact remarkable for its lack of distance.

Pieter Hugo: I think that that kind of criticism often comes from South Africans audiences. I’ve showed the work subsequently in galleries in Italy and in the U.S. — the book is selling very well. And the response people have outside of SA is very different to the response South Africans have. I think we often bring quite a big political chip on our shoulders to issues of representation, and understandably so. It’s a kind of national preoccupation, and we often throw the baby out with the bath water, where, if it doesn’t fit a politically correct paradigm, it doesn’t have any validity anymore.

Peter Machen: I would think that people outside of this country are obviously less sensitive to these issues.

PH: I don’t think it’s necessarily an issue of being less sensitive. It depends from what kind of vantage point you’re engaging with the work. I suppose it’s often kind of too close to home for South Africans. But to me, the thing the work really deals with is the state of transience. Something that is interesting is that after I did the catalogue and published the book, I’ve been trying to send copies to people in the photographs. And most of them have moved on. They’re not there anymore. And what was interesting to me was that I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what the place was about.

PM: This transitory nature of Musina is reflective not only of such obviously transitory places, but also of a South African reality in which many people are constantly in transition, as they follow opportunities, or escape violence, and, as they move through the hierarchies of class. I’d like to talk about the image of the two beggars from Zimbabwe, the blind man and his caretaker. Out of all the photographs, he was the only one who seemed to have any objection to being photographed written on his face.

PH: Oh no!

PM: I actually didn’t notice it. Someone pointed it out to me. And I think you could read it as a kind of racial thing, but I think it’s more about his refugee/illegal status.

PH: I think that there might be an issue in it. I think they might have been self-conscious about being photographed. I met them in the main street of Messina, and we went for a walk to one of the side streets to take the photographs. They were actually legally in the country. And you know it’s not a snap that was taken — it’s a large format photograph. The process of taking the photograph — to get that shot — took twenty minutes. If you didn’t want to be photographed you’d have left.

PM: Looking at the work in the gallery, and browsing through the catalogue for the show, I was struck by subtle differences between the black family portraits and those of the white families. The white families seem more composed, and also more fetishised. Do you think there’s any accuracy to that?

PH: Well, it’s not the first time I’ve heard that. Look, when I set about doing family portraits, the families that I photographed are people that I met. And I suppose unconsciously one is attracted to certain things and not attracted to other things. I didn’t go out to set up some demographic representation of Messina. For instance, there are tons of traders that have opened up shop. And I didn’t photograph any of them because I didn’t find it interesting or appealing to do so.

PM: Obviously, I see your work in the context of other South African photographers. And I’m thinking specifically of Roger Ballen and Zwelethu Mthethwa, both of whom photograph people outside of their own social class. It’s interesting that people take Roger to task — and you to a lesser extent — and that very few people have challenged Zwelethu’s right to do what he does.

PH: It’s that issue of who is allowed to represent whom. And at the end of the day, one has to be honest. You photograph what appeals to you and what you feel like exploring. I have heard other criticisms of Zwelethu Mthethwa. And with Roger Ballen, once again the criticisms seem to be exclusively South African. I think telling people what they are allowed to and not allowed to photograph is absolutely ridiculous

PM: (laughs) Fully!

PH: It’s like I said in the interview in the catalogue. Are lesbians only allowed to photograph lesbians? It’s absurd.

•Messina/Musina is currently on show at the Durban Art Gallery.

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