Pieter Hugo’s exhibition, Kin, captures a South Africa caught between a troubled past and uncertain future.
“My palms are sweaty,” Pieter Hugo tells me. We are at the Stevenson gallery in mid-October, less than an hour before his new exhibition, Kin, is due to open. After New York and Johannesburg, it is now his home city Cape Town’s turn, and the photographer admits to being “very nervous”.
“I’m an artist – I need affirmation like every fucking artist does; it’s such a selfish pursuit,” he says. But this time the anxiety is not just about affirmation. “There might be some other work that I’ve made that I don’t care if it gets shown here.” Kin, he says, is different. “My family’s in these pictures; there are people I love and people I fucking hate in these pictures and they need to see it – and they need to see it in their space.”
Kin “developed quite organically”, he says. “I guess I’ve always made pictures in SA that didn’t necessarily have a clearly thematic impetus – the kind of pictures that you just felt compelled to make – out of curiosity and observations about living here. Then, when my wife fell pregnant, suddenly all these real insecurities came to the fore about being here.”
Before the birth of his first child in 2010, “I felt fine with the South African paradigm and its beauty and fucked-upness and its very conflicting paradoxes” – “glaring and obnoxious” ones that see immense wealth shouldered by deprivation; a country which he finds “unsafe, no matter where you go” and yet where people are consistently “friendly and welcoming”; a nation which could successfully stage a Soccer World Cup but fails to deliver textbooks to its schoolchildren. “I felt fine taking responsibility for myself in being here but suddenly when you have to take responsibility for more than yourself,” you’re forced to take stock, he says.
No one was forcing him to stay. Having won a string of awards and with his work exhibited and bought worldwide, he was aware that his international acclaim gave him the freedom to move elsewhere. To remain here, in South Africa, was a choice – and he realised he had to get to grips with where he and his wife had chosen to settle. And so he decided to “non-judgmentally go out and look” at the space he was “sinking roots into”. A “sprawling” selection of images, Kin is searching for a country’s redemption but at the same time, unavoidably, an exploration of “the darker side of the place you inhabit”.
“It’s not something that you can explain to a curator in one sentence – it’s difficult, it’s layered, it’s nuanced,” he says. “This work is really borne out of some sort of confusion – and trying to join some dots. I hope – even though the images might seem disparate – there’s still a clear authorship to all of them,” he says.
The project marked something of a stylistic departure for Hugo. “I’ve always worked very formally and I started feeling like that was becoming a device. I stuck to that formalist way of working partially because I felt insecure about trusting my own abilities as a photographer, or my own abilities to actually look. I needed to do something that was looser, and that had more space for accident, and that had a combination between that formalism and something more gestural.”
Portraiture, powerful and often pensive, forms the backbone of the exhibition – subjects include his parents, daughter, grandmother, the domestic helpers who helped his family – and also more tenuous acquaintances: vagrants, small-town passersby, an immigrant. Photographed using a large format camera, the images are startlingly detailed, with every hair, every pore on display.
But alongside these, jarring us, are varied spaces – revealing interiors, urban scenes, wide landscapes: a kitchen in Welgemoed, a lonely T-junction in the Vredefort dome; dense Diepsloot shot from above; a neglected war memorial in Springs. Unlike the portraits, he admits these “didn’t come that easily to me”.
Hugo is uncomfortable with the idea that photography should have “this great social responsibility towards the underdog”; he believes that since the 1950s, photography has become embedded in the simplistic dogma that poor is good, and rich is bad; he feels there has been the expectation that work must conform to this. He disagrees, believing the photographer’s journey is an individual one: “Where you situate yourself in this is your own decision – there’s no benchmark or formula or conclusion prescribed to anyone; it’s a personal decision,” he says. “I certainly don’t feel like an activist: I don’t feel like I’m out there to function as the tentacle from an octopus feeding the main body information.” The impulse to pick up his camera is “borne out of a pure and simple childlike wanderlust – wanting to look.”
“One’s way of looking becomes more complicated: the older you get or the more you progress,” he adds. This doesn’t “necessarily make for better work” – he believes sometimes young people’s images “had a clarity and spontaneity that they could never get when their understanding of the medium is more complicated”.
Hugo says much of his past work has embraced “the heroic, and epic and celebratory” – the most powerful of this, perhaps, is The Hyena Men (portraits of street performers and their animals in Nigeria). “I will never be able to make those pictures again,” he says. “That way of looking has gone.” With Kin, “I wanted to do something that gives you more of a gestalt.”
I ask him if he feels like he has a better understanding of his homeland now that the project is completed. “To be honest I feel even more confused, but I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” he replies. “We get fed so much either ‘fuck this place, I’m out of here, it’s going to the dogs’ or some sort of bullshit rainbow nation paradigm, that I think it’s worth sometimes acknowledging a bit more complex reality.” To acknowledge and wrestle with this complexity helps to “situate yourself”. “If I found resolution to this, would I still make work? I don’t think so. Then you just don’t have anything left to say.”
Hugo believes SA is like “a broken mirror and you’re a piece of a shard of this broken thing. You look it, you get some sort of reflection back but it’s not a unified one: it’s a fractured soul.” I ask him if he believes this will change, and he believes not for some time. “It’s a deeply wounded place and it’s stuck in a way of looking at itself that’s terrible. At the moment all it looks at itself is how should it be represented, and who has the right to represent it and it makes for very destructive engagement with work” – a scenario where people look at photographs “in an academic way where the argument is already written” as opposed to allowing themselves the chance to experience the images before casting judgment.
“Photography essentially takes something three-dimensional and makes it two-dimensional: it can only depict surfaces,” he says. “Whatever else you read into that is the context in which it is presented, the audience’s baggage and the trajectory of you as a photographer, which the audience may or may not know about. This is outside of the frame [and] the texture which is being represented.”
Hugo believes these additional layers results in viewers imbuing the images with meanings the photographer didn’t necessarily intend. He is clearly stung by the criticism of previous projects he has received in the past – images such as his Nollywood series of Nigerian screen stars have sometimes led to accusations of racism, of depicting an exotic Africa witnessed through a white, Western lense, “othering” his subjects in the process.
“I’ve got some very serious detractors and I’m curious to see how they respond to work which they can’t simply unpick to a naïve reading – or whether they will even bother engaging with the work,” he says. What has caused the antipathy – the sometimes-vociferous reaction to the way he has portrayed the continent? “People have a chip on their shoulder”– an inevitable result, he believes, of them having been denied “the right to represent themselves for a long time”.
Hugo describes SA as a failed colonial experiment. “Somehow you are part of this history. You’re tied to it, and it’s a heavyweight and you have to remind yourself that it can stimulate you and can form you, but it can also drag you down.” But while he is mindful of the historical burden that has shaped him and his family, he is also interested in the contemporary question of “Who owns history? The history I learnt at school is not the history kids are learning now.” His journeys through SA, whether capturing the desperation of a roadside beggar, or the children’s ward in an abandoned tuberculosis hospital in Mthatha, has proven to him that today’s mythologies shouldn’t be blindly accepted any more than apartheid’s. “If you don’t have a sense of humour or a sense of distrust about whatever paradigm is being offered to you, then you’re either naïve or you’re stupid,” he says.
“Post-1994, the icons of the liberation struggle sold their people down the river,” says Hugo. The resulting rampant self-enrichment and creeping dysfunction means that “a sense of trust in the systems of society is non-existent; it’s totally corroded away. The rich deal with it by building their own systems; the poor are left to fucking deal with it by themselves.”
With our teas finished, we take a wander around gallery. It is almost time: there are one or two people about already, and an electrician hurriedly fixing a row of lights. Hugo points out one or two of the images; he tells me some of their back-stories, and I cheekily ask if he pays his subjects (he says, yes, he sometimes does).
And then we get to the last portrait he took for the exhibition, which he snapped earlier this year. It is of his wife, Tamsyn Reynolds; she is sitting naked, heavily pregnant with their second child. The background is dark; she’s a little splotchy, weary but defiant. I can’t help but notice the sombreness – unlike her 2010 portrait when she was pregnant the first time, and standing in light and shadow. “To me, it was like a resolution,” says Hugo as we stand in front of the picture. The future might be unknowable but he and his wife are still here, the roots they’ve put down extending even further. “The trajectory continues,” he says.
This article first appeared in Wanted‘s November 2013 edition.