BY Douglas Heingartner in Reviews | 01 MAR 10
Featured in
Issue 129

Pieter Hugo

Cokkie Snoei, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

BY Douglas Heingartner in Reviews | 01 MAR 10

Pieter Hugo, Chris Nkulo and Patience Umeh. Enugu, Nigeria, 2008

Nigeria’s burgeoning ‘Nollywood’ has quickly grown into one of the world’s leading film production centres, churning out up to 1,000 movies every year. Referencing characters from Hollywood blockbusters and focusing on timeless themes such as witchcraft and bribery, these films are usually conceived, written and filmed in just a few days, and are then screened in ramshackle cinemas throughout Africa.

South African photographer Pieter Hugo, who rose to prominence in 2005 with ‘The Hyena and Other Men’, his controversial series of images of itinerant hyena tamers, has again made a series of large-scale colour portraits, this time of Nollywood actors. Hugo, a former photojournalist, began by documenting the actors working on the set, but soon shifted to a studio-based approach in which he asked his subjects to re-enact the often surreal scenes and situations of a typical Nollywood script.

In these images, we see men dressed as mummies, a wild-eyed zombie clutching cash in his hand (Thompson. Asaba, Nigeria, 2008), or a horned demon (Chris Nkulo and Patience Umeh. Enugu, Nigeria, 2008) – characters who at once recall and reinvent their Hollywood forbears. Hugo is playing with the conventions of documentary photography and photojournalism, seeking out their borders in much the same way as these Nigerian films play with the conventions of mainstream cinema; the actors, for example, often get the scripts on the day of shooting, which precludes the possibility of fully researching or preparing for their roles.

But Hugo has the pedigree to pull this off; he won a World Press Award in 2006 and is clearly as aware of the conventions of the craft as he is of his own role in deconstructing it. His brand of experimental practice is still relatively new in South African photography, which has long been steeped in straight documentary imagery. Hugo, for example, paid the hyena tamers for their efforts, a practice that would be considered unethical in a conventional photojournalistic context.

Technically, too, Hugo’s work straddles the conventional and the experimental. He shoots on a photophile’s medium-format film, often using the expensive Hasselblads favoured by legendary documentary photographers, but then scans the images and mutes their colours in Photoshop, creating a dusty, desaturated palette.

Predictably, Hugo’s work has been greeted with accusations of exploitation, with many suggesting that he presents his subjects as exoticized freaks for consumption in the pages of Western coffee-table books. But the people who appear in Hugo’s Nollywood pictures are performers by trade and, as such, are somewhat complicit in the creation of these photographs. Much as he is cognizant of the inherent manipulations and inevitable shortcomings of documentary photography, Hugo is intimately aware of the history of Africa’s portrayal in the West. In ‘Nollywood’, he at once embraces and pillories these clichés, much like Nollywood’s approach to the clichés of film history. Hugo shows us scenes from an otherwise little-known world, but does so in a way that is perhaps only slightly more constructed than a traditional photojournalistic take on that same world.