Pieter Hugo was born 1976 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 lives in Cape Town.
Hugo travels extensively to photograph marginalized or unusual groups of people: honey gatherers in Ghana, Nigerian gang members who bring hyenas or baboons on their rounds to collect debts, boy scouts in Liberia, taxi washers in Durban, judges in Botswana. 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. Each man, woman and child poses in a sterile studio setting, under crisp light against a blank background.
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 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 after Colors magazine asked Hugo to work on an AIDS story.
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 levelled at his photography..., Permanent Error marks Hugo’s return to a less self-reflexive mode of practice.'
In 2011 Hugo collaborated with Michael 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.
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.
While receiving a lot of 'critical bouquets', Hugo has also been accused of sensationalising and exploiting the exotic "other". Hugo responds, "My intentions are in no way malignant, yet somehow people pick it up in that way. I've travelled through Africa, I know it, but at the same time I'm not really part of it... I can't claim to [have] an authentic voice, but I can claim to have an honest one."
Figures and Fictions co-curator Tamar Garb is ambivalent about the ethical questions his work poses: "Some people feel his work perpetuates an image of Africa as a space of abject poverty and of theatrical display for a Western art market – but he genuinely engages with the places he works in and questions the means of his own representation. »
In "The Photography of Pieter Hugo" in Aperture Magazine, Bronwyn Law-Viljoen says: "The novelist John Fowles observes, in an essay on The French Lieutenant's Woman, that 'All human modes of description (photographic, mathematical…) are metaphorical. Even the most precise scientific description of an object or a movement is a tissue of metaphors.' Hugo understands that a photographic metaphor, a way of describing something through reference to something else, is created as much by the elements inside the frame of the image itself as by the carefully chosen distance, what I have called the critical zone, from the photographer’s lens to his subject. It is within this zone that Hugo maneuvers through the muddy waters of political engagement, documentary responsibility, and the relationship of these to his own aesthetic."