Saturday, August 9, 2008

Pet Photos - The Photography of Pieter Hugo

I always get revved when I look at the hyena -men photos of South African photographer Pieter Hugo. I am transfixed by the fierce looking animals with their Hannibal Lecter muzzles. Equally compelling are the men who hold these beasts; usually at the end of a lead of steel chain. What exactly is going on here?
First glimpsed and photographed by Hugo on a cell phone in Abuja, Nigeria Hugo returned with a desire to get to the heart of the mystery that these men and their animals posed.

"The spectacle caused by this group walking down busy market streets was overwhelming. I tried photographing this but failed, perhaps because I wasn't interested in their performances. I realised that what I found fascinating was the hybridisation of the urban and the wild, and the paradoxical relationship that the handlers have with their animals - sometimes doting and affectionate, sometimes brutal and cruel. I started looking for situations where these contrasting elements became apparent. I decided to concentrate on portraits. I would go for a walk with one of the performers, often just in the city streets, and, if opportunity presented itself, take a photograph. We travelled around from city to city, often chartering public mini-buses."

Hugo has gotten a lot of flack about these photos from animal rights groups and even human rights groups who feel that he is showing images of people who are somehow degraded because they are reduced to a side-show existence.

I can't buy this. There is something going on in these photos that is outside the hard-edge frame that Westerners like to bring to their art criticism, not to mention what they bring to their views on Africa. You can't help looking at these men and their animals and not come away with a deep sense of mystery. Hugo's art has a lot to do with revealing that mystery but the subjects are really doing the heavy lifting.

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