South African photographer Pieter Hugo’s work focusing on contemporary Africa is now well-known around the world. For him, documentary photography is a “type of ecstatic experience where one looks at the pictures and one experiences truth, even if it’s not the truth of an accountant.” We talked with him a while back about his experience shooting Nigerian entertainers-cum-debt-collectors known for their pet hyenas, which the townfolk consider to be witches. Now the Hague Museum of Photography is exhibiting photographs from this series, as well as his other work, in a comprehensive survey from the last eight years. The exhibition, called This Must Be the Place, has also spawned a book by the same name. All of it questions photography itself, its limitations as well as its myriad, increasingly complex strategies of representation. And that is what we ended up talking to him about.
VICE: How do you decide what to pursue?
Pieter Hugo: A lot of my inspiration is reactionary to images I see in the media. The Hyena Men started with a picture that someone took on a cell phone. Apparently he was an employee of a mobile phone network in Nigeria and he photographed them from a car window. He posted it on the internet, saying, “These are debt collectors from Nigeria.” The Nollywood series was made because while I was doing the hyena work everywhere in West Africa, every hotel I went to, every bar I went to, people were watching these movies. At the time it really just annoyed me. It later became apparent that it was something quite amazing and worth exploring. Permanent Error started because I had read an article in National Geographic on global recycling and there was a photograph of a computer dumpsite. The Rwanda work came from an article I read in theEconomist on a plane one day. It’s born from literary or media stimulation, out of something I see.
There are a lot of symbols, icons, and costume in your portraits. The portraits of the Liberian boy scouts, for example, are quite interesting. Can you talk about these images?
That was really serendipitous because I was on assignment in Liberia to photograph Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female African president, for an American magazine. I finished the shoot and decided to stay in Liberia for a while, so I was having a beer on my hotel porch and these boy scouts walked past. The fixer I was working with, it so happened that one of the boys was his son. He explained to me that most of the boys were ex-combatants during the civil war. I guess if you’re aware of what your preoccupations are, if you keep your eyes open, they’ll show themselves. It also made me realize that you don’t need to go to the jungles of the Congo to make interesting photographs. It can be around you. You just have to open your eyes to it.
Continue reading: Lenses and Limitations - An interview with photographer Pieter Hugo