Few photographers are as controversial as Pieter Hugo. The racial undertones of his work have been discussed at length in many places. But, for the most part, Hugo has let his images stand on their own rather than contributing his own thoughts to the dialogue.
Until now. Guernica art editor Noah Rabinowitz interviewed Hugo recently and it’s one of the first times Hugo has spoken up. Rabinowtiz asks tough questions, and while Hugo doesn’t always answer them in full, the thoughts he does share are very telling. Make sure you give the whole thing a read, and here’s an excerpt specifically about race, criticism and Nollywood:
Guernica: Others may disagree, but in the Nollywood work, I see some comedy.
Pieter Hugo: A lot of people have missed that element of it. It was my Tarantino. I wish more people would see that. But you know what is happening, there’s a lot of reaction to that work. There were particularly strong reactions. One of the Nigerian authors who worked with me on Nollywoodhad threats made against him for collaborating with me on this work. He was called a race traitor. It’s quite scary when academics start dictating to artists that they should be politically correct or follow certain rules of behavior—which means we have to start making dishonest work, which means it becomes didactic and propaganda in nature. I find that very troublesome, very problematic. It’s taken me a long time to figure out why it affected me so deeply. It really upset me. It was never my intention in any way.
Guernica: How is the reaction, if you were to show the image to a Nigerian as opposed to a European or American?
Pieter Hugo: It depends. When you want to look at the Nollywood work and read it as an itinerary of the Nigerian film industry, of course it’s inaccurate. But if you want to read it as, this is a creative person’s interpretation of the phenomena, and has drawn inspiration from the aesthetics of the phenomena, and the audience’s reading of the phenomena, then critique the work on its own merits. Say, “they’re boring photographs where everyone seems to be placed in the middle of the frame.” But of course I’m not an anthropologist. That’s not what my preoccupations are. I found those criticisms debilitating for a really long time. It took me awhile to work through that.
My experience with the vitriolic criticism that has come from that work made me very conscious of how damaging it can be to engage your work on that level and to try to dictate to people what they should or should not do or how they should or should not approach the subject matter. And of course on another level it’s completely condescending, assuming custodianship of other people’s culture. There’s something incredibly patronizing in doing that. In Nigeria you are dealing with the third largest film industry in the world; the majority of the people read newspapers every day. In a way, the critic is more racist and more condescending. The racist word, using racism to critique anyone, unless it’s completely overtly so, is a very dangerous thing to do. It’s not something that should be taken lightly or thrown around without careful consideration.
Guernica: Do you think it is your responsibility as a photographer to provide interpretation of what you see?
Pieter Hugo: As an artist it’s not my responsibility to provide a responsible rendition of how the rest of the world should perceive or not perceive Africa. Firstly, I’m not really concerned with Africa, I just happen to work here and it’s become an extension of my topography and the world that I inhabit. Continually ghettoizing it in that way is also very dangerous, or thinking of things as purely Africa, all you are doing is perpetuating this notion of otherness in some way.