South African photographer, Pieter Hugo (Cape Town, 1976), winner of the World Press Photo prize for portraits in 2005, and a finalist in 2012’s Deutsche Börse prize, has a new series of his work on display at Barcelona’s Fundació Foto Colectania until 10th December 2014. Unlike his previous commissioned projects in neighbouring African countries such as Ghana, Botswana and Nigeria, where the award-winning series The Hyena & Other Men (2005) was set, in Kin the photographer ‘comes home’ to his native South Africa, a place that he calls, ‘fractured, schizophrenic’.
Hugo has explored the relationship between documentary photography and art in previous work, but in Kin he makes a more definitive break with photojournalism’s rules, its pseudo-objectivity and its emphasis on the hard, fast visual statement. His aim is to offer, he says, citing the German filmmaker Werner Herzog, a more genuine ‘experiential truth’.
The word ‘kin’ evokes family ties, close and distant, historical and emotional. Images on show include members of his family, his wife Tamsyn pregnant with their second child, his parents Lize and Gideon in bed, ‘dad with his hangover – like every day’, Ann Sallies, the woman who worked for his parents and ‘who raised me’. There are casual encounters too, most of whom he ‘met in bars’ and who agreed to pose for him. Landscapes and still life shots also contribute to what at first appears to be an wholly eclectic display, were it not for Hugo’s own presence in them, a distinct ‘way of looking’ that draws them all together.
As a tall, white South African, Hugo reluctantly personifies his Dutch colonial heritage, and despite affecting an easy-going manner is quickly guarded, as if self-conscious that his nationality, appearance and profession combined place him in a position of untenable responsibility.
Brought up ‘in a household full of artists’, he took up photojournalism by default: ‘in the apartheid era there were only photographs that spoke about the social and political situation of the country, yet I realised very quickly that I didn’t enjoy this way of working, that of stepping into a state and quickly getting a picture that gave you a sense of context and meaning, and filing it that same evening.’
Kin represents the uncertain conclusion to ‘a process’ he started eight years before, a time, he says, ‘when I was feeling incredibly frustrated and conflicted by the place I lived in. So I thought, let’s look at this place, let’s look at it hard and really take it on and engage with it.’
The result is a series of individualistic images that beguile with their internally harmonic compositions, their painterly vertical or horizontal formats, their earthy colour schemes and almost varnished appearance. Move closer, though, and a sense of conflict is never far beneath the surface: human subjects, though complicit, seem wary, suspicious or even hostile, as if demanding comprehension yet offering back only half-truths. Wide empty spaces around them, ‘allow the images to breathe’, says Hugo, yet they also seem to press upon them, diminishing or threatening to subsume them.
Tradition and modernity make uneasy companions. Hints of the contemporary banal, a plastic shopping bag, a frilly bedspread, juxtapose with traditional tartan suits evocative of the colonial age, or tribal outfits that seem kitsch in their incongruous setting. In Green Point Common (2013) the branches of a tree are swept violently right with the push of a one-directional wind, aligning climatic with equally powerful historical forces.
‘When I started working as a photographer I was trying to situate myself in the environment that I was in, and 20 years later it’s what I’m still doing,’ says Hugo, who admits that the sense of resolution that he’d hoped Kin would bring has eluded him. ‘I’ve failed … I’ve ended up even more conflicted’. Yet the real success of Kin is that it transmits exactly this dilemma and with extraordinary punch and clarity. Pieter Hugo’s search to find his place in a society so deeply divided, where ‘people seem to speak a different language’. His awareness that he too contributes to this divide as much as he bridges it, empathising with the woman taken from her own family to raise him, yet hiring someone like her to look after his own kids. Kin feels like a reintroduction to South Africa, a country so easily vilified or romanticised; but this time it is one made with the door held open.
Fundació Foto Colectania in Barcelona until 10th December, 2014
Fondation Henri Cartier Bresson in Paris from January 2015
all images are © Pieter Hugo, courtesy Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yossi Milo, New York