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Rob Perrée: Nieuw werk Pieter Hugo in New York

Nieuw werk Pieter Hugo in New York

Sean O’Hagan on photography

Pieter Hugo: seeing South Africa anew

Kin, a moving new exhibition in New York, asks troubling questions about the photographer’s conflicted homeland

Pieter Hugo describes his new series, Kin, currently on show at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York, as “an engagement with the failure of the South African colonial experiment and my sense of being colonial driftwood”. Hugo is best known for his dramatic 2007 series, The Hyena & Other Men. It depicted the nomadic lives of Nigeria’s gadawan kura (hyena handlers), who use the animals to entertain crowds. He has also photographed Rwandan landscapes, scavengers at a toxic dump in Ghana and the Nollywood film industry. He now turns his attention to his still-troubled homeland, with intriguing and sometimes provocative results.

As a white South African photographer, Hugo is acutely aware of the problems of representation that hover around his work, which merges documentary, portraiture, still life and landscape. “South Africa is such a fractured, schizophrenic, wounded and problematic place,” he writes in a short essay about the show. Issues of race and cultural custodianship permeate every aspect of society here and the legacy of apartheid casts a long shadow …”

Hugo’s work brings up the dilemma of how to portray these issues photographically, outside the genres of reportage and photojournalism. The show brings together six years of work and marks a move towards a more personalised, introspective approach. “How does one live in this society?” he asks. “How does one take responsibility for history, and to what extent does one have to? How do you raise a family in such a conflicted society? Before getting married and having children, these questions did not trouble me. Now they are more confusing.” Hugo says his work attempts to look at what he calls “conflicting personal and collective narratives”.

The show features Hugo’s large-scale portraits of family and friends alongside the drifters and homeless people he encounters from all over South Africa. A full-length portrait of his pregnant wife hangs alongside two powerful head-and-shoulder portraits of outsiders: a man with a drooping eye and unreadable stare; another man with a defiant air and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Elsewhere, there are equally dramatic juxtapositions: a self-portrait of Hugo cradling his newborn daughter who shares a room with a photo of the first gay couple to get married in a traditional African wedding ceremony. There are images of the women who worked for his parents and helped raise him, as well as a wonderful group portrait of young men who had just completed their initiation into manhood (and who are, for some reason, all dressed in matching tweed suits from Daks).

By turns beautiful and disturbing, the exhibition is a kind of personal psychological study of Hugo’s conflicted homeland. Some viewers may have problems with some of the undeniably beautiful images, particularly of the homeless and the troubled. Hugo is one of the great photographers of our time, and these portraits have a strange and lingering power. One image – At a Traffic Intersection, Johannesburg, 2011 – depicts a homeless man in an almost holy pose. It is a lasting image with an intimacy that is at odds with the subject matter. This is one of Hugo’s gifts: to make us see South Africa anew and question what we think we know about the place, not to mention photography’s depiction of it.

“I have deeply mixed feelings about being here,” Hugo writes. “I am interested in the places where these (conflicting personal and collective) narratives collide. Kin is an attempt at evaluating the gap between society’s ideals and its realities.” Ambitious and challenging, the show continues one of the most intriguing journeys in contemporary photography.