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Pieter Hugo_Kin: Images of a Fractured South Africa

Por: | 09 de octubre de 2014

Thoba Calvin and Tshepo Cameron Sithole-Modisane, Pretoria, 2013 Copia cromogénica, 105 x 139 cm © Pieter Hugo, courtesy Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yossi Milo, New York
Thoba Calvin and Tshepo Cameron Sithole-Modisane, Pretoria, 2013
© Pieter Hugo

South African photojournalist, 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. 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, here Hugo 'comes home' to his native South Africa, a place that he calls, 'fractured, schizophrenic'.
    Hugo has explored the relationship between documentary and art in previous work but in this new series makes a more definitive break with photojournalism's rules; its pseudo-objectivity, its emphasis on the hard, fast, visual statement. In taking on a country as vast and complex as his own, one that leads research in the fight against the Ebola virus, yet where many still adhere to the belief that illness is related to witchcraft, Hugo offers no conclusions. Instead, he cites German filmmaker Werner Herzog in his proposal to offer a more genuine 'experiential truth'.
    The word 'kin' evokes family ties, close and distant, historical and emotional. The 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 images also contribute to what at first appears a wholly eclectic display, were it not for Hugo's own presence in them, a distinct 'way of looking' that draws them all together.

Daniel Richards, Milnerton, 2013, Copia cromogénica, 103 x 82 cm © Pieter Hugo, courtesy Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yossi Milo, New York
Daniel Richards, Milnerton, 2013 © Pieter Hugo

As a tall, white South African Hugo reluctantly personifies his Dutch colonial heritage, and despite his easy-going manner he is quickly guarded, as if self-consciously aware that his nationality, appearance and profession combined place him in a position of untenable responsibility.
    Brought up, 'in a household full of artists', Hugo 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 slower 'process' that 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: distinct images that beguile with their harmonic compositions, their painterly vertical or horizontal formats, their earthy colour schemes and almost varnished appearance. Yet come closer, and a sense of conflict is never far beneath the surface. Subjects, though complicit, seem wary, suspicious or even hostile, as if demanding understanding yet offering back only half-truths. Wide empty spaces around them are designed to 'allow the images to breathe', says Hugo, yet they may also seem to press upon them, diminishing or threatening to subsume them.

Green Point Common, Cape Town, 2013 © Pieter Hugo Copia cromogénica, 105 x 135 cm © Pieter Hugo, courtesy Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yossi Milo, New York
Green Point Common, Cape Town, 2013 © Pieter Hugo

Tradition and modernity make uneasy companions. Hints of the contemporary banal: a plastic shopping bag, a frilly bedspread, juxtapose with incongruous tartan suits, evocative of another time, another place, or pristine tribal outfits that seem kitsch in their modern setting. In the landscape, Green Point Common (2013), the branches of a tree are swept violently right with the push of a one-directional wind, as if climatic conditions align 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,' he says. 
    Yet the success of Kin is that it transmits exactly this dilemma, and with extraordinary clarity. Hugo's need 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.

Pieter Hugo_Kin_ @ Fundació Foto Colectania, Barcelona until 10th December 2014 
@ Fondation Henri Cartier Bresson, Paris from January 2015
all photos © Pieter Hugo, courtesy Stevenson Gallery, Cape Town/Johannesburg and Yossi Milo, Nueva York
For more of Alx Phillips see: 

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Authors (Bloggers)

Chris Finnigan is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. He writes for Barcelona Metropolitan and is a book reviewer and reader for The Barcelona Review. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics. You can find him on twitter @chrisjfinnigan

Ben Cardew is a freelance journalist, translator and teacher, now resident in Barcelona after growing up gracefully in Scotland via Norwich. He writes for The Guardian, the NME and The Quietus, among others, on everything from music to digital media. You can find him on Twitter @bencardew

Fiona Flores Watson is a freelance journalist, guide and translator who has lived in Seville since 2003, and has been a writer and editor for more than 20 years. She writes for the Guardian, Telegraph and Sunday Times Travel Magazine. Originally from Essex, Fiona is also Consulting Editor of and has her own blog, Scribbler in Seville. She has been contributing to Trans-Iberian since 2014 and tweets at @Seville_Writer

Jeff Brodsky is a freelance writer. He arrived in Barcelona in 2013 via an admittedly indirect route, living in Chicago, Arizona, Seville, Amsterdam, North Carolina and Madrid. Despite not having stepped foot in Seville for over five years, he still speaks Spanish with an Andalusian accent. Jeff’s writing has been published in newspapers and magazines in America and Europe.

Koren Helbig is an Australian freelance journalist and blogger enjoying a life of near-eternal sunshine in Alicante. She writes for publications in Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom, focusing on stories exploring smart and positive approaches to social issues. She hangs out on Twitter at @KorenHelbig and keeps a selection of her favourite stories at

Julie Pybus lives in a small off-grid house on a hillside in Catalunya. She usually focuses on helping charities and social enterprises with their publications and websites, but has also written for The Guardian, Country Living and The Observer. Julie launched and runs a hyperlocal website which endeavors to increase understanding between the different nationalities in her area @JuliePybus

Paul Louis Archer is a freelance photographer, multimedia storyteller and artist educator. A cross-disciplinary worker, who endeavors to encompass the mediums of photography, audio design and writing. Born in Hertfordshire of an English father and Spanish mother. Based in the United Kingdom. @PaulLouisArcher

Vicki McLeod is a freelance writer and photographer. She has lived in Mallorca since 2004. Vicki writes about her beloved island for The Majorca Daily Bulletin, the only daily English language paper in Spain; produces regular columns for the Euro Weekly News, and articles for Vicki runs PR strategies for several businesses in Mallorca and London as well as working on her own blogs and projects. She and her husband, Oliver Neilson, supply photo and text content for private clients via @phoenixmediamlr. She tweets at @mcleod_vicki.

Born in Newcastle upon Tyne and based in Barcelona, Alx Phillips writes about contemporary art, dance and theatre in a way that human beings can understand. For more previews, reviews, interviews and extras, check:

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