Books | Pieter Hugo: This Must Be the Place
Pieter Hugo, “The Hyena Men of Abuja” (Detail), Abuja, 2005.
With the collapse of apartheid in South Africa, white South Africans were no loner prohibited from traveling to countries like Ghana and Nigeria. With the new-found freedom to travel across the continent, Johannesburg native photographer Pieter Hugo embarked on a journey that would take him to incredible worlds that exist across the land. From Nigerian gang members who bring hyenas or baboons on their rounds to collect debts, to the post-apocalyptic landscape of a dump in Ghana where they burn obsolete electronics, Hugo has never shied away from the hard, raw truths of life. His photographs are at once beautiful, alluring, and intense, a sense of horror lurking at the gates.
This Must Be the Place (Prestel) presents nearly ten years of Hugo’s work, featuring a selection of over 100 seminal images. The book is classically designed, with a single image set on the right. The caption sits elegantly in an otherwise blank page, creating a quiet space for repose as Hugo’s photographs transfix your eyes and sear into your brain.
This Must Be the Place features selections from Hugo’s previous Prestel monographs, including The Hyena & Other Men, Nollywood, and Permanent Error, as well the recent release of Kin (Aperture). There are also photographs from Vestiges of a Genocide, as well as Wild Honey Collectors, Barristers & Solicitors, and There’s a Place in Hell For Me and My Friends, among others. When taken individually, or as a whole, the effect is stunning. The photograph freezes time, not just for the subject but for the viewer as well.
As TJ Demos writes in his essay, “There’s No Such Thing as a Happy Ending,” which appears in the book, “In some ways, Hugo exemplifies the nomadic contemporary artist, who is symptomatic of postcolonial globalization, and more specifically represents the new category of the ‘Afropolitan’, who travels the continent in an era of post-apartheid African reintegration.”
In This Must Be the Place, we are brought into Africa by way of a white man, his camera, and the desire to tell specific stories about the landscape of the world in which he finds himself. Hugo observes, “South Africa is such a fractured, schizophrenic, wounded, and problematic place. How does on live in society? How hoes 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 marriage and having children, these issues were obvious to me—now they are more confusing.”
It is that sense of confusion, that unknowingness, that sense of displacement yet profound desire to connect that pervades each photograph selected here. If there is one feature that Hugo’s photographs seem to have in common, it is the level and direct gaze geld between the subject and photographer. There is a common ground, a place reached, where we look across the abyss and see ourselves, the bold and the beautiful.
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in-and-out-of-print loves.