Pieter Hugo: The Trauma Behind the Lens

The Trauma Behind the Lens

Text by Carina Cha
February 8, 2016

Pieter Hugo’s portraits will haunt you. His pictures stay with and make you feel conflicted. They are scary, and sometimes viscerally just too real. His subjects have an exotic allure, and it is precisely the exoticism that makes you feel uncomfortable.

The self-taught photographer fully acknowledges that his chosen medium is inherently a superficial one and so his work exists deliberately balanced in a place between fine art and documentary photography.

It’s telling then, that Hugo came of age during the 1990s when Apartheid officially ended in South Africa. He grew up white in a semi-affluent area distinctly dichotomous to his surroundings, both topographically and psychically. Heavily influenced by punk rock music, its DIY ethos, in-your-face lyrics, and discordant sound is the bedrock of Hugo’s work.

With one foot rooted inherently in traditional South African photographic norms, ie. that of urgent documentary news photography depicting the horrors of Apartheid, Hugo had to find his way beyond that norm to create and pursue art in a country where making images cannot escape being politicized. His ultimate answer to this inescapable history is turning towards a locality most of us are unfamiliar with, exposing a specificity that Hugo has wrestled from the world around him.

Culling inspiration from humdrum places—The Economist magazine, a blog, or something texted to him by a friend—Hugo is known to spend years researching his projects. He collaborates with his subjects to create what is before our eyes. It is also no accident these images push you to look beyond the status quo.

All photos © Pieter Hugo, images courtesy of Yossi Milo Gallery, New York.