The paradox of tamed wilderness captured by Pieter Hugo has captivated people across the globe, as they marvel at the shock of men photographed not with a dog on a lead, but a hyena. Hugo first heard of the “hyena men” after a friend sent him an image taken on a mobile phone through a car window in Lagos, Nigeria. He was fascinated by the group of men walking down the street with a hyena in chains: a week later Hugo was on a plane to meet them.
Hugo found them living on the edge of Lagos, in a shanty town. During his first trip he spent eight days travelling with the unusual cluster of men, a little girl, three hyenas, four monkeys and a few rock pythons. The group of performers, who entertained crowds and practiced forms of traditional medicine, became the subjects for a whole series of Hugo’s photos: The Hyena and Other Men.
An image (pictured above) called “Abdullahi Mohammed with Mainasara” was showcased in a recent exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It is an image of one of the “Hyena Men” who is poised in front of the camera with his animal. The sandy coloured creature blends into the dirt at the feet of its handler, its muzzle making it look as if it is sporting a gas mask. All authority it may have had under nature has been transferred to the man standing beside it. The animal, once a symbol of raw ferocity, has become placid. It is the now the man who seems to evoke the wilderness: he fixes his gaze on the camera with an intensity, precariously posed as if he’s threatening to leap. Behind the unusual pair, slabs of concrete impose a sense of the urban, while a series of blurred posters stare down on them, watching.
This image is dangerous. It could be seen as suggesting that the subject of the photo is himself savage. Hugo is very aware of the potential his photos have to make false suggestions like this. “I have a deep suspicion of photography,” he explains, “to the point where I do sometimes think it cannot accurately portray anything, really. And, I particularly distrust portrait photography. I mean, do you honestly think a portrait can tell you anything about the subject? And, even if it did, would you trust what it had to say?”
Pieter Hugo’s website has a wide array of his hyena shots. One shows a small girl dozily cradling a hyena while a man squats beside it, gazing into the distance. His hands pull back the creature’s lips, giving a glimpse of its powerful jaws. The animal wranglers believe the young girl cannot be harmed by the hyenas, as she has taken and been bathed in, a traditional potion of herbs. Despite the protection the “hyena men” believe their herbal concoction offers, every member of the party had sores and scars on their faces, legs and hands from when the hyenas have suddenly become violent. Another of Hugo’s images looks like it is from a wildlife shoot, showing one of the mammals in its natural habitat. And yet it is accompanied by a man bearing the tone of the urban: decked out in his shades and pendulum necklace, he looks utterly out of place in the bush.
Hugo states that his work turns to “that which we do not want to look at, be it the old or the terminally ill or the marginalised”. Like his “Hyena Men”, Hugo’s “Permanent Error” collection is no different. It is a series of images showing the effects of toxic waste on one community on the outskirts of Ghana’s capital, Accra. His photos portray a technological wasteland, where fires smoulder amidst heaps of discarded hard drives and monitors from the West.
One photo introduces Yaw Francis, a worker at the waste dump. He stands against a bleak haze of rubble and filth. The youth boldly meets the camera’s glare, defying his surroundings with crossed arms. Smoke billows behind the worker who has headphones plugged in beneath his woollen hat, and indistinct figures cluster in the background. Sun City, the name of a South African holiday resort, is stamped across his vest, an ironic juxtaposition to the surrounding dump.
Hugo’s Wider Work
The self-taught photographer considers himself a “political-with-a-small-p photographer... it's hard not to be as soon as you pick up a camera in South Africa”. Hugo has focused his camera on uncomfortable issues that often get sidelined, choosing to photograph AIDS victims in their coffins, South Africans with albinism and sites of mass slaughtering in Rwanda. His images continue to force viewers to confront the unusual, the marginalised and the forgotten.
See more of Pieter Hugo’s work at pieterhugo.com