Who is Pieter Hugo?
Pieter Hugo is one of South Africa’s most recognizable photographers most notably known today for his Hyena and Other Men series. During his nascent career, he was mainly practicing photojournalism before realizing he was not doing enough with his skills. He wanted to get more involved and engaged, to aggressively cross-examine the voyeuristic scrutiny that is intrinsic in photography, instead of ignoring it. As a result, Hugo developed his signature style, which involves gallant portraits that confront the viewer directly. And with this new photography technique, Hugo has had a substantial impact on the field.
Hugo’s work, which has been deemed controversial in some quarters, has stimulated varying reactions and maintained his pledge to an authentic and direct approach. Hugo has traversed numerous countries in Africa, capturing the real lives of the locals through his lenses.
Pieter has made a habit of photographing African landscapes and its marginalized people, so it does not come as a shock that his body of work consists of peculiar subjects such as albinos, the blind and even AIDS victims lying dead in their coffins. Pieter has never been afraid to push boundaries and it shows in his photographs. The end goal of many of his celebrated works has been to address the complex realities of race and identity issues in marginalized African societies through his photographs.
The Hyena and Other Men – How it started
Case in point, Hugo’s The Hyena and Other Men (2005-2007), which is by far one of his most talked-about projects was not planned and was serendipitous in many ways. This series comprises images of Nigerian men who keep tamed baboons and hyenas as pets. The portraits are quite bold and as you can imagine, very unsettling to the eyes, while at the same time, conveying the sense of personal and intimacy.
It all started in 2003 after Hugo received images of Nigeria’s Gadawan Kura, or hyena handlers from a friend taken by a mobile phone camera through a car window in the street of Lagos, Nigeria.
The image portrayed a group of young men casually walking downtown with a hyena in chains. A few days later, Hugo says he saw the image reproduced in a South African newspaper with the caption The Streets of Lagos. However, the local newspapers in Nigeria reported these hyena men as bank robbers, debt collectors, bodyguards, and drug dealers. According to Hugo, there were a lot of myths surrounding them, and that is what captivated him.
Through a journalist friend, I eventually tracked down a Nigerian reporter, Adetokunbo Abiola, who said that he knew the ‘Gadawan Kura,’ as they are known in Hausa (Gadawan Kura translates loosely as ‘hyena handlers/guides’).
Within a few weeks, Hugo booked a plane to Nigeria, and together with Abiola, they proceeded to Benin City, where a group of hyena men had agreed to meet up with them. But upon arriving in Benin City, the Gadawan Kura had already left for Abuja.
Hugo found the hyena men in the outskirts of Abuja in shantytown. The men were in the company of one little girl, three hyenas, some rock pythons, and four monkeys. Unlike how the local media reported, these men turned out to be a group of nomadic minstrels, recitalists who entertain the crowd using animals, particularly hyenas, and also sell herbal medicines. One fascinating thing is that the Hyena Men are all related. What they do is a tradition that is handed down from generation to generation.
Young children are usually trained to tame the hyenas from birth, and even being fed the animals to expel fears in them.
The hyena boys must also be tamed, fed strange medicines from infancy, and plied with snakes to be integrated into the community fueled by the belief that they are spiritually connected to the animals.
How the portraits were taken
Hugo spent a week on the road with the hyena men. Hugo looked for instances where the opposing elements in their acts were so much apparent instead of capturing the performances of the hyena men. Therefore, he focused on photographs. He would take a walk with one of the group members in the streets, and then take a photo whenever a chance presented itself. Hugo traveled from city to city using public mini-buses.
One of them [animal wranglers] set out to negotiate a fare with a taxi driver; everyone else including myself and the hyenas, monkeys and rock pythons, hid on the bushes. When their companion signaled that he had agreed on a fare, the motley troupe of humans and animals leaped out from behind the bushes and jumped into the vehicle. The taxi driver was completely horrified.
The spectacle caused by this group walking down busy market streets was overwhelming. I tried photographing this but failed, perhaps because I wasn’t interested in their performances. I realized that what I found fascinating was the hybridization of the urban and the wild and the paradoxical relationship that the handlers have with their animals – sometimes doting and affectionate, sometimes brutal and cruel.
The second trip
The first trip (in which Hugo stayed eight days with the hyena men), was not enough, and so, the photographer returned after two years as he felt the project was unresolved and was ready to engage with the group again.
The second trip was different. By this stage, there was a stronger personal relationship between myself and the group. We had remained in contact and they were keen to be photographed again. The images from this journey are less formal and more intimate.
As well as being displayed in numerous exhibitions from all over the world, the photographs of the Hyena Men have been converted and posted as memes all over the internet, appropriated by world-class performers such as Beyonce and been published into a now rare book.
The importance of dust
It is easy to see why the Hyena Men from Nigeria garnered so much critical acclaim. The pictures were photographed in the height of the Harmattan season1, which helped to bring a dusty and raw quality to the photographs. The dusty quality was important in helping to highlight the staggering kinship between these beasts and the people that live comfortably around them. Because hyenas are typically not found communing with people side by side, it is almost impossible for anyone to look away at the trans-species relationship unfolding in what appears to be a community marginalized by poverty and rural life.
Maintaining his signature style, the subjects in these portraits are brazenly gazing at the viewer, with their power almost perceptible. The tamed hyenas are submissive while powerful, massive, and terrifying that they are restrained and gagged by their tamers. This series explores the difficult relationship between the photographer and his subjects as well as the subjects and the animals.
The photographs play a critical role in raising questions of how and to what extent animals and humans can live together. Although Hugo captured the images of the men and their hyenas during their moments off stage, it remained clear that the men were still performing in a sense, in complicity with the photography, while the hyenas remained tamed and chained. This helps to point out that although the men and hyenas communed together, it is still very evident that one species has more power over the other, a state that will most likely never change.
The story behind the Hyena Men concurs with the real life of Pieter Hugo. Being a white man living in Africa, the photographer has always felt like an outsider, just like the Hyena Men are painted as outcasts by the local media in Nigeria.
Hugo’s photographs are often accused of exoticizing the subjects; however, he doesn’t try to sidestep the common critiques of documentary photography, but rather, portray all of its aspects honestly.
His photographs, including those in The Hyena Men series, often make the viewer uncomfortable because they force the audience to peek at their own implied part in the exoticizing of something they don’t know much about. The subjects in Hugo’s portraits are not submissive recipients of the viewers’ observation but instead; dare the viewers with their agency.
With other animals