• 01. Pieter Hugo

    Pieter Hugo, Cape Town, 2004, archival pigment on cotton rag paper, 100 x 80cm

  • 02. Nyameka J Matiayna

    Nyameka J Matiayna, 2005

  • 03. Attwell Vuyani Mrubata

    Attwell Vuyani Mrubata, 2005

  • 04. Monwabisi Mtana

    Monwabisi Mtana, 2005

  • 05. Sixolile Bojana

    Sixolile Bojana, 2005

  • 06. Untitled

    Untitled, Amsterdam 2008

Sex, death, getting some stuff done in between

A prominent young South African photographer talks about control, collecting photography books, Messina/Musina, gothic music, David Goldblatt and Richard Misrach. Pieter Hugo in conversation with Federica Angelucci.

You have said that you distrust the portrait since it doesn’t convey the truth. What, then, is it supposed to convey?

I think my comments about distrusting the portrait and the death of photography were made quite boldly and possibly in an inebriated state! But sometimes I look at my work and how people read it, and it has no relationship to what I might have experienced in taking the picture or what I might get from it. There’s no absolute truth in what a portrait can convey.

I think the way I view photography is closer to poetry than to documentary. This makes me think of filmmaker Werner Herzog who says he is not interested in relaying an accountant’s truth in his documentaries. It’s one thing to portray something and to give an inventory of facts, and another to use those facts to your own ends, to achieve something that Herzog defines as an ecstatic truth, an experiential truth.

I think this is something that can be related to portraits. Mostly, I am not particularly interested in conveying the actual truth about a person – and I would be extremely distrustful if that was someone’s intention. But a portrait can definitely convey some

kind of emotive experience, or ecstatic experience, and some level of identification and catharsis that one experiences in relation to the portrait.

I am intrigued by your use of the word “poetry” and the fact that you feel the portrait is closer to poetry than documentation: it reminds me of the idea of the emotional benefit that the subject gets from the portrait – just as poetry can provide a refuge in pain or doubt. Do you think you also benefit emotionally from the portrait practice?

Richard Avedon, in his preface to In the American West, said: “Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me. My concern is … the human predicament; only what I consider the human predicament may simply be my own.” Taking portraits implies a dynamic, but at the end of the day it is the photographer who has complete control. You choose the edit, the setting, the angle … and one shouldn’t lose sight of this.

(continues in the print edition)