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Permanent Error

by Sean O'Toole / 05.05.2011

In the short space of five years Pieter Hugo’s portraits of Nigerian herbalists, Ghanaian honey collectors, Durban taxi washers and young children with Albinism, to list but a few of his photographic subjects, have entered the global conversation about photography. Irrespective of the opinion his photos prompt – because looking without some form of thought or consciousness is just dumb gawping – it bears stating, without any desk thumping theatrics, that Hugo’s magnetic portraits demand attention. They are, quite simply, hard to ignore. The compulsion to look, to not turn away, is, I think, an outcome of his work’s pin-sharp formalism, craftsman-like finesse, acute silence and exaggerated pageantry, the latter often an outcome of simply placing a human subject within a square frame.

All these elements manifest in his new book. Titled Permanent Error (2011, Prestel), it is Hugo’s fifth photobook and follows on Nollywood (2009, Prestel), a delirious and often surreal series of pantomime portraits Hugo made in collaboration with a group of Nigerian actors. If Nollywood was playfully over-the-top, a smart riposte to accusations of freakishness and racism levelled at his photography (I just wish he’d taken his underpants off for that masked self-portrait), Permanent Error marks Hugo’s return to a less self-reflexive mode of practice.

Permanent Error, Pieter Hugo
Pieter Hugo, Untitled, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2009

Stripped down to its basic form, Permanent Error is a tightly bounded essay that focuses on the daylight action at an electronic waste dump on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital Accra. Despite the noticeable shift in register, from performance-orientated photography to something akin straight reportage, Hugo’s new work is nonetheless underpinned by his trademark flourishes of spectacle and otherworldliness. The book’s cover sets the tone. It shows Yakubu Al Hasan bearing (although one wants to say wearing) a bundle of colourful electronic wires on his head. The photo is at once deadpan, it shows what it shows, a man in a black shirt carrying a tyre and tangle of wire; yet, somehow, the photo offers richness without being iconic or heroic. This is a recurring ploy throughout Hugo’s essay.

Pieter Hugo
Pieter Hugo, Yakubu Al Hasan, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2009

For the most part, Permanent Error focuses on the men who mine the redundant electronic components in Agbogbloshie dump for precious metals. Fires burn black. Workers wear no protective masks. The sweat-covered face of Abdulai Yahaya, who squats on his haunches and looks directly at Hugo’s large-format camera, is worthy of comparison to Lewis Hine, that great American social reformer who photographed child labour in the US in the early twentieth century. But Permanent Error is not singularly a record of privation and toil. Hugo is a fabulist, a wonderfully accomplished one at that.

Permanent Error, Pieter Hugo

He is also, more prosaically, someone who notices things. Like Willie Matlala, a former COSATU staff photographer and labour activist, Hugo recognises in Agbogbloshie dump things that derail spectacle and the logic of productivity: mooching, skiving, that wonderful act of loafing. His book includes three studies of sleeping workers, the most accomplished also the strangest: a man is pictured lying on his side, facing an impermanent wall, back turned to the dump and Hugo’s camera. The un-heroic photograph makes me think not only of Matlala’s portraits of sleeping workers but also the Mexican photographer Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who depicted reclining nudes, dead labourers and dreamers sleeping on pavements.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo, El Soñador (The Dreamer), 1931
Manuel Alvarez Bravo, El Soñador (The Dreamer), 1931

One of the more intriguing aspects of Permanent Error is the photographer’s sensitivity to and fidelity to geographical space. Permanent Error is a book about Agbogbloshie dump, no more. While the book includes an essay by Jim Puckett that contextualises and explains the emergence of “global waysides” like this Ghanaian e-waste dump, Hugo himself never ventures outside Agbogbloshie, at least not to make pictures. The ambit of his essay is precise and defined. And yet, in many of his panoramic landscapes Hugo’s camera lens registers a just out-of-reach elsewhere on the horizon line, a kind of outer space that won’t declare itself, that is always receding into the haze created by the burning pyres.

Pieter Hugo, Untitled, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2009
Pieter Hugo, Untitled, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2009

In March 2005, in the lead-up to an article about his career defining Hyena Men essay, I asked Hugo a question. “Do you not worry that there is an element of freak show in your work?” No, he replied, then explained why. “The idea of good science fiction, say with writers like JG Ballard, whom I like, is that it is based in a tangible future. It is not fantasy.” This isn’t all Hugo said that day, but it was the first thing he said in answer to my question. It has always stayed with me, this interest of his in making “fictitious” pictures based in a “tangible reality”. Permanent Error achieves this in a way that lends full authority to JG Ballard’s assertion that, “The only true alien planet is earth”.

*Opening image credit: Pieter Hugo, David Akore, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2010.

**All images by Pieter Hugo courtesy of Michael Stevenson Gallery.
Lewis Hine courtesy Collected Image, Evanston.
Manuel Alvarez Bravo courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

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