Pieter Hugo, 1994

Memory of Land: France

IMA, Vol. 22, Winter 2017

I contributed two pieces to the winter 2017 issue of IMA: the first an essay about Pieter Hugo's recent project 1994 and the second a selection of two photobooks relating to the French landscape in response to the "Memory of Land" feature. 

Since he first began exhibiting his work in the early 2000s, the white South African photographer Pieter Hugo has established himself as one of the foremost photographic chroniclers of contemporary life on the African continent.

Much of his work has focused on his native country: he has photographed people with albinism, young Afrikaans farmhands, football supporters from the township of Rustenberg, and the young men who wash minibus taxis in downtown Durban. With his project Kin, he has explored the notion of family and the bonds that tie people together in the fractured landscape of contemporary South Africa.

But Hugo has also travelled widely across the African continent for his photographs. He has taken portraits of judges in Botswana, wild honey collectors in Ghana, Boy Scouts in Liberia, and the “Gadawan Kura” (hyena men) of Lagos, Nigeria, as well as the country’s extraordinary film industry known as Nollywood. Many of his subjects are marginalized, on the fringes of the public view, but his work also confronts several of the major crises to have affected the African continent, notably through his work on Rwanda.

With his recent series 1994, Hugo has found a highly unusual way of dealing with the weight of recent African history by combining portraits of children born after 1994 in both South Africa and Rwanda. Shot between 2014 and 2016, these images were made in villages in both countries, each one of them depicting their young subject(s) in a natural landscape. The images are striking — they are amongst Hugo’s most highly stylized, staged and choreographed work — but while their aesthetic impact is evident, it is only once they are placed in their social and historical context that the significance of this unusual photographic project comes to light.

The year 1994 that gave the title to this series was a momentous one both for Rwanda and South Africa, but for radically different reasons.


Since 1990, the small East African country of Rwanda had been mired in a civil war between the Hutu-led government and the largely Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). On April 6, 1994, an airplane carrying the Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down on its descent into the Rwandan capital, leading to an escalation in the conflict. From that day on for a period of just a few months, nearly one million people were killed in Rwanda in what was eventually recognized as a systematic campaign of genocide against the Tutsi minority. Entire families and communities disappeared and at least 100,000 children were separated from their families, orphaned, lost, abducted or abandoned. Most of the country’s children witnessed extreme brutality.

At the same moment, Hugo’s native South Africa was transitioning from a period of 43 years of apartheid — a system of institutional racial segregation and discrimination — to one that followed the democratic principles of majority rule with the election of Nelson Mandela on 27 April 1994. The South African children that were born in the years following the end of apartheid became known as the Born Frees.

Having just graduated from high school, Pieter Hugo was profoundly affected by both these events and as his photographic career developed, he created several bodies of work that deal with their ramifications in both countries, including his first major project on the Rwandan genocide, Rwanda 2004: Vestiges of a Genocide. Hugo explains that this project was driven by the fact that photojournalists from around the world were flocking to South Africa to cover the ten years of post-apartheid democracy, while few were investigating the situation in Rwanda a decade on from the genocide. This illustrates one of the central motivating factors in Hugo’s approach: while he began his career as a photojournalist and his work remains driven by a socially conscious approach, over time his practice has become driven by a reaction against the prevalent representations that oversimplify or overlook subjects of great importance.

For 1994, which he began to photograph on the twentieth anniversary of these events, Hugo decided to tie these two disparate histories together into a single series of portraits of children who were born in the aftermath of the events of 1994. While they live in distant countries with different political and social contexts, they are united in having grown up in a post-revolutionary era. Hugo, who had also recently become a father, saw these images as a way of understanding this new era through the eyes of a generation that had never experienced these events themselves, but nevertheless lived in their long shadow.

Hugo describes the portraits as collaborations with the children, several of whom styled and posed for the images themselves. Many of them wear adult clothing provided by the artist, suggesting both the generation that preceded them and the future that they are growing into. Others wear expressions that seem well beyond their years.

The landscape also plays a central role in this work, both in heightening the drama of each portrait, but also because of the tortuous histories that are embedded in them. In the case of Rwanda, these idyllic landscapes were the theatre of brutal violence, while in South Africa the question of the ownership of the land was central to the struggle for power.

Children are often highly symbolic in representations like these, embodying hope or innocence. However, Hugo’s portraits muddy these pure waters. As the children hold the viewer’s gaze, faces impassive, they are figures of contradiction, detached from or unburdened by the weight of history and yet inescapably surrounded by it.

Hugo chose to make the children in the series anonymous in order for them to “embody a larger concept than the individual.” Although he has built his entire career on his master of the photographic portrait, he does not photograph his subjects in order to capture their essence in one image or to translate some truth about them to the viewer. In an interview with the Guardian, he explained, “I particularly distrust portrait photography. 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?”

While they are deeply engaged with the worlds that they depict, Hugo’s photographs do not seek to explain or encapsulate their subjects, but rather to provoke questions, creating a vastly more complex, unsettled image that confounds our expectations.

by Marc Feustel

The importance of the notion of land to the French is evident in areas that go far beyond the realm of photography, whether that is in the relationship of French winemakers to their terroir or in the French word territoire with its multiplicity of meanings and connotations relating to borders, control, identity and the relationship between man and nature. The landscape and its transformation has been a central theme in the development of photography in France, from the French government’s DATAR mission of the 1980s — a vast artistic commission of photographs with the aim of representing the French landscape — to the present day, with exhibitions such as Paysages français, une aventure photographique (1984–2017) which just opened in October 2017 at the Bibliothèque nationale de France. If there is one characteristic of artistic approaches to this question, it is their diversity. In choosing two books that speak to this idea of memory and the landscape, I wanted to select work that operates on opposite ends of the spectrum, from the macroscopic, meta-approach of Alain Bublex’s Impressions de France, which steps back to question the very idea of a land and its implications, to Stephan Keppel’s book, Entre Entrée, an almost microscopic study of France’s most iconic urban landscape through the materials and surfaces of the city of Paris.

Stephan Keppel, Entre Entrée (Fw: Books, 2014)

For his project Entre Entrée, the Dutch photographer Stephan Keppel spent one year in Paris and its suburbs spread over two residencies, one at Atelier Holsboer in the centre of the city and the other at the former suburban home of the Dutch avant-garde artist Theo van Doesburg in Meudon Val Fleury. These two locations allow Keppel to build up a vision of the city that is more rounded and complex than one which focuses (or even avoids) its iconic Haussmanian architecture. The book focuses on surface, with black-and-white images of urban details which are printed experimentally in order to underline the importance of these surfaces. While most of these images could have been taken in any European city, it somehow manages to feel incredibly familiar to the Parisian that I am.

Alain Bublex, Impressions de France (Presses Universitaires de Caen)

This book by the multidisciplinary French artist and former industrial designer Alain Bublex does everything to make itself ordinary (save for its bright yellow cover). Entirely devoid of explanatory text — or even of a title on the cover — Impressions de France asks the reader to consider the decisions that are made in creating a portrait of a country by questioning the nature of the exercise itself. It functions by setting up a grid fixed to the Greenwich meridian line and thereby randomizing the process by which the locations photographed are selected. The book feels like a governmental report stripped of everything but its illustrations, an in-depth but encrypted study of France at its most unremarkable.

by Marc Feustel