Monday, January 10, 2011

Déjà vu: Pieter Hugo's precursor

This might appear like a photograph from Pieter Hugo’s recent exhibition at Brodie/Stevenson called Permanent Error but it is not. It is a photograph taken by Nyaba Leon Ouedraogo from Burkino Faso. For some the most pertinent fact is that Ouedraogo took this photograph and others at, the now famous, Agbogbloshie Market in Accra, Ghana in 2008 – before Hugo. An anonymous commentator on my blog drew my attention to this photograph and others by Ouedraogo, which were nominated for the Prix Pictet photographic award, view the link here.

The anonymous commentator asks whether Hugo had seen this image (and presumably the others) before he had taken his own photographs. I would like to think that he had, as I believe he built on the potential that this photograph promised. I also have an inkling that Ouedraogo wasn’t the first person to photograph this site and the extraordinary phenomenon that exists there: it is such an evocative location that it is easy to imagine that photographers make a pilgrimage to it. 

The post of my review of Hugo’s exhibition attracted a number of comments by people who felt compelled to demonstrate his ‘unoriginality’ by listing a number of potential predecessors (who were all deemed more superior).  I found this particularly interesting but also a futile activity as every artist has a slew of precursors - even those rare individuals deemed to have set art on a completely new course. I am not defending Hugo’s work – but the principles at stake here. I suppose because photography and its potential within the art realm is only just being explored in this country, there is this expectation of the new – that each photographer/artist is compelled to employ it in a distinctive and original way (albeit that the evolution of photography has already played out elsewhere in the world).

This is a particularly difficult objective for those who straddle the social documentary genre, such as Hugo, as off-beat or shocking social phenomenon attract a particular brand of photographer like flies. When I was a judge for the Bonani Africa Photographic competition last year this actuality came sharply into focus.   Of course, there is a distinction between subject-matter and its treatment thereof. In light of this I would argue that Hugo’s series in Ghana is completely different to Ouedraogo’s – even the portrait with the smoke. Hugo is more concerned with the subjects (and portraiture) who inhabit this post-apocalyptic territory, whereas Ouedraogo seems to be giving a broader perspective, encompassing different aspects of this phenomenon and its impact on the landscape: such as the photograph of a bridge over a river of electronic waste.

Because this site evokes quite an obvious discourse centred on unequal power relations between the West and Africa, I suppose the question should be: are Hugo and Ouedraogo saying the same thing? What do you think?

BTW: Just one last little, ironic point: Ouedraogo is so averse to his images being copied in any way that I had to call in an IT expert to help link the above image from his website (he has code in place to ensure that you can’t even do a screengrab) onto this page. I suppose he might be outraged to see Hugo’s series.