Pieter Hugo’s Portraits Reveal Skin Impurities To Comment On Race And Beauty

Federica Angelucci, Cape Town, 2011

Federica Angelucci, Cape Town, 2011

Ulrica Knutsdotter, Cape Town, 2011

Ulrica Knutsdotter, Cape Town, 2011

Rob van Vuuren, Cape Town, 2011

Rob van Vuuren, Cape Town, 2011

Pieter Hugo, a South African photographer, plays with color channel manipulation to create portraits that highlight the impurities on his subject’s skin to make a statement about race, the colonial experiment in South Africa, and contemporary ideas of beauty.

There’s a Place in Hell for Me and My Friends entails portraits of the artist’s friends- all whom call South Africa their home. Through the manipulation of color, Hugo emphasizes the sitter’s blemishes and sun damage making them look darker than they would normally appear without the editing process.

In these portraits one sees how the sitters’ environment, a place where there is incredibly harsh sunlight, has started to ‘corrode’ our epidermis. This speaks to me about the South African colonial experiment – all these people from all over the world, thrown together within the confines of a nation by the forces of history. The damage left by the sun and the environment becomes allegorical of the burden of South Africa’s tempestuous and fraught past. History leaves its marks on us. It eats away at us. We cannot escape its heavy weight.

Besides the political allegories found in the work, Hugo is also interested in highlighting the errors of racial distinction by revealing that beneath it all, beneath our skin, we all look the same. As the critic Aaron Schuman writes about Hugo’s work, “although at first glance we may look ‘black’ or ‘white’, the components that remain ‘active’ beneath the surface consist of a much broader spectrum. What superficially appears to divide us is in fact something that we all share, and like these photographs, we are not merely black and white – we are red, yellow, brown, and so on; we are all, in fact, colored.” (Images via Stevenson)

Pieter Hugo’s Permanent Error

Pieter Hugo’s new series, Permanent Error, depicts Agbogbloshie, a massive dump site for technological waste on the outskirts of Ghana’s capital city, and the locals who burn down the components to extract bits of copper, brass, aluminum and zinc for resale. Tons of outdated and broken computers, computer games, mobile phones and other e-waste are shipped to the area as “donations” from the West, under the guise of providing technology to developing countries. Rather than helping to bridge the digital divide, the equipment is transformed into noxious trash threatening the health of the area’s inhabitants and contaminating the water and soil.

Gray plumes of smoke rise from smoldering piles of disassembled monitors, motherboards and wiring, providing an apocalyptic backdrop for Hugo’s portraits of the workers. The subjects, many of whom are young men sent by their families from impoverished outlying villages, are photographed full-figure and directly engaged with Hugo’s medium-format camera. With each portrait, Hugo draws the viewer into the conditions imposed on this slum community and their effects on individuals. Collectively, the photographs expose consequences of the West’s consumption of ever-new technology and its disposal of outmoded products in poor countries ill-equipped to recycle them. See Pieter Hugo’s Permanent exhibition at Yossi Milo Gallery in NYC from  Sept. 8- Oct. 29th.

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Pieter Hugo

Pieter Hugo
If you haven’t seen Pieter Hugo’s work before, get ready to be completely blown away. Unaltered, straightforward, and as raw as it gets, these images send shivers down my spine, and give me hope that I can still be captivated/inspired/amazed/appalled by a photograph.