The moving world: the real frame of every photo

Pieter Hugo’s Permanent Error Series in C/O Berlin
10 November 2012 - 13 January 2013
Housed by C/O Berlin the exhibition of the 4 finalists of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize 2012 offers an insight into the development of contemporary photography. John Stezaker’s miniature photos and ironic collages, Pieter Hugo’s imposing portraits, Rinko Kawauchi’s visual dairy with revelations of the everyday life and Christopher Williams’ interrogation of our modern use of media, all question the medium of photography itself and try to open new perspectives upon it.
Pieter Hugo’s big format photos from the Permanent Error Series are single- or group-portraits and landscape pictures taken on Agbogbloshie Market, a large damping ground for technological waste on the outskirts of Accra (Ghana), a place locally known as Sodom and Gomorrah. Young men looking for reusable materials, surrounded by grey ash-clouds and smoky orange fires. Cows resting on the damping place, facing the viewer, while somewhere in the background two human figures are walking across the field, carrying found material. There are photos of work, where the photographer’s eye catches the inferno-like atmosphere of the place, and there are also photos of rest, like that of a workman sleeping.
This closer point of view upon the sleeping person adds an intimate note to this series in which most of the protagonists are shown from the front and in full body.
Untitled, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2010

Untitled, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2010

 On entering the generous space of the former gym hall you first encounter Yakuba Al Hasan: a whole bundle of cables crowns his head, on the left shoulder he carries a tire. On the opposite wall there is the photograph of the little girl Naasra Yeti, a bit worried, a bit shy, serious-looking in her wedding-like dress. The young Al Hasan Abukari is also among the photographed workers and his turquoise T-shirt seems to mark him out against the grey background of ash and fire.
Yakubu Al Hasan, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2009

Yakubu Al Hasan, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2009

Through my African studies I was a bit familiar with the work of Pieter Hugo (b. 1976, South Africa), such as his Nollywood series and the The Hyena and Other Men, 2007 (which made him famous). Some of the main characteristics of his style are also visible here: a precise staging of the portrait; his interest for outsiders and the attempt to document their way of life (such as with the Hyena men before); an aestheticizing effect (a sort of slum-coolness in this case), the ambivalent quality of his images, real and surreal in the same time, fascinating and disturbing.
I knew a little what to expect: “the apocalyptic vision” pointed out by critics, the photographer’s “questioning of the ethics of our rapid consumption of ever-new technology and its hidden consequences. Somehow I was afraid the whole project would stay within these lines. I came to the exhibition to check up on Hugo a little, I confess. After seeing them, his photos convinced me they go beyond the sensational and the disturbing. It is this discovery I would like to tell you about.
To me, the unexpected element in Pieter Hugo’s show at C/O Berlin are his videos. Each of the 3 TV-sets at the entrance to the former sport hall shows a young man (from the collectors of technological waste) trying to keep still in front of the camera for quite some time; behind the posing man, his colleagues go on with their work, undisturbed and smoke keeps on rising from the burning discarded material. At the beginning you don’t even realize what it is you are actually watching: a slow motion video or a photograph.
Naasra Yeti, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2009

Naasra Yeti, Agbogbloshie Market, Accra, Ghana 2009

 

Juxtaposing two tempos (cinema and still-image in one) and playing with the notions of foreground and background Pieter Hugo’s videos are like unfolded, prolonged photos. We recognize their protagonists form the pictures hanging on the wall and it is as if we are witnessing the making of the photograph. The question rises in our mind: how were the photos taken? did the protagonists have to sit still for a long while, like exhibits in a museum or in an ethnographic show? Through his videos, Hugo questions the virtues and weaknesses of photography itself. Like its almost inhuman attempt to make a person keep still, turn her into a non-moving object.

The strength of these videos resides in the way they simultaneously convey tension and stillness, coolness and endurance. There is something touching and fascinating in the long posing of the young man trying to keep the load on his head in balance. We have been remembered now: photography is a process and it takes time. And photography also brings the world to a still stand.
Thus, Hugo’s videos reveal a connection between life, which is always moving, and the photograph, which is extracted from this continuous flow of human action.
We watch Pieter Hugo’s unflinching, diligent protagonists keep still while the background keeps on moving. The world and the individual. What is the relationship between the still-image and the world, the actual frame around every photo? Where do we, as viewers, intervene?
Addressing timely issues regarding globalization, consumption, waste,Permanent Error is also a meditation on our world, on life. By stressing out contrasts, his images also reveal connections. And, focusing on individuals surrounded by non-functional computers, Hugo’s photos can also feel like a celebration of life.
To conclude: At C/O Berlin Pieter Hugo’s images are in the good company of Rinko Kawauchi’s poetic photos and short videos (Illuminance). With their works both artists offer us a meditation on duration, endurance and lifespan.

The Deutsche Börse Photography prize is awarded every year by The Photographers’ Gallery in London to “a contemporary artist of any nationality who, through an exhibition or publication, contributed significantly to the art of photography in Europe” (http://www.co-berlin.info/).

All images in the text: ©Pieter Hugo. Courtesy of Stevenson, Cape Town and Yossi Milo, New York

They can also be viewed at: www.pieterhugo.com

Akinbode Akinbiyi: Lagos. All Roads (2010)

Motto: “How many roads must a man walk down   

            before you can call him a man” (Bob Dylan)

 

Akinbode Akinbiyi is a photographer of cities: Lagos, Dakar, Addis Abbeba, to name just a few. Moreover, he is attracted by big cities growing bigger, by expanding cities. He sees them not as finished products and static spaces, but as living organisms in a continuous state of transformation. His All Road series from the year 2010 has the city of Lagos and its transformations in focus. Each image has a story to tell about the city and the life of its inhabitants.

Thus, in Niedergewalztes Viertel (Torn-down Neighbourhood, 2010), just as its title suggests, the image captures the tearing down of one of Lagos’ neighbourhoods considered to be harbouring criminality. The photographer is interested in the complex situation which this process implies, on the duality of this process of “city cleaning”. One of the paradoxes of urban life is that trying to regulate the city also demands the destruction and annihilation of places considered corrupted. As a result of this many families end up on the road, without shelter, maybe prone to more criminality and injustice.[1]

Strand (The Beach, 2010) shows a woman on the shore, dressed in white and carrying a musical and religious object. Her upper side of the body was left out of the photograph, so what we see is the ocean, a man swimming, his face blocked by the figure of the woman in the foreground, footsteps in the sand and the wooden object indicating music making and religious practice. The shot is taken from a very low perspective, opening the visual field towards the right side of the image, while the left side is blocked by the woman’s body in close-up. The image evokes a wide-spread religious ritual taking place at the Bar Beach. Although the place is known for being over-crowded in weekends and holidays, the image we are contemplating is rather devoid of the agitation one would expect in such a place of leisure in a big city.

Strand, 2010

Strand, 2010

Akinbode Akinbiyi’s Lagos is made up of personal discoveries and suggestive details which give rise to further associations. For example in Original Killer, 2010 the advertisement for bug killers draws the viewer´s attention to the woman’s dark shadow and in Ikorodo Road, 2010, taken at one of the city’s most important traffic roads, the local photo studio “Infinity Foto” advertises with a simple board its two minutes passports, thus humourously linking eternity with fast efficiency.

Ikorodo Road, 2010

Ikorodo Road, 2010

For Akinbode Akinbiyi walking and photographing are intimately link to each other:

I attempt to move slowly by, always on the look out. My stance is that of the quiet hunter, treading as unobtrusively as possible. The quest is for images that really say something, really tell the story of the urbanscape presently being traversed.[1]

Original Killer, 2010

Original Killer, 2010

Photographing in black and white lends these images of contemporary growing cities a classical touch. The photos are taken in the present but anchored somewhere in a future past, a shared visual and narrative imaginary, in which growth, demolition and urban change belong to one common story and history.

Stories, in German Erzählungen. Each image adds to the overall bigger picture, is part of a much larger whole. At least this is what I wander for. The city space is in many ways an interminable labyrinth, a maze of never ending streets that coalesce into uncountable pathways leading ultimately towards one’s demise.[2]

Maybe this is also why Akinbode Akinbiyi doesn’t always use titles for his photos. He wants to keep the counting open, to be part of the flow and of the never ending story of images to come. Thus Lagos. All Roads unfolds itself as a very enigmatic title and in the same time defining for the photographer’s style.

The word uncountable fascinated me as a child, the very notion of things being uncountable, a never ending stream of insurmountable numbers. The Erzählungen of today are intimately connected. The Zahl, the number of things perceived and recorded, photographed in order to tell of the urban labyrinth we all wander within.[3]

To make a countless number of images, this seems to be in Akinbode Akinbiyi’s view, the photographer’s hybris, who thus becomes kindred in spirit with the Biblical prodigal son. Lagos. All Roads is a generous photographic engagement with a place in its multiple possibilities and realities.

 

Conclusion

Akinbode Akinbiyi’s photos of Lagos reflect a multi-layered city. His images deal with the obvious and the hidden, with the surface, the detail and the wider picture. His eye is never set on a single way of looking, but adapts itself according to its subject of contemplation. Triggered by a specific object belonging to a particular world his photos manage to widen their significance beyond their context. Akinbode Akinbiyi gives his images the freedom to travel all roads…

All photos © Akinbode Akinbiyi


[1]“Oft schon wurden in Lagos ganze Stadtteile in einer einzigen Nacht abgerissen; so zum Beispiel im Juli 1990 die Siedlung Maroko, in der Köche, Gärtner und andere Hausangestellte lebten, die für die Reichen in Victoria Island arbeiteten. Zuletzt walzten Bulldozer diese Marktgegend in der Nähe von Mile 12 nieder. Angeblich hätten hier Kleinkriminelle Zuflucht gesucht. Immer wieder kommt es zu solchen Maßnahmen, die Tausende von Familien obdachlos machen und ihrerseits Reaktionen der Betroffenen auslösen.” Akinbode Akinbiyi in K. Pinther, L. Förster, Ch. Hanussek (Ed.), Afropolis. Stadt, Medien, Kunst, Walther König, Köln, 2010, page. 136. 
[2]Akinbode Akinbiyi, “Notations of a prodigal son” in Moore, Elke aus dem (Ed.), Prêt-à-partager: a transcultural exchange in art, fashion and sports, exhibition catalogue, ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) und Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nürnberg, 2009, page 42.
[3]Akinbode Akinbiyi, “Notations of a prodigal son” in Moore, Elke aus dem (Ed.), Prêt-à-partager: a transcultural exchange in art, fashion and sports, exhibition catalogue, ifa (Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen) und Verlag für moderne Kunst, Nürnberg, 2009, page 42.
[4]   Idem. 

Uche Okpa-Iroha: Under Bridge Life (2010)

Uche Okpa-Iroha’s series entitled Under Bridge Life comprises images shot under a bridge in Lagos. Just like the title itself suggests, the photographs reflect on the “pulsating, full of energy, suspense and confusion” life in the city of Lagos in general, with its “idiosyncratic infrastructure of roads and bridges which form a complex network” and “the divide or the gap in this spatial order(Uche Okpa-Iroha) in particular. Most importantly, the series focuses on the people inhabiting this gap and their way of life:

            “In this society, the lowly navigate through the socio-economic process of life appropriating what they need, leaving trace behind and charting out new paths for themselves. Thus they create systems of trades, meeting points and places of business. In this way, they attempt to bridge the gap and make the city work for them; to be counted among the demography of the city of Lagos.(Uche Okpa-Iroha).

Some images are constructed like portraits, with people gathering in the centre and looking straight ahead. Others look more like snap-shots, showing people in movement, caught while crossing the visual field of the image. Even the photographs in which the characters are posing still possess an element that is hard to control, and that is the thread of light coming from above the bridge and entering the underground space through the breech in the construction. It is through this physical break in the construction that light is being (poetically) projected on the floor, under the bridge.

Uche Okpa-Iroha’s photos alternate between studio portraits (group pictures) and street-journalism, between constructed and spontaneous images. This also makes the series dynamic. The photographer doesn’t apply only one way of looking and photographing his subject; in order to catch the complexity and multifaceted nature of the place and its inhabitants he resorts to different methods of composition.

The luminous thread is a very impalpable presence in the underground and could also be seen as a metaphor for the presence of the “nous” (“spirit”, “common sense”, “reason” in Greek). The image of light entering a dark space triggers several associations to other famous images in art history: Plato’s myth of the cave, Christian divine inspiration being bestowed upon believers, martyrs seeing the light of God, scholars or laymen receiving the gift of knowledge, etc.

This thread of light is a fundamental compositional element of the series. Whatever it may stand for, it is beyond any doubt a very strong presence, be it sacred or profane. It also appears to beconnecting the two realms. Having the freedom to move, this thread of light travels from the upper side of the bridge to the underground, from the open space above to the rather claustrophobic one beneath. And, through Uche Okpa-Iroha’s images, back to the surface, in front of our eyes.

In a way, Uche Okpa-Iroha is addressing the question “What is life under the bridge like?” and in this respect his work is photo-journalistic, documentary. And maybe the first step towards answering this question is actually just showing there is life under bridge. The inhabitants of this place may still appear ephemeral, transient and too quick for our eyes to catch, but they do show up and their hard existence under the bridge can nevertheless be traced down. And quite beautifully, as a trace of light.

Under Bridge Life

Under Bridge Life

Uche Okpa-Iroha looks at the bridge from two sides, from two perspectives, thus revealing its complex nature: there is a traffic above, and there is one underneath, made up of moving people and moving light.

The pendant to Under Bridge Life is the less known Beneath mini-series. Although it shows work (the construction of a bridge) taking place above the ground, the photographer is looking at his subject from a high point of view. Hence the title, Beneath. This time the photos are shot in black and white, which emphasizes the presence of earth, dust and wood. The human presence is in strong connection with the amplitude and force of these elements. And force appears to be an attribute belonging to a very volatile element: dust.

Beneath The Surface

Beneath The Surface

There is a sense of mystery and sobriety in this series, a combination of physical energy and almost mythical breath rising from an impressive sea of dust. The black and white underline the contrasting elements of the setting: the human figures appear small and dark in the presence of the white dust surrounding them. The space looks almost theatrical in its display of elements and choreography of contrasts. This is characteristic for Uche Okpa-Iroha’s photographic style.

Uche Okpa-Iroha’s series belongs to both social photography and poetic essay. He addresses local realities and environmental problems in photos which simultaneously look like snap shots and theatre settings.

Under Bridge Life

Under Bridge Life

With the Under Brige Life and its revelation of the bond between the above and the underground worlds of the city, Uche Okpa-Iroha won the Seydou Keita Prize at the Bamako Photo Festival in 2009, when the theme of the biennial was “Frontiers”.