Pieter Hugo’s latest book takes for its backdrop the nearly unpronounceable Agbogbloshie, a vast junkyard in Ghana. Hardly a run-of-the-mill dump, Agbogbloshie is the final resting place of the world’s electronic waste. The locals mine the piled-high machines, burning them to recover the metal, eking out a living while intoxicating themselves, not to mention the soil and the water table. Clearly the mere existence of such an e-dump raises questions about the flow of waste from the First to the Third Worlds, and challenges such contemporary convictions as “eco-tax,” carbon offset and other economical-ecological extravagances, all supported by neat economic/environmental cost ratios hammered out by star financial analysts.

Yet beyond the ethic or moral concerns it may rouse, Permanent Error reveals much about Hugo’s photography. Like The Hyena and Other Men and Nollywood, this new opus showcases the extreme theatricality of the South African photographer’s practice, visible in his sense of framing, composition and the depiction of how “actors” and “set” interact. It is also clear in his signature use of drained, anti-realist color. Yet the essential source of the work’s theatrical strength stems from its respect of the three Aristotelian unities of classic drama: the unities of place, time and action. Here, for example, he lays out the life and the work of the denizens of the Agbogloshie junkyard. This new work concretizes the very construction of this theatricality, which we spied slightly more fleetingly in his previous books. In The Hyena and Other Men, as in Nollywood, it was part and parcel of the subject itself. In the former, Hugo stunned with portraits of hyena wranglers living on the fringes of Nigerian towns. Much like old-fashioned carnival bear trainers, these wandering minstrels organized shows with their animals. In the latter, he drew the curtain on bit-part actors in make-up and costume within the walls of Lagos film studios. With Permanent Error, the construction in compliance with the three unites becomes evident. The subject screams “concerned photographer.” Yet Hugo avoids falling into the trap of a sterile genre by abandoning staging to sculpt a tangible distance. Yes, he shows us this deplorable reality, but he spares us the pathos. Instead he employs a protocol that may take its cues from theatre, but nevertheless remains eminently photographic.


English translation by Kevin Jones.

Pieter Hugo, Permanent Error, Prestel, bound, 112 pages.


Other photos on the Pieter Hugo site.

Galleries Michael Stevenson and Yossi Milo.

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