by Vince Aletti
Pieter Hugo’s fine new book Kin (Aperture), his most personal project so far, made me go back once again to Cornell Capa’s The Concerned Photographer, published in 1968 to commemorate an exhibition of work by Werner Bischof, Leonard Freed, André Kertész, David Seymour, Dan Weiner, and Capa’s late brother, Robert. Like them, Hugo is a concerned photographer – someone, in Capa’s words, whose role “is to witness and to be involved with his subjects;” someone whose work “demands personal commitment and concern for mankind.” Although he would probably be uncomfortable with Capa’s rhetoric, Hugo brings exactly that kind of thoughtful dedication to all his work, but it’s especially apparent here. Kin is, broadly, a book about South Africa – a measured sequence of portraits, landscapes, and still lifes. On the surface, it’s a rigorously unsentimental photojournalistic survey; underneath, it’s a sprawling, layered, and uneasy self-portrait. Born and based in Cape Town, Hugo says he began to photograph “the notion of ‘home’…as both an intimate and public place” about eight years ago, in between working on other projects. In a brief afterword, he describes South Africa as a “fractured, schizophrenic, wounded, and problematic place” where “the scars of colonialism and apartheid still run deep.” His pictures, no matter how evenhanded and understated, are heavy with the weight of that history. “Home,” he writes, “is where belonging and alienation coexist.”
The very first image in Kin is a portrait of Hugo’s wife, standing in the sun, naked and pregnant with their first child. One hand on her belly, she looks directly at the photographer (and us) with an expression that clouds tenderness with concern. New book, new life, old anxieties. We’re on our way. The second picture is of an empty road curving through a rocky landscape in Cape Town; haze obscures the view around the bend. But if the future is fogged, the present demands a clear eye, and that‘s what Hugo brings to everything that follows. The third photograph, of a black man sleeping on a piece of cardboard on the grass of a public commons, opens things up: Kin has no boundaries. But don’t expect The Family of Man. Hugo has a much flintier model in David Goldblatt, another photographer who understands South Africa from the inside, with a similar mix of empathy, anger, and despair. If the friends, family, and strangers gathered in Kin have anything in common, it’s these same conflicted emotions. “I have deeply mixed feelings about being here,” Hugo writes, and they’re all here, in the year‘s first great book.
Hugo’s work, like that of Alec Soth, Katy Grannan, and Paul Graham, might be called the New Photojournalism for its decidedly subjective take on contemporary life. If you’re looking for a more classic approach to engaged reportage, check out a pair of excellent books from the Brooklyn-based publisher FotoEvidence (its motto: Documenting Social Injustice). In Life in War, the Iranian photojournalist Majid Saeedi sees beyond Afghanistan’s endless war with pictures of a wounded but resilient population at home, at school, in the marketplace, and in the ruins of a civilization teetering between suicide and rebirth. Michelle Frankfurter shares an even more intimate view of day-to-day survival in Destino, her you-are-there narrative of young illegal immigrants from Central America attempting to cross the border between Mexico and the United States. Traveling alongside her subjects, looking into their eyes, Frankfurter closes the distance between them and us, which is painful, heartbreaking, and necessary for any understanding of this divisive issue. Carrying on a tradition, concerned photographers show us a world of trouble and hurt. Our job is to look closely and care enough to change it.