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Sean O’Toole on Pieter Hugo’s Permanent Error

Permanent Error

In the following article for Mahala, art critic Sean O’Toole delves into the confrontational world of Pieter Hugo’s latest collection of photographs, Permanent Error . In Permanent Error, Hugo documents the suburb of Agbogbloshie in the Ghanaian capital of Accra, which has achieved a kind of renown for its use an international dumping ground for electronic waste:

In the short space of five years Pieter Hugo’s portraits of Nigerian herbalists, Ghanaian honey collectors, Durban taxi washers and young children with Albinism, to list but a few of his photographic subjects, have entered the global conversation about photography. Irrespective of the opinion his photos prompt – because looking without some form of thought or consciousness is just dumb gawping – it bears stating, without any desk thumping theatrics, that Hugo’s magnetic portraits demand attention. They are, quite simply, hard to ignore. The compulsion to look, to not turn away, is, I think, an outcome of his work’s pin-sharp formalism, craftsman-like finesse, acute silence and exaggerated pageantry, the latter often an outcome of simply placing a human subject within a square frame.

All these elements manifest in his new book. Titled Permanent Error (2011, Prestel), it is Hugo’s fifth photobook and follows on Nollywood (2009, Prestel), a delirious and often surreal series of pantomime portraits Hugo made in collaboration with a group of Nigerian actors. If Nollywood was playfully over-the-top, a smart riposte to accusations of freakishness and racism levelled at his photography (I just wish he’d taken his underpants off for that masked self-portrait), Permanent Error marks Hugo’s return to a less self-reflexive mode of practice.

Permanent Error

Book details

Image courtesy Michael Stevenson Gallery


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