South African photographer Pieter Hugo’s self-reflective project ‘Kin’ is a confrontation of roots and a discourse on the politics of family.
Shot over the course of a decade by a white South African artist who regards himself as ‘Colonial Driftwood’; a term laden with guilt and responsibility, Kin focuses on Hugo’s life experience in his native country, a place defined by centuries of cultural and racial tensions.
As his first major work to focus on personal experience, Hugo bravely wrestles with issues of race and injustice and ‘the failure of the South African colonial experiment’, of which too he is a product of.
This volume features photos of his family, friends, neighbours, drifters and the domestic servants who have worked for the Hugo family for over 3 generations. Hugo executes the portraits with the caution and respect of someone who is clearly at odds with his existence as a white man in a country fraught with the memory of colonialism and racial oppression.
“South Africa is such a fractured, schizophrenic, wounded and problematic place. It is a very violent society and the scars of colonialism and apartheid still run very deep. Issues of race and cultural custodianship permeate every aspect of society, and the legacy of forced racial segregation casts a long shadow … How does one live in this society? How does one take responsibility for history, and to what extent should one try? How do you raise a family in such a conflicted society? Before getting married and having children, these questions did not trouble me; now, they are more confusing.”
Achieving an intimacy that denotes a lifetime of experience, Hugo juxtaposes images of people within his community to highlight polarisation between rich and poor, between black and white, expressing his deeply conflicted feelings about home. Without explicitly showing scenes of divergence, Kin reveals South Africa’s economic and racial disparity through exhibiting the contrasts in people’s private spaces.
Hugo carefully navigates through areas of national and political importance, from contested farmlands and abandoned mining areas to the privacy of his own home. Stripping himself naked, he also includes photos of his children in their earliest days, as if to say that nobody is exempt from the collective narratives that have shaped South Africa. In this uncertain terrain, Kin endeavours to locate his young family’s identity in a country with a history of turmoil and an uncertain future.
A slow meditation on the tenuous ties that bind us to one another, Kin is at once a critique of society’s power to divide us and an elegy to the things that make us equal.
“This work attempts to address these questions and to reflect on the nature of conflicting personal and collective narratives. I have deeply mixed feelings about being here. I am interested in the places where these narratives collide. Kin is an attempt at evaluating the gap between society’s ideals and its realities.”
– Kin is published by Aperture and available here
All images © Pieter Hugo