Pieter Hugo – Permanent Error

Copyright Pieter Hugo 2011 published by Prestel Verlag

Pieter Hugo observes and photographs workers toiling in debris fields for the recycling of technology trash. I read this as an elegant ecological criticism of the one of many underlying issues that surrounds technology; the dizzying pace of obsolensces. The toxic nature of the technology discards has created “disposal outsourcing” to low-income countries, which regretfully welcome this opportunity because it has few viable economic alternatives. The “civilized” countries do have waste dumps for regular trash and by-products of their consumerism, but these are not suitable for the toxic nature of the technology waste.

What I see in Hugo’s photographs is repugnant, although for his subjects it appears they are accepting this salvage work as a working opportunity. It appears that the worker’s perspective is very limited and uniformed with little understanding of the ecological terror that they creating and working amongst.

His subject is usually centered within the square frame of the picture and the focus is shallow, the backgrounds fading away. Perhaps due to the environment conditions, the colors are neither vibrant nor uplifting. The compositional treatment renders the subject as a static object, almost beautiful, attempting to render these individuals and animals with banal objectivity. I am reminded of Nathalie Herschdorfer’s narrative of Lea Eouzan’s Auschwitz photographs; “(She) has no desire to arouse emotions or crate a spectacle, yet the viewer feels a certain tension when confronted with these images of a place that represents the unbearable.”

In the edges of the photographs I can see open and clear fields and upon closer examination, I detect that this particular third world technology waste treatment center is not very expansive. Hugo is investigating a small area that is representative of similar technology recycling sites located world-wide. These photographs are hauntingly symbolic of the inherent issues in the design and manufacture of high technology goods that industrialized countries are addicted.

The snowy white keys of a computer keyboard protruding up through the dirt and debris, symbolic of the death of modern technology found in a killing field. Workers are observed patiently waiting while the fire and flames do the work, while the ironic text on a man’s shirt proclaims “sun city”.

I am not surprised to find photographs of a pissing cow or a pissing man, paused mid-stride, in this strong social criticism. The man and animal do not care where they urinate; it is immaterial as they are already in the midst of a dump. It is relatively easy to read into this that man and animal, as well as the photographer, are pissed off about this current state of affairs.

In another incongruous photograph there is the juxtaposition of young girl in white lace dress with pink bow in midst of the hellish landscape and dismal conditions.

As a photobook object, it is a case-bound hardcover book, with two essays provided by Federica Angelucci and Jim Puckett. Photographic plates do not have the accompanying captions, which are provided in a separate section at the ending of the book, as well as a listing of Recycling Abbreviations provided after the Foreword by Angelucci. After a couple of readings of Pieter Hugo’s photobook, I think that the opening photograph that I selected best summarizes his subject; a small Hell on earth.

Douglas Stockdale for The PhotoBook

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