Nollywood is said to be the third largest film industry in the world, worth over $320 million and releasing approximately 1,000 straight-to-video movies each year. Such abundance is only possible because the films are created in conditions that would make most directors cringe. The movies are often produced and marketed within the space of a week – low-cost equipment, very basic scripts, actors cast the day of the shooting and “real life” locations abound. Despite the improvised production process, they continue to fascinate audiences with their tall tales about dodgy businessmen, bored housewives, horned demons and holy saints.
In Africa, Nollywood movies are a rare instance of self-representation. The continent has a rich tradition of storytelling that has been expressed abundantly through oral and written fiction, but it has never been conveyed through the mass media before. These movies tell stories that appeal to and reflect the lives of its public – the stars are local actors and the plots confront the viewer with familiar situations of romance, comedy, witchcraft, bribery and prostitution; the narrative is overdramatic, deprived of happy endings and tragic; the aesthetic is loud, violent and excessive; nothing is said, everything is shouted.
In his travels through west Africa, South African photographer Pieter Hugo has been intrigued by this distinct style of constructing a fictional world where everyday and unreal elements intertwine. By asking a team of actors and assistants to recreate Nollywood myths and symbols as if they were on movie sets, Hugo initiated the creation of a verisimilar reality. His vision of the film industry’s interpretation of the world results in a gallery of hallucinatory and unsettling images.
The tableaux of the series depict situations that are clearly surreal but that could be real on a set; furthermore, they are rooted in the local symbolic imagination. The boundaries between documentary and fiction here become very fluid, and we are left questioning our perceptions of what is real and what is not.
How did Nollywood come to interest you?
Pieter Hugo: I have been working in Nigeria, and more generally in West Africa, over the last few years, and when travelling through West Africa, it becomes impossible not to watch these Nigerian movies. Wherever you go, whether it’s your hotel, a bar, a restaurant or a police station, people are watching them all the time, with the sound turned up to full volume. Initially, I found it annoying because everybody was screaming all the time, and I couldn’t understand why people want to watch this intense, transgressive, confrontational and badly made cinema. At first, I thought that they were soap operas, but I starting realising that they were actually interesting in their own way because they were, in many respects, among the first examples of contemporary mass media self-representation in Africa. These are movies made by Africans for Africans, unlike something like Hotel Rwanda – shot with French money by an American director and filmed in South Africa for an audience in Canada, so to speak.
How did you start this project?
Pieter Hugo: While I was shooting the last part of The Hyena And Other Men, I shot one or two images on Nigerian film sets. I had some contacts in Nigeria and I started hanging around the sets taking some pictures. While I was there I met Gabazzini Zuo, who is a make-up artist; he started driving me around, introducing me to producers and actors, so I started taking portraits. But I didn’t feel that the pace at which things were moving was feasible to sustain a project, and secondly, I wasn’t really satisfied with my images.
So you started off by taking photographs on existing movie sets?
Pieter Hugo: Yes, I started with straightforward documentary photography. Yet when I started photographing on the sets, I was aware of the fact that I wanted to take photographs that would challenge the usual representations of Africa, because you had these over-the-top characters in real homes and villages. There was no artificial scenery. I thought that isolating the characters from the context and avoiding including the movie crew would be an interesting way of subverting how Europeans or the western world look at Africa. What made this approach more powerful was the fact that the people I was portraying in stereotypical roles were actors, who were being paid to be somebody else. By contrast, it would have been problematic if I had gone to a village and asked people who had never watched TV to impersonate horrid characters – I would obviously then be exploiting the financial and cultural dynamic.
“These are movies made by Africans for Africans, unlike something like Hotel Rwanda” — Pieter Hugo
How involved was Gabazzini in your Nollywood project?
Pieter Hugo: When I complained to Gabazzini that I wasn’t getting the images I imagined, he showed me a portfolio of his work – he had worked on over 1,000 movies! The snaps he showed me that he had taken were amazing. They had exactly the edge I was looking for. I asked him to assist on this project and he readily agreed, in part because he didn’t have any proper photographs of his work, which he needed to go beyond the Nollywood industry and be accepted into foreign film schools.
So he is using your images as his make-up artist portfolio? That’s great!
Pieter Hugo: This also helped involve his friends and entourage – they were very willing to feature in the Gabazzini portfolio because, as models and actors, they were getting paid. On my return a few months later, I didn’t think it was going to be such a big project. But I kept returning to these images and found them to be more and more powerful, so I decided to go back for a second time and take more of them. I then went back a third time, for a longer period, and now the project is finally resolved. In the process of constructing these.
This also helped involve his friends and entourage – they were very willing to feature in the Gabazzini portfolio because, as models and actors, they were getting paid. On my return a few months later, I didn’t think it was going to be such a big project. But I kept returning to these images and found them to be more and more powerful, so I decided to go back for a second time and take more of them. I then went back a third time, for a longer period, and now the project is finally resolved. In the process of constructing these images they became something very different from what could have been seen in the beginning as a quasi-documentation of Nollywood.
What was a typical day like for you shooting this project?
Pieter Hugo: Gabazzini and I would meet at my hotel and decide which subject we would shoot the next day – let’s say a portrait of five guys with machine guns, who have just emerged from the dead. On the day, no guys would arrive but three girls would show up without machine guns. So we would get into the car, go to the police and offer them some money to borrow their machine guns for half an hour. The location we wanted to photograph at wouldn’t be available any more, so we would end up shooting outside the police station. On another day, we would be photographing an actor as Jesus Christ and suddenly all the kids of the village would come and stand beside him, and the image became Jesus with a flock of children. In many ways the images evolved very differently to what I envisaged, which was unlike shooting a commissioned portrait in a location. Sometimes the photographs didn’t work visually, but when they did they had an absolute magic about them. What I like in your explanation of the process is that your idea is modified by circumstances. It develops in different directions as the day passes by. I often thought that all I was doing was setting up a chain of events, serving as the initial input or sparkle that set these events into motion. Then there was some kind of conclusion, and I would photograph this conclusion.
Where does your initial creative ‘sparkle’ come from?
Pieter Hugo: A lot of my inspiration comes from literature, and a lot of inspiration for this project was sampled. I would walk around with a small digital camera wherever I was in the world and each time I saw something that caught my eye, or some kind of unnerving image or representation of Africa, I would take a snap and use it as a starting point to get this project going. But as I said, often what my initial ‘sparkle’ was, and what I ended up with, were two very different things.
Did you find yourself at ease with this process?
Pieter Hugo: Yes, and with this project. Malcolm Smith from the Australian Centre For Photography pointed out that what lends these images their power is the fact that they are the opposite of what a documentary photographer would normally do – they aim to strip away excesses to reveal some coherent, accessible articulation of their subject. In this instance, it’s embellished, constructed and added on, but it still relates to that experience in some way. I like the idea of placing something that sits in between spaces, something that is hard to define.
“On another day, we would be photographing an actor as Jesus Christ and suddenly all the kids of the village would come and stand beside him, and the image became Jesus with a flock of children” – Pieter Hugo
Is it art, documentary or theatre? What is it?
Pieter Hugo: I don’t know the answers, and therein lies the energy of the images.
How do you see this project in the general perspective of your work? How would it fit into a hypothetical retrospective 20 years from today?
Pieter Hugo: When I set out to become a photographer, I wanted to be a photographer – I didn’t know what this would entail and I didn’t really care if I was doing advertising work, photojournalism or portraiture. As long as there were some elements of myself in those pictures, as long as there was some kind of honesty, I was happy. I think we have reached a stage in our understanding of photography in which we acknowledge that there’s no true objectivity in it. I have reached a personal conclusion on this debated issue, and I think it is evident in this project. I feel comfortable in switching from something that is photojournalism-based to something that is completely
When I set out to become a photographer, I wanted to be a photographer – I didn’t know what this would entail and I didn’t really care if I was doing advertising work, photojournalism or portraiture. As long as there were some elements of myself in those pictures, as long as there was some kind of honesty, I was happy. I think we have reached a stage in our understanding of photography in which we acknowledge that there’s no true objectivity in it. I have reached a personal conclusion on this debated issue, and I think it is evident in this project. I feel comfortable in switching from something that is photojournalism-based to something that is completely constructivist, because my preoccupations are the same throughout all my work, they are the thread that links it all together.