Pieter Hugo Green Point Common, Cape Town

Situated precariously outside the protective arm of Signal Hill, trapped between the outer mountainous circle of Cape Town and the vast curve of the Atlantic Ocean, sits the idyllic but exposed Green Point Common in South Africa’s Cape Town. Generally captured in sunny aerial shots showing off Green Point Stadium, the Common is instead photographed by South African photographer Pieter Hugo at ground level, permeated by a characteristically dense Cape Town fog and punctuated by a wind-beaten tree. Beneath this tree lies a sleeping man, who may or may not be a vagrant; the ambiguity of his homelessness representing the moral and social dysfunction of a country marred by the remnants of apartheid. The leaning tree is itself symbolic of a South Africa that continues to grow outwards, always struggling sideways, weighed down by the continuing forces of its own history.

The history of Green Point Common reflects the colonial appropriation of land around South Africa. Initially assumed as a Dutch grazing station, it was later annexed by the British as a recreational area for horse racing, before serving as a military internment and deportation encampment during the Boer War (1899–1902). In 1923 the land was rezoned for public recreation; however, it fell into disrepair and became a refuge for a number of the homeless population of Cape Town. Gentrification of the Common for the 2010 FIFA World Cup led to further displacement of this population, who were removed from the area. Taken in 2013, Hugo’s photograph Green Point Common, Cape Town could therefore be thought to reflect on the return of this homeless population and the continuing dislocation of post-apartheid South Africa.

In an interview with the author, Hugo described how he is continually drawn to the peripheral, and to images of ‘the longing that comes from a personal sense of not belonging or not fitting in’. After having his own children, Hugo began reconsidering questions one of how to live in this society; how to take responsibility for history, and to what extent; and how to raise a family in our conflicted society. In doing so, he approached this series as a ‘family portrait’, photographing both his own relatives and strangers to whom his own history is inevitably tied.

The Kin series is significant as a long-term project, spanning 2006 to 2013, and one of the first in which Hugo focuses more broadly on the South African consciousness; previously he photographed peripheries in other African countries and smaller niche communities in South Africa. He belongs to a new generation of documentary photographers who are re-examining the inherited traditions of resistance photography in South Africa, which came out of the apartheid struggle and the urgency of photojournalism to reveal the truth in a censored society. Hugo uses photography as a means for understanding the world around him, while being aware of its inability to do so, stating: ‘I was just compelled to do it [photograph it] and I deconstructed it afterwards’.

Michelle Mountain, Intern, Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2015)