The Hyena and Other Men
Posted by lisagbrown on February 3, 2008
[Dayaba Usman with the monkey Clear, Nigeria 2005, Pieter Hugo]
The latest issue of Entertainment Weekly highlights a book by photojournalist Pieter Hugo called The Hyena and Other Men. EW describes the pictorial essay:
Transfixed by a cell-phone pic of a group of Nigerian men walking with a shackled hyena, prizewinning South Africa-based photographer Pieter Hugo felt compelled to go to Nigeria himself. Once there, he traveled beside the so-called Hyena Men, a roving band of performers who entertain villages with their pet hyenas, monkeys, and pythons … [the book] features 33 tender portraits of the troupe and their animal companions. (by Kate Ward, Entertainment Weekly)
The photo essay can be viewed in its entirety by clicking here. Certainly, the photo above is an exercise in contradiction, as our relationship with animals often is. The young baboon’s arm is gently, almost territorially wrapped around the thigh of his human friend, which suggests a unique affection and bond. Yet the baboon’s human companion holds a metal leash in his hands and has an ominous training stick casually draped across his feet. The photo essay reveals tender and frightening truths about the human-animal bond, the use of animals in entertainment, the role of animals in poverty, and the complications that arise when commerce and love are two sides of the same coin. As Hugo explains in the essay’s accompanying text, “I realised that what I found fascinating was the hybridisation of the urban and the wild, and the paradoxical relationship that the handlers have with their animals – sometimes doting and affectionate, sometimes brutal and cruel.”
Hugo ends his written introduction by declaring that when Europeans ask only about the welfare of the animals depicted (and not about the humans), they have missed the point of his photographs. Instead, he says, “we could ask why these performers need to catch wild animals to make a living. Or why they are economically marginalised. Or why Nigeria, the world’s sixth largest exporter of oil, is in such a state of disarray.”
Yet, I might ask him in return, aren’t questions about the welfare of humans and animals inextricably bound? I hope that in his writing, Hugo was merely highlighting the absence of humanitarian concerns, and was not suggesting that animal welfare issues should be ignored. It seems to me that the exclusion of humans over animals (or animals over humans) creates an artificial divide that threatens the health and well-being of each creature. The lives of these humans and animals are intertwined with the economic issues facing Nigeria, so our concerns ought to be as well. Hugo’s photographs demonstrate these links with haunting clarity.