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Friday, September 26, 2008

Pieter Hugo - The Hyena & Other Men

I've never seen a real hyena but Pieter Hugo's photo series "The Hyena & Other Men" is somewhat terrifying. The hyena seems almost savage and brute in form, and I can't imagine how you could domesticate one. Pieter Hugo's artist's statement is fascinating:
These photographs came about after a friend emailed me an image taken on a cellphone through a car window in Lagos, Nigeria, which depicted a group of men walking down the street with a hyena in chains. A few days later I saw the image reproduced in a South African newspaper with the caption 'The Streets of Lagos'. Nigerian newspapers reported that these men were bank robbers, bodyguards, drug dealers, debt collectors. Myths surrounded them. The image captivated me.

Through a journalist friend I eventually tracked down a Nigerian reporter, Adetokunbo Abiola, who said that he knew the 'Gadawan Kura' as they are known in Hausa (a rough translation: 'hyena handlers/guides').

A few weeks later I was on a plane to Lagos. Abiola met me at the airport and together we took a bus to Benin City where the 'hyena men' had agreed to meet us. However, when we got there they had already departed for Abuja.

In Abuja we found them living on the periphery of the city in a shantytown - a group of men, a little girl, three hyenas, four monkeys and a few rock pythons. It turned out that they were a group of itinerant minstrels, performers who used the animals to entertain crowds and sell traditional medicines. The animal handlers were all related to each other and were practising a tradition passed down from generation to generation. I spent eight days travelling with them.

The spectacle caused by this group walking down busy market streets was overwhelming. I tried photographing this but failed, perhaps because I wasn't interested in their performances. 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. I started looking for situations where these contrasting elements became apparent. I decided to concentrate on portraits. I would go for a walk with one of the performers, often just in the city streets, and, if opportunity presented itself, take a photograph. We travelled around from city to city, often chartering public mini-buses.

I agreed to travel with the animal wranglers to Kanu in the northern part of the country. One of them set out to negotiate a fare with a taxi driver; everyone else, including myself and the hyenas, monkeys and rock pythons, hid in the bushes. When their companion signalled that he had agreed on a fare, the motley troupe of humans and animals leapt out from behind the bushes and jumped into the vehicle. The taxi driver was completely horrified. I sat upfront with a monkey and the driver. He drove like an absolute maniac. At one stage the monkey was terrified by his driving. It grabbed hold of my leg and stared into my eyes. I could see its fear.

Two years later I decided to go back to Nigeria. The project felt unresolved and I was ready to engage with the group again. I look back at the notebooks I had kept while with them. The words 'dominance', 'codependence' and 'submission' kept appearing. These pictures depict much more than an exotic group of travelling performers in West Africa. The motifs that linger are the fraught relationships we have with ourselves, with animals and with nature.

The second trip was very different. By this stage there was a stronger personal relationship between myself and the group. We had remained in contact and they were keen to be photographed again. The images from this journey are less formal and more intimate.

The first series of pictures had caused varying reactions from people - inquisitiveness, disbelief and repulsion. People were fascinated by them, just as I had been by that first cellphone photograph. A director of a large security company in the USA contacted me, asking how to get in touch with the 'hyena group'. He saw marketing potential: surely these men must use some type of herb to protect themselves against hyenas, baboons, dogs and snakes? He thought that security guards, soldiers and his own pocket could benefit from this medicine.

Many animal-rights groups also contacted me, wanting to intervene (however, the keepers have permits from the Nigerian government). When I asked Nigerians, "How do you feel about the way they treat animals", the question confused people. Their responses always involved issues of economic survival. Seldom did anyone express strong concern for the well-being of the creatures. Europeans invariably only ask about the welfare of the animals but this question misses the point. Instead, perhaps, 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.

Via One Strange Morning.


  1. this is terrifying and beautiful at the same time. the photography is poignant.

  2. that monkey part i doubt was true.

    other then that it was absolutely amazing. hyenas are pretty terrifying.

  3. They need not catch the animals at all, Pieter Hugo, they could do other things for a living like other people in poor countries (sell things (fruits, crafts, vegetables, carry things for people a.s.o.) f.example). There is just something wrong in those people's brains, their country doesn't function, they should care for their nature and animals instead and let tourists visit their country and show the beauty it has (after cleaning up all the human made dirt, mess and pollution!!)without attacking them (the tourists) and sometimes killing them while walking in the streets. Dont't involve innocent animals in this, they haven't made the country what it is, the humans themselves have!

  4. I never realized how freakin huge those dang dogs are! I thought they were somewhat smaller, but these pictures, in contrast, show them to be massive, muscular, and downright imposing unlike anything I had ever thought.

    Thank you so much for sharing these, it really puts so much into perspective that those nature shows just don't seem to provide.

    Dang, they're so big! :-D I want one!

  5. Also, Anonymous above, what an asshat!

    Countries like this don't worry about tourism or the wildlife, they're far too concerned about their own survival, which is a daily stress factor for them. Where are they getting their next meal, are they going to have safe drinknig water and how are they going to prevail being sick in situation where they have limited, if any, acces to medicine.

    Capturing these animals and using them in such a way, for entertainment, gives them a slight piece of mind that they have a method for some amount of income. As the author posts in the journal, he took a mini bus to Benin City but they had already moved on to Abuja, meaning these people are on the constant move to find some sort of welfare that will provide them with food.

    I don't like the idea that these animals are being domesticated and most certainly that they may be mistreated, but I can't complain about it. These people are making do with what they have at their disposal, which isn't much. One should spend some time with these people to gain an appreciative understanding of their situation before going off and spouting ignorant gibberish.

  6. Thank you for posting these pictures and story. I missed this exhibit when it was in NY and only saw one photo in a magazine, yet I've been talking about them for a year! It is hard to gauge the size of hyena's especially when you see them on tv next to lions, which makes you realize just how huge lions are! Also, I recently learned hyenas aren't actually related to dogs, they're more closely related to the mongoose, how's that for weird?

  7. i was supposed to pack today... instead i spent all day browsing the archives on this site, i love it

  8. hey all - thanks for the comments! appreciate all of your thoughts...

  9. I've been up close to Hyena's, being fed no less and one can not imagine how big they are and their jaws--these pictures are unearving on so many levels (how did I miss this in NY?). Amazing post!

  10. the hyenas seem almost savage?! they're hyenas love!

    i think these are some of the best pictures ive ever seen though. Can you imagine owing a debt to this guy??!

  11. Bahamian guy
    First and foremost...WOW! this is insane! I have a new found respect for these grossly under rated animals. I have never seen anything like this before. I don't want to sound repetitive but, they are some big mongrels! I can truly see why they are definately a force to be reconned with in the wild. They are so beastly, its just mind boggelling how savage and brutish they look. If it were possible to COMPLETELY train and control them I would definately want one. But in a crazy kinda way I think they are cute, but in a crazy way. Thanks alot whoever put these pics up, and the story was pretty good to, especially the part with the terrified monkey

  12. An interesting take on Pieter Hugo courtesy of Pogus Caesar



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