I was over at the Yossi Milo gallery the day before yesterday intending to look at their latest photography exhibit that was getting a lot of press in recent times. The exhibit features the journey of a photographer (Pieter Hugo) to Abuja in Nigeria and his chronicling the lives of an itinerant group who are known as the ‘hyena handlers/guides’ (Gadawan Kura in Hausa). 


In Pieter’s own words: 

“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 practicing a tradition passed down from generation to generation. I spent eight days traveling with them.” 

 The idea was contemporary, chronicling the lives of a lesser known group of humans such that our collective cultural knowledge was enriched about the diverse world we inhabit. The photographs were large in format, in limited editions and priced in the lower five figures – yes, that is right – in the lower five figures. 

 High end galleries in New York are making a lot of money by showing cultural oddities around the world. Nothing wrong with that – that is their raison d’être.. 

In the 18th century, Londoners used to go to Bethlem Royal Hospital to see the lunatics. For a penny one could peer into their cells, view the freaks of the “show of Bethlehem” and laugh at their antics, generally of a sexual nature or violent fights. Entry was free on the first Tuesday of the month. Visitors were permitted to bring long sticks with which to poke and enrage the inmates.   

A question swirling in my mind was as follows: Would even a small fraction of proceeds from the gallery sale reach the actual individual being photographed (since the photo and the resulting dollar stream would not have been possible without the individual participating)? I do not know the answer, but my guess will be no. Would art like this smack a little bit of exploitation? Maybe… 

 Last year, I went about photographing homeless people in New York City to use as subjects for my painting. In preparation for a series of such posts, I published a single photograph on my blog sometime back. What initially seemed like a good idea was deflated when a comment by Kimberley drew attention to the fact that such a venture takes advantage of the situation borne by the hapless individual… On thinking about this some more, I decided that it did not seem right to spotlight people who may be less fortunate than the rest of us. Though I did take a lot of pictures, I never followed up and published them due to sense of guilt in my exploiting their circumstances for artistic gain. Standing at Yossi Milo gallery looking at the Hyena Men bought a lot of these thoughts back to me again…