An Important Part of Having a Great Eye is Choosing Subjects

Elisabeth Biondi, visuals editor of the New Yorker magazine on photographer Pieter Hugo’s “The Hyena Men of Nigeria:”

‘Some people have said to me that Pieter’s subject is so dramatic that it would be hard to take a bad picture,’ says Biondi, ‘but, you know, a photographer chooses his subjects, and that, too, is an important part of having a great eye. Photographers go where their instinct leads them and then try and work out their fascination for the subject through the photographs they take. That’s what Pieter’s doing but in a kind of extreme way.’ She pauses for a moment. ‘He has a vision and he pursues it relentlessly. He has what it takes.’

Read it (here), Via, Subjectify.

One of the more underrated skills of great photographers.

There Are 18 Comments On This Article.

  1. Very, very cool set of images. It shocked the hell out of me when I scrolled to the first photo of one without a muzzle. Wouldn’t it be great to be the first on your block to have a Hyena puppy?

  2. Pieter’s words are pretty apt, South Africa is a pretty unique place. I’m African, but have lived all over the world and yet i’m constantly drawn back to this place.

    The concept of skin colour and integration between the classes will always interest me, especially when it’s bred so deep as it is here.

    As for the Hyena’s, pfft doesn’t everyone have one?

    *off to feed Jumbo, I hope he hasn’t crapped all over the lawn again, it’s a right bitch to clean.

  3. Those pictures blow me away every time I see them, for so many reasons.

    I find that there is a difference between “choosing” a subject and “finding” a subject, primarily because once a great subject is found, there is little choice involved – it has to be shot.

    The Hyena Men is case in point – who knew these guys existed? Pieter did, and he hit a homer with the photos.

  4. “I mean, do you honestly think a portrait can tell you anything about the subject? And, even if it did, would you trust what it had to say?'”

    Uh…yeah. Peoples’ evidence #1: Hyena Men.

    Sometimes, I think photographers should be seen and not heard. I love Pieter’s work, but when he’s quoted, his spoutings make him sound a little too pompous and arrogant. And then I just roll my eyes and think, “Here we go again…another photographer going “off” and I’ll just wait till he’s/she’s done and then we’ll get down to the business of working together on a great portrait shoot…”

    Not to veer off in some direction other than Rob’s post was meant to be taken, but lemme do just that for a minute…

    Note to photographers: Don’t ever tell an art buyer, art director or photo editor that “photography is dead” or “the business sucks” or there’s no good photography anymore” or bitch about what kind of money you have to make by the end of the month and my job isn’t paying enough to get there. We don’t want to hear it. And besides – we’re in the position to change all those opinions for you if, first and foremost, we think you’re just as interested in working with us on our project as we are.

    This may sound crazy to some of you professionals, but you wouldn’t believe the shit I have to hear and deal with sometimes when it comes to getting a photo project completed. It’s probably partly my own fault for not closing that door when it starts to open, but I shouldn’t have to run up on that door in the first place. Sorry–that part of the article just hit a sore spot in me.

    OK, back to choosing the right subjects. And not saying stupid shit that gets quoted.

  5. Amen. I’m always bothered when I hear “well, anyone standing there in front of that killer content could have made a great photograph.” Well, you weren’t standing there in front of that killer content. Its not so easy to put yourself there.

  6. Judging from those anchor-chain leashes and thick muzzles, I’m guessing those hyenas ain’t exactly domesticated. Hyenas as pets give pit bulls a good name. I wonder if they have junkyard hyenas in Nigeria?

  7. Yesterday I had a look again to Hugo´s work (the hyenas´serie) and I found some of the images fascinating, but not all of them. I prefered the hyena portraits. When I readt the whole story about how this work was made it made sense for me, although they were more mysterious before, when I only had seen them without knowing the story of these men and animals. Before I had imagined an story about them…
    Richard Billingham, I think, he studied Fine Art and if I remember properly one of his teachers got amzed by his early and first serie about his family when he was still in university

  8. This is like saying… “how could you take a bad photo of Half Dome?”. Ansel Adams wrote entire books explaining exactly how he did all of his photography work, down to the smallest technical detail….and yet, only a few have matched his work. It’s the skills and vision that can’t be taught or learned from a book that make for incredible photographic images, and a great photographer can perform magic with any subject. Pieter Hugo is a highly talented photographer, and is at liberty to exude a bit of arrogance.

  9. These don’t really do anything for me…Interesting subject? yes, of course but, they don’t stand out as extraordinary photos to me…In fact, I kind of felt like I was looking at the same photo over and over again going through the hyena stuff….the albino series kind of caught my eye though…the boy w/ the fountain and the lady with her hand on her chest.

  10. CellPhoneDriver

    I recently saw PH during his Aperture West tour. He is one with his own opinions…. no doubt, … very refreshing to hear- but not pompous of arrogant.

    I came away with the impression he couldn’t stand ArtDirectors/Editors

  11. Thanks for bringing these photographs to my eye, I really like this series especially the one with the two guys on the motorcycle with the baboon. Pieter definitely has an underrated skill of finding amazing subjects.

  12. warmdriver

    @5

    fee and budget-wise, editorial photography is a historically heinous and stagnant environment, seemingly unrelated to anything having to do with the cost of living; that is unless fashion or annie liebowitz is involved. photography depts explode the expense accounts for the stars, and then “discover” new generation after new generation of hungry fledglings willing to fill in the gaps for little money, or a loss. i can see why that’d be a hard thing to hear when you’re part of the paradigm.

    yes, editors definitely respond to shooters who are wise or inspired enough to sidestep that paradigm and make a meaningful project on their own dime.

    meanwhile, for those taking pictures, seriously questioning the “truth” embedded in any photograph is a natural — and not original — sentiment. richard avedon was adamant about a similar, oft-quoted, perspective.

  13. must be nice to have a pet that the neighbors WON’T complain to loudly about when it craps on their lawn. V^^^V WOOF!

    *looks back at my two mutts(sheepdog and a border collie)…who are staring me down for a doody/walk*

    me: “You pussies…lets go”

  14. choosing subjects is important but I’d say it has nothing to do with the eye more with the mind. I think its also a bit a responsability of editors to pair photographers with a great eye with good subjects. Thats at least how it has worked historically and still seems to work.

  15. you must be a good photographer to get a great photograph from great content. but you must be a great photographer to get a great photograph from good content. this is why photographers say “yeah, but look at the great subject he had…”. the best photographers know this, and some, perhaps a rare few, just avoid great content for the pure sake of challenging themselves. the truth is, great photographers can make great photographs from chicken shit. show me Pieter does this and i’ll call him a great photographer.