Paying heed to the title of Pieter Hugo's 2006 photo collection "Looking Aside" isn't really an option. From the blind to the albino and the elderly, oft-slighted subjects gaze out from under harsh studio lights, their unadorned portraits goading the viewer to stop and stare. "The power of photography is inherently voyeuristic," says Hugo, "but I want that desire to look to be confronted."
Such is the foundation of the oeuvre of the 34-year-old, who has built his name on portraits of marginalised African communities, from South African border-town residents to Ghanaian wild-honey collectors. A selection of his work will be on show in a new V&A exhibition, Figures and Fictions, celebrating the wealth of photography in 21st-century South Africa; tracing a line from traditional documentarians to playful postmodernists, it incorporates Hugo as one of the era's most arresting – and controversial – practitioners.
Hugo's work, like that of many of his peers, reacts against the culture of realism that defined South African photography in the struggle years. "People didn't have much time for photography as an art form," he notes. "Photographers usually sat within a liberal camp and used their skills to articulate the political reality – anything less was thought frivolous."
By the same token, it was that political reality on which Hugo's passion was founded; growing up in Cape Town at the tail end of Apartheid and given a camera for his 12th birthday, it immediately resonated with him as a tool that gave k his "adolescent curiosity an excuse to explore [his] strange and conflicted" surroundings. One of his first serious undertakings was capturing the aftermath of the riots that followed the 1993 assassination of ANC leader Chris Hani.
After beginning his career as a photojournalist, however, Hugo became disillusioned by the programmatic nature of his assignments. "I would get a brief along the lines of: 'Go to Rwanda and find a girl who was raped during the genocide and has a child who has AIDs but is receiving antiretrovirals and is leading a happy life.' It was absurd."
His subsequent work has brought a stylised aesthetic to his fascination with the continent's subcultures. It was with his "The Hyena & Other Men" series that he broke through to the international stage; depicting a group of roving minstrels and animal tamers, it was inspired by a photo emailed to him by a Nigerian friend of a group of men walking down a Lagos street with chained hyenas. ("It was the surrealism of that juxtaposition of the urban and wild that struck me.") Shot over two trips in 2005 and 2007, the series captures the men in macho poses against a backdrop of k bleached-out skies, dusty roads and junkyard detritus. Brazen beauty aside, much of their power derives from the ambiguous relationship between the men, their beasts and the "outsider" viewer: who, you wonder, is taming who?
With the critical bouquets has come an equal share of brickbats from those who accuse Hugo of sensationalising and exploiting the exotic "other". "My intentions are in no way malignant, yet somehow people pick it up in that way," he says. "I've travelled through Africa, I know it, but at the same time I'm not really part of it... I can't claim to [have] an authentic voice, but I can claim to have an honest one."
Figures and Fictions co-curator Tamar Garb is ambivalent about the ethical questions his work poses: "Some people feel his work perpetuates an image of Africa as a space of abject poverty and of theatrical display for a Western art market – but he genuinely engages with the places he works in and questions the means of his own representation."
Indeed, no one is more sensitive to the problematic nature of his work than Hugo: he once declared himself to "have a deep suspicion of photography, to the point where I do sometimes think it cannot accurately portray anything". It's a suspicion channelled humorously into his 2008 project "Nollywood", inspired by Nigeria's B-movie industry and featuring actors dressed as mummies, witch doctors and gun-toting outlaws. Self-evidently artificial, they reclaim Western clichés regarding African life – not that everyone got the joke. "People read it as if it was meant to be a realistic portrayal of the Nigerian film industry," he notes wearily.
His provocative spirit undampened, Hugo's most recent series, "Permanent Error", is his most eye-opening: set around Ghana's Agbogbloshie dump, a vast graveyard for the world's computers, it foregrounds the young locals who scavenge for their survival by burning down parts to extract valuable metal deposits. From the brusque finality of its title to the pastoral anomalies of cattle resting in the blasted landscape, Hugo pulls no political punches in documenting the degenerative flipside of technological progress. Yet, still and statuesque, his subjects resist the easy sympathy that would let the viewer off the hook. "It's such a strange and ugly place, yet there's a beauty in the dignity of labour and the pride the kids take in what they're doing," says Hugo. But what do we read into each of their gazes: dignity or defiance, hope or hopelessness? And how does that reading reflect our propensity to sentimentalise or stereotype? Such questions hang in the air as heavily as the noxious smoke.
Figures and Fictions is at the V&A, London SW7, from Tuesday to 17 July. The accompanying book, 'Figures and Fictions: Contemporary South African Photography', by Tamar Garb, is published by Steidl, priced £40