Juhan Kuus started working as a photo reporter at the age of 17, and developed into one of the most influential and radical photographers of South Africa during his 45-year-long career. His photos, which were taken with utter devotion, direct poignancy and unyieldingly close contact to what he was shooting, found their way into the world’s leading newspapers, journals, exhibitions and photo festivals. He received dozens of awards, including South Africa Press Photographer of the Year on several occasions, and is the only photographer of Estonian descent ever to have received the most prestigious press photo award in the world: the World Press Photo Award, which he won twice, in 1978 and 1992.
At the peak of his career, from 1986 to 2000, Juhan Kuus worked as the South African correspondent and photojournalist for the Paris and New York editorial offices of the prominent Sipa Press Agency, founded in France in 1973. His works were published in the most significant newspapers and journals of the world: The Times, The Independent, The New York Times, Paris Match, The Los Angeles Times, etc.
Throughout his career, Juhan Kuus applied his sensitive and sharp eye and complete straightforwardness to record the various aspects of apartheid and the fight against it. He took pictures of the people involved and the events that took place, acquiring the role of an invaluable chronicler of the tumultuous times in South African history.
However, his best works are not limited to news photography. First and foremost, he considered himself to be an anthropologist-documentarian, whose photos narrate deeply humane stories about South African people, regardless of their racial background. His photos recorded the fighting and brutal violence of the fierce conflicts in the Republic of South Africa at the time, which was what the press worldwide was mainly interested in. But his photos also depict the joys and concerns of simple people, their everyday lives and traditions, the relationship between man and land, the prevailing social norms and taboos, and paradoxical situations. Juhan Kuus was always looking for humaneness and trying to see the reasons behind a person’s behaviour, attitudes and choices. Having seen and recorded every possible aspect of human nature through his camera lens without sparing himself physically or emotionally, Juhan Kuus became increasingly interested in the philosophical issue of humaneness, and the possibility or impossibility of being and remaining human.
The exhibition is part of the long-term goal of the Art Museum of Estonia and the Adamson-Eric Museum to map the art and culture of Estonians living abroad, and to introduce artists from different generations of our diaspora to audiences in Estonia. By the end of World War II, more than 90,000 people had left Estonia as refugees. Among them was Harry Kuus (1924) from Tartu, the father of Juhan Kuus. He was one of the “Finnish Boys”, young Estonian men who fought for Finland during WW II; he finally ended up in South Africa via Sweden. A great number of those who left Estonia after it was occupied by the Soviet Union were intellectuals and creative people. For the first time in history, there appeared nuclei of Estonian culture in other parts of the world. It was inevitable that a considerable share of post-war Estonian culture was born outside Estonia. Therefore, in order to get a full picture of Estonian culture and to review our cultural history as a whole, it is vital to find and include the creative heritage of Estonians from all over the world.
Juhan Kuus was discovered for Estonia by chance by one of the curators of this exhibition, the documentary film-maker Toomas Järvet, while he was searching for some material on the internet.
This exhibition and the accompanying catalogue are tokens of gratitude and deepest respect for Juhan Kuus from the Adamson-Eric Museum and its cooperation partner IKKUN.
Our cultural history has been enriched by the arrival of Juhan Kuus’s creative legacy in Estonia. His works broaden our understanding of photography. They offer viewers opportunities to empathise and provide a variety of issues to meditate upon.
Juhan Kuus. The Measure of Humanity. 45 Years of Documentary Photography in South Africa
A comprehensive overview of the creative legacy of Juhan Kuus (1953–2015), the internationally renowned photographer of Estonian descent who was born and worked in South Africa. Since this world-class photographer and his works are practically unknown in Estonia, the aim of the organisers of the exhibition “The Measure of Humanity” is to give him and his legacy a worthy place in the cultural scene and in the cultural history of Estonia.