South Africa

Daily Maverick Interview: Photographer Thom Pierce

By Marelise Van Der Merwe 18 February 2016

Even if you haven’t been to Thom Pierce’s exhibition entitled ‘The Price of Gold’, you’ve seen his pictures not only in Daily Maverick, but in numerous other publications, where they became an almost iconic representation of the gold mineworkers who took legal action against their former employers after they fell ill with silicosis and other lung diseases. Pierce’s next project is entirely different but no less revealing - a book of his portraits of those who fought conscription under Apartheid. MARELISE VAN DER MERWE spoke to him about his work.

You travelled extensively to meet with miners affected by silicosis and other consequences of the mining industry for The Price of Gold. What stayed with you the most after this journey?

It was an incredible journey. The distances were vast; some households were two hours off the main road down a dirt track. The Eastern Cape and Lesotho are just incredibly beautiful, perfect landscapes for a photographer to work in.

I guess what stayed with me the most is that in this beautiful land and within these colourful houses live many people who have been so callously discarded. They have had to put up with so much injustice in their lives that it just becomes normality. That is unacceptable. I really got a sense of how worthless people were made to feel and it hit me hard.

Photo: Matiiseto Nong (Widow of Samuel Leponesa Nong) – Ha Rannakoe, Mafeteng – 58 years old – Husband died in 2007 and worked in mines for 31 years – silicosis – no compensation

Can you tell me a bit more about the meetings with the miners? What was it like and do you have any idea how any of them experienced it to meet and speak to you?

I was on a really tight schedule, – 20 days to photograph all 56 miners – and so I had to be well- prepared. Most people knew that we were coming and we kept in phone contact whilst trying to find their homes. It was usually pretty tricky to find places so by the time we arrived there was a feeling of relief all round!

It’s really important to me that the people I am photographing understand the intentions behind what I am doing. So, even though I was in a bit of a rush, I had to spend a fair amount of time talking with each person first. It was imperative that everyone understood that I was not working with the lawyers or the government and that I, personally, had no ability to get them compensation and the aim was solely to raise public awareness.

In general it was a really sad experience. To hear the same story over and over reinforced how badly people have been treated. Each of these men and women, so kind and humble but also so broken by the way they have been discarded after putting in so many years of hard work.

I don’t think for a second that it was easy for any of them to meet and speak with me. I made them think about issues and relive experiences that they would probably rather forget but once they trusted that my intentions were honest, they were keen to be part of the story.

When we put on the exhibition in Johannesburg, six of the miners came along and it was really touching to see how proud they were to be part of it.

What has the public response been like to the exhibition?

It has been great. People have been really affected by the exhibition. We ran it in Johannesburg for three days around the time of the court hearings and then it has been at the Iziko Slave Lodge in Cape Town since the beginning of December.

I think that most people were perhaps not expecting to be so emotionally affected by it. The exhibition is in the dark and the audience have to wear a helmet and a miner’s torch to view the images. There’s also an audio track playing the wheezing breath of one of the miners that I interviewed, so it is a multi-sensory experience.

The main feedback that I have received is that everybody needs to see it, we need to get the exhibition up in Johannesburg again for a decent amount of time and take it around the country and then around the world. I am now looking into funding and sponsorship to do that.

What will you be doing next?

At the moment I have a few new projects that are just getting going. The Price of Gold kept me pretty busy until the end of last year and there is still a lot of work to be done with it. I firmly believe that the work isn’t over once the photographs have been made. It’s really important to get the story in front of as many people as possible, otherwise you are doing a disservice to the people who trusted you with their story. I’m looking at getting the exhibition into different venues and the possibility of making a book.

I am currently writing funding proposals for a documentary project about a community that is being forced from their homes to make way for a new mining project in the Eastern Cape.

Later this year I will be starting an Indigogo campaign to fund the publication of a book of portraits of conscientious objectors called ‘The Objectors’.

Before creating the original exhibition] I had read a book called Under Our Skin by Don McRae. It was about his experiences growing up in South Africa with the shadow of conscription looming. I decided to explore the idea. I did a lot of research and came upon a list of 16 men who had refused military service and served time in prison. I embarked on a project to photograph all 16 of them now. Unfortunately three of them have passed away and another three live outside South Africa so I decided to open the project up to key members of the End Conscription Campaign. The result is a series of very stark portraits that invite the viewer to look into the eyes of the objectors and question what they would have done in the same position. 

The entire series of was acquired by the South African National Gallery for their permanent collection.

Photo: Nanabezi Mgoduswa (59) at his home in Bizana, Eastern Cape. He is an applicant in the silicosis case starting in the South Gauteng High Court. Mgoduswa worked on the mines for 14 years and has silicosis and drug-resistant tuberculosis. He has received no compensation. Photograph by Thom Pierce.

What led you to that and how has it been?

There is an American writer, Will McGrath, who I have wanted to work with for a while. He has lived in Lesotho, on and off, for a few years, and so we are moving forward on a collaboration. I have been quite influenced by photographers who have worked closely with writers (David Goldblatt and Nadine Gordimer, Robert Frank and Jack Kerouac) and it’s something I want to explore more. At the moment it is essentially a self-funded project that we hope to turn into a book and exhibition.

If you think of photography not as you trying specifically to portray something or make your voice heard – but rather trying to hear something or learn something from your subject – what is it that you are most trying to achieve?

I think this is a really good observation about photography; much of the time we are not trying to project a story in to a photograph but to let the story be heard through the photograph.

I see photography as a way of making stories accessible to many people. I learnt about the world through photographs and I think that others do as well. At the very least a beautiful photograph can grab your attention and pull you into a story that might easily have passed you by. That is one of my aims, to make the inaccessible accessible. This story of silicosis is quite hard to engage with until you present the people who are affected and say simply – this is what has happened and this is who it happened to.

So at the risk of sounding clichéd it’s about giving people a voice and a platform to be heard. If I can take a photograph that grabs someone’s attention and gets them interested in the story then I’m doing my job right.

What do you find the most difficult thing about the work that you do?

Probably the most difficult parts of the job happen before the photography. I like to be out there, working in the field, but there is a lot of planning that goes in to most projects. Funding is probably the major issue because somehow you have to pay for the accommodation, travel and time. If you can’t pay your bills then you can’t do the work.

I have been lucky and have worked with some great organisations. The Treatment Action Campaign were really involved in The Price of Gold and gave me great support. That makes the work easier.

What’s on your bucket list, workwise?

I like working with other people, experts in a field, and NGOs that are really proactive and doing important work that changes people’s lives. My bucket list would probably be a list of organisations that I would like to work with. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, MSF, UN agencies and smaller organizations, like the Treatment Action Campaign, who put all their blood, sweat and tears into changing people’s lives.

I don’t really have a list of places that I want to travel to or celebrities that I want to shoot, it’s more about working on great stories with organisations that have the ability to make a difference and the reach to get the story heard.

This is the last question, but it should have been the first. When did you first get behind a camera and how did it become a permanent fixture?

I have seen some photographs of myself when I was about twelve with an SLR camera slung round my neck, but I don’t really remember that so much. When I was sixteen I built a darkroom in my parents’ garage and learnt how to develop and print. I remember really enjoying it but being underwhelmed by the photographs that I was taking.

I travelled the world extensively in my mid-twenties, touring with various bands, and that is when I got back into photography, using it as a way to explore the new places I was visiting. When I was about thirty I realised that this was what I wanted to do, and set about taking steps to leave the music industry and concentrate on photography. DM

The Price of Gold is part of Cape Town’s First Thursday event. It is currently on at the Iziko Slave Lodge. For more on Pierce’s work visit Follow him on Twitter @thompierce or Instagram @thom.pierce

Photo: Bangumzi Balakazi with his daughter Zintathu – Pikoli, Peddie, Eastern Cape – 61 years old – Worked in the mines for 25 years – Diagnosed with silicosis and TB – R45,000 compensation


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