A powerful portrait can evoke a visceral response so potent that it leaves an abiding impression in our heads and hearts – such is the work of Thom Pierce. Travelling to remote places in South Africa, his images capture communities that seldom, if ever, enter the peripheral thoughts of our collective psyches. Even though the candid style of his work evokes a vulnerability and intimacy, it does so without pigeonholing his subjects as mere victims. Thom uses photography as medium to explore South Africa’s diversity and focus on cultural, historical and social concerns present in our post-colonial country.
His current exhibition, ‘The Price of Gold‘, showing until 29 February at the Iziko Slave Lodge, reveals that slavery exists with little economic light at the end of the tunnel for those who toil to procure bright treasures, yet work in darkness. There are turning points in our democracy, which instead of stirring jubilant cheers of celebration, make it difficult to breath and shake us so deeply that we cry out in disbelief but feel as though our angered shouts fall upon ears with selective hearing. Marikana stunned the nation and tarnished the frequent blind faith many have towards the custodians tasked with upholding and protecting our rights. Have the lives of miners improved since? And what compensation do they receive for years of loyalty? Although not explicitly linked to this tragedy, Thom’s work provides a broad contextual framework touching on the health issues faced by our miners. We chatted to him about the series, his love for photography and what drives him to document the lives of others.
You’re from the UK but have been living here since 2009. What brought you to South Africa and when did you start calling it home?
I grew up on a small island called Jersey, it’s part of the UK but just off the north coast of France. My partner is South African, we met in England and moved here a few years later. She works in public health, and we felt that it was important for her to work here – I was keen for a new adventure. That was 6 years ago, and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I guess I started thinking of it as home once we both realised it was a long term move. I’m very settled here now, although it couldn’t be more different from where I grew up!
Tell us about your journey with photography and what you treasure about working in the medium?
Photography is how I learnt about the world. My dad had a book called ‘Chronicles of the 20th Century’ which was just full of photographs from throughout the 1900s and I would spend hours looking through it. When I was about 16, I got an old SLR and taught myself how to use it. I cobbled together a darkroom in my parent’s garage and began making my own prints. I didn’t have anyone to show me what to do, but I did have a couple of books and managed to figure it out myself. I really loved the making of the photographs, but I remember feeling completely dissatisfied with the emotional connection to what I was photographing.
I left photography behind and, after university, ended up working as a sound engineer, touring the world with bands such as The Chemical Brothers, George Michael and Massive Attack. It was during this time of travel and new experiences that I picked up a camera again and started to document the people and places that we were visiting. That’s when I started to realise the potential of photography and became interested in photographing people.
It wasn’t until I left the music industry and moved to South Africa that I found subject matter I was passionate about. Photography was my way of learning about this country, and I found so much that I could engage with and care about.
I love when you are free to find your own style in photography (i.e. I have nobody looking over my shoulder telling me how things should look) because you mix so many different influences in order to create what you want. I love portrait photography but I also love documentary, fine art and editorials. I am influenced as much by the activist photographers like Marcus Bleasdale as I am by portrait photographers like Arnold Newman. It is a medium that has so much potential, and once you have learnt the necessary technical aspects, it allows you to go in whichever direction you choose.
I love how a short series of photographs can tell such a powerful story and how, unlike music or film, the time spent on each image is up to the viewer. You can take away so much in a split second or look for a while and discover even more.
What makes a powerful portrait?
To me a powerful portrait is something that is simple but honest and reveals a truth about the subject. Sometimes this is done by showing the environment that they inhabit, other times it is simply an expression. There are many pieces that make up a powerful portrait and they all work together to form something bigger than their individual parts.
A portrait needs to feel considered, the viewer needs see that it has been taken with much care and attention. The subject needs to be fairly represented and the context needs to be clear (unless you don’t want it to be). In the making of a powerful portrait you have to really work for it. It takes effort to make something that resonates emotionally whilst still considering all of the other variables within the image (focus, shape, colour, line and so on).
Your series, ‘The Price of Gold’, is currently showing at Iziko. What inspired this body of work?
I read an article in the newspaper about silicosis, a lung disease that is contracted from working in the gold mines. It spoke about the court case against the mines and about the miners who were sent home, unable to work and with little or no compensation. One of my areas of interest within my work is the impact of big businesses. I contacted some of the people who were working on the issue and travelled to the Eastern Cape to see who I could find and if there was potential for a bigger body of work. From that first trip I put together a short multimedia film, with Sonke Gender Justice, that was run in the Mail & Guardian.
I was then contacted by Anso Thom (Section27) and Lotti Rutter (Treatment Action Campaign) asking if we could find a way to take the project further, as a piece of advocacy for the upcoming court case. TAC and Sonke were acting as friends of the court and Section27 were representing them in a legal capacity.
There is no getting away from the fact that I come from a position of privilege, but I hope that by telling stories and dealing with issues that could result in some kind of change, I am making a positive contribution.
Over a cup of coffee, we came up with the idea to try to photograph all 56 of the miners who were named in the lawsuit. We all agreed that it was probably impossible, but that it was worth our best efforts. We had about 28 days until the court case started and they wanted to present it as an exhibition, to add a level of humanity to the court proceedings. It was a whirlwind adventure travelling through some of the most beautiful, but inaccessible parts of South Africa and Lesotho, to find and photograph the miners or their surviving family.
So, this small project became something really quite large. The show first exhibited in the Central Methodist Church, next-door to the High Court in Johannesburg, at the time of the court case. We decided on an installation format, in the dark, with only the light from a torch on a miner’s helmet to light the images. This was only made possible by the enthusiasm and hard work of a lot of amazing people from TAC and Section27 – none of it would have happened without them.
The exhibition received international attention. How have South Africans responded?
The local response has been great, people have been very moved by the whole exhibition. I think that the photographs have put a human face to an issue that might easily be overlooked, and I hope that it has gone some way to making that story more relevant and interesting to many South Africans. The images have been in much of the local media, and I have received very touching feedback from many people, who have been affected by what they have seen. I have had people asking how they can help and even if they can donate money to one of the children in the photographs.
Your portraits are brutally honest. How do you go about shooting them and approaching your subjects?
To me portraiture is about an agreement between the photographer and the subjects. If you take a quick picture of someone in the street without them agreeing to it, that isn’t a portrait. There has to be an understanding of intention on both sides. I have to know why I am taking the portrait and I need to be able to communicate that to the subject. It is within that transaction that much of the portrait is built.
Whilst the portraits may not always be flattering, they are honest and are an attempt to be a sensitive and truthful representation of the subject. If you build rapport and get the subject to trust you and believe in what you are doing, then they will give you what you need for a compelling portrait.
Time is a really important factor, you don’t just want to barge in, quickly take a few photographs and then leave. Taking time and making an effort to communicate builds trust and is very important to me. I often shoot with lights and it takes a bit of time to set up. I will spend the same amount of time and effort on a photograph of a guy in the middle of rural Lesotho as I will photographing a celebrity. It’s important to me because they both deserve the respect and effort it takes to make a good photograph. Once someone realises that you are making an effort and really caring about what you are doing, that makes them feel respected. I’m not an intimidating guy and that works in my favour, I think. I will always try to greet people in their own language and this often causes a bit of laughter. I hope that the honesty in my intention comes across.
I am really interested in the way that, as human beings in an increasingly small world, we adopt influences from many different places and rework them into our own identity.
The ‘Platfontein’ series explores the influence of hip hop in a remote community. What drew you to explore this and what did you take away from the experience?
Actually I was approached by a Nigerian friend, Itunu Bodunrin, who was writing his masters dissertation about the influence of hip hop on a small community outside Kimberley. I thought it sounded interesting and so jumped in the car and drove there.
It was amazing to see how these guys were just obsessed with writing and performing, it was such an outlet for them. Their lyrics are all about identity and confusion, coming from Angola and Namibia but displaced by war and living in South Africa. Coming from a musical production background, I really respected how they used whatever they could get their hands on to make beats and record their raps, the audio quality isn’t high but the passion is palpable.
I am really interested in the way that, as human beings in an increasingly small world, we adopt influences from many different places and rework them into our own identity. This is now becoming a larger body of work for me, looking at people in South Africa who are heavily influenced by art and culture outside of their own local experience or tradition.
What are the challenges of the job?
This isn’t a glamorous job! It’s hard work and a lot of the time it is working in very trying conditions. Photography is always a battle, there is always something working against you. Whether it’s light, space, time, equipment or budget, you are always trying to make the best out of a situation.
I am a real perfectionist, so I am not happy unless everything is perfect, I will keep going until I think that I have done the best that I can do. I probably make the job more challenging than others, but I wouldn’t feel like I was doing a good job if not.
Budget is always a challenge and trying to find the right people to work with or adequate funding for a project is a constant struggle for any photographer. I love working with writers, activists and organisations that are producing interesting and important work but they are seldom the ones with the most money.
One of the most important aspects of the job is what you do after the photographs are taken and for me this is one of the biggest challenges (which I am happy to embrace with open arms). There is no point in doing the work unless you are going to put the sweat and tears into getting people to see it in magazines, papers, galleries, etc.
How do you reconcile your personal reality with those who you are documenting?
I think that again, this comes down to intention. As a photographer, working in a country such as South Africa, you have to be really sure of why you are doing what you are doing and the ethics that inform the way in which you work. You have to go about your work with respect, and you have to accept that integral to portrait photography is the basic idea of one person making an image of another.
If this is done in an exploitative way, taking advantage of someone who feels subordinate to you (for whatever reason), then I would argue that this is wrong. If, however, the intention of the project is not built around power and difference but around an important thematic issue, then the foundations are there for a project that has integrity and worth.
I am very conscious of the ethical issues involved with photography and try to be mindful of this throughout my work. There is no getting away from the fact that I come from a position of privilege but I hope that by telling stories and dealing with issues that could result in some kind of change, I am making a positive contribution.
What do you hope to achieve through your work?
My main aim is to make impactful and memorable work that explores a subject and presents it in a way that is powerful and understandable. I think that photography has the potential to take a subject that is inaccessible to the general public and repackage it in such a way that creates an emotional and life-changing response in people.
I love the challenge of finding a story that interests me and finding a way of framing it and presenting it to people who wouldn’t normally hear about it. That is an interesting place, where documentary and art meet, you can draw people in with the single image and then tell them something that they did not know. The goal is to make beautiful work that has a positive impact on people’s lives.