Worth More than the Price of Gold: Thom Pierce’s Powerful Portraiture

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.

Thom Pierce
Diana “Dinny Skinny” Shiwara

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.

Thom Pierce
Daniel “Russian” Kapira

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).

Thom Pierce
Makatleho Selibo is the Widow of Mahola Selibo who worked as a team leader at President Steyn mine in Welkom. He worked underground for 33 years. He passed away in 2013 and suffered from tuberculosis and silicosis. He did not receive any compensation from the mines. On the weekends at the mines he would run a shoe repair business, fixing the broken soles of his colleagues’ shoes. Mr and Mrs Selibo had four children and she now survives on subsistence farming and livestock.

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.

Dyamara Jibhana & his brother Phillip - Mr Jibhana is 65 years old and worked in the gold mines for 39 years. He has silicosis and received no compensation.
Dyamara Jibhana and his brother Phillip. Mr Jibhana is 65 years old and worked in the gold mines for 39 years. He has silicosis and received no compensation.

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.

Thom Pierce
Andre “Bushy Bird” Ntholo at home with his son

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.

Thom Pierce
Reuben “Shayne” Kazonda at home

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.

Thom Pierce
Zimoshile Bozo is 57 years old and lives in Hofmeyr in the Eastern Cape province. He worked on the mines for 27 years at Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mine and was diagnosed with silicosis in 2008. He didn’t receive any compensation and now has to rely on his sister to care for him, as he is unable to find work. He lives with his sister and her children in a small three-room house in the township outside Hofmeyr.

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.

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Thom Pierce
Mthuthuzeli Mtshange is 58 years old and worked in the gold mines for 35 years. He has silicosis and received no compensation.
Thom Pierce
Leseli Kompi is the 19 year old son of Maphatsoe Kompi who died in October 2013 from pulmonary tuberculosis (TB of the lungs) at the age of 63. His mother died in 2012 and he is now left to look after his 15 year old sister, Naleli. They survive off the provident fund, which his father left. The initial amount was R33 367, they are now left with R6 687. Although they have a little money to survive on and Leseli spends his time looking after the animals that his father left, he will soon need to get a paid job as a herd boy in order to pay for his sister’s education.
Thom Pierce
Zolisa Jejana, 56, was diagnosed with Pulmonary tuberculosis after he had left his job on the gold mines. He was retrenched in 1989 due to his participation in a strike where 59 miners stayed underground for three days. At the time they were earning R1000 a month (approx. £50) and were demanding a wage increase. All 59 miners were retrenched. Mr Jejana received no compensation for his illness and now tries to pick up casual work as a bricklayer. With the small amount of work he can get he needs to support his wife and 6 children.
Thom Pierce
Siporono Phahlam gained his certificate in blasting in 1998. This was the highest-level position that he could achieve in his job. He could earn between R30-40k extra a month depending on the amount of blasting work that he did. He had been given a house in 1980 by the mine, inside the mine perimeter, where his wife and family could live with him. He enjoyed his work and he was one of the few that was being relatively well paid for it. After 32 years work on the gold mines, Mr Phahlone was diagnosed with silicosis and discharged from his job. He was paid no compensation. He had to return the Bizana, in the Eastern Cape, and survive by growing vegetables and grazing livestock. “I loved my job very much and when I left many people cried. They could not believe it because they knew how much it meant to me.”
Thom Pierce
Matsekelo Masupha is the widow of Mokonyana Robert Masupha who passed away in 2008 after working for 29 years on the gold mines. He was diagnosed with silicosis in 2003 and was compensated R89 000. Mrs Masupha now earns a living by farming and selling traditional medicine. “Considering the hardship I face now. I would say that I am disappointed in the company that my husband worked for. He went there as a young man, he spent his entire life there but he came back with nothing to show for his work.”
Thom Pierce
Watu Livingstone Dala h was attending a funeral in the neighbouring village when I visited him. We collected him afterwards and took him back to his home in Mdantsane in the Eastern Cape where he told us about the time that a huge underground explosion almost killed him. He recalls that the dorm rooms they lived in slept between 12 and 16 men on steel bunk beds with sponge mattresses. Work cycles were six-day weeks for 13 months at a time. All of this they endured for a wage of R2 800 per month (approx. $204). Mr Dala was diagnosed with 1st degree silicosis and was given R37 000 (approx. $2,704) when he left the mine, due to ill health, after 25 years working in the industry.
Thom Pierce
Masiko Somi fell sick while home on leave. He had been screened at work but had not been told that there was anything wrong with him. He travelled to see a private doctor in Kokstad in KwaZulu-Natal who advised him to stay at home for a while to get better. He could not communicate with the mine and when he returned to work he was dismissed because he was late. Masiko had worked at President Steyn Mine for 19 years and was not compensated for his silicosis. “I have tried to get work for the last 20 years but my health has not allowed me to,” he said. “We survive by getting temporary jobs from neighbours, building fences and ploughing mielie (corn) fields.”
Thom Pierce
Maleburu Lebitsa is the widow of Lekhoanyane Isaacs Lebitsa. She is 60 years old and lives in Leribe, Lesotho. Her husband died in 2010 after leaving the mines four years earlier due to his occupational lung disease. They were married in 1977 and for the next 33 years he was away from home most of the year. “He came home, but I was practically raising the children alone. He would send money home every month, about R800.”
Thom Pierce
Sekhobe Letsie is 72 years old and lives on the outskirts of Maseru, Lesotho. Born in 1942 he started work in the mines in 1970, when he was 28 years old. He now has four children and lives off the little bit of farming he can manage and money from his son. He is confused about his medical condition and was adamant that he had never been taken for medical screening while on the mines. He has silicosis and has not received any compensation.

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