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Visualising the human price of gold

An exhibition of powerful photographs brings home the real costs of illness and incapacitation for miners and their families.

Nosipho Eunice Dala, widow of Zwelakhe Dala who worked in the mines for 28 years and contracted silicosis. Credit and copyright:Thom Pierce. All rights reserved.

In May 2016 the South African High Court (Gauteng Local Division) granted an order in the case of Nkala and Others v Harmony Gold Mining Company Limited and Others that certified a consolidated class action against 32 mining companies. The action had been brought by mineworkers who had contracted silicosis by breathing in the silica dust that is generated during mining, along with their dependents. This disease can take many years to manifest, is incurable, debilitating and often fatal.

The mineworkers argued that exposure to silica dust also increased the risk of contracting TB, a lung disease caused by bacterial infection. Once miners became too ill to work they returned to their families, who became tasked with their care. The Nkala decision authorised the commencement of the largest class action litigation ever to occur in South Africa, with almost half-a-million possible claimants.

The mining companies lodged an appeal against the High Court judgment which will be heard by the Supreme Court of Appeal in March 2018. Parallel to the appeal process, there are discussions occurring between some of the parties regarding a possible settlement. In the meantime, significant numbers of plaintiffs are dying each year without seeing the case resolved.

In addition, given that the miners’ families have had to take on many more responsibilities as a result of their incapacitation, shouldn’t they also have access to compensatory damages? The High Court recognised the contribution that women make to caring for the miners, but like most international measures that calculate GDP (such as UN System of National Accounts) it did not recognise the value of domestic labour as labour that has real economic and financial value.

This is largely because domestic work is placed outside the ‘production boundary’ and is not seen to be contributing to the national economy, a non-recognition that leads to a measurable deterioration in the health and well-being of individuals, households and communities because the inflows required to support social reproduction fall below a sustainable threshold. This is especially important in the context of the reduction of state-provided services in countries like South Africa as a result of economic crises, austerity policies and government retrenchment.

Mncedisi Dlisani, who worked in the mines for 15 years and contracted silicosis, with members of his family. Credit and copyright:Thom Pierce. All rights reserved.

One way to document, raise up and publicise these under-appreciated issues of care and compensation is through visualisation, which brings home the human costs of gold-mining and silicosis through powerful imagery and associated commentary.

In a remarkable collaboration organized in the weeks prior to the court case, Cape-Town based British photographic artist Thom Pierce worked with Section 27 and the Treatment Action Campaign—two South African civil society groups that work on health rights—and  Sonke Gender Justice, which works on the rights of carers, to photograph all 56 of the named miners in the space of 26 days. The portraits were taken in the homes of the miners that were spread all around the country.

As Pierce told us in an interview about the project:

“One of the biggest challenges is to find some simplicity and balance. You don’t want to overload the photograph with information and you want the person to be the centre piece with other supporting information that tells a story. After meeting each of the miners or widows we would explain the project in as much detail as possible, making sure they understood what we were doing and why we were doing it. We would then do the interview so that I had a chance to get to know each person a little better.

 

The interviews started being about silicosis and how they struggle with the illness but I soon realised that I was getting the same answers from everyone, because that is what it is, the same illness with the same symptoms. Once I realised this I started just finding out about them as people and this led to some much more interesting stories that told relatable stories, forcing the viewer to connect more deeply with each person.

 

I shot portraits with the wife or other family member wherever possible. I wanted to tell the story of the family. The widows were all photographed alone but where the miners were living with sisters or brothers I wanted to include them. Only one wife refused to be photographed due to her being a traditional healer.”

Patrick Sitwayi, who worked in the mines for 22 years and contracted silicosis, and Asive Bingwa. Credit and copyright:Thom Pierce. All rights reserved.

To go along with the photos and increase their potential impact on the climate of public opinion surrounding the court proceedings, Pierce wrote a blog that pulled from his conversations with miners and their families. He also made sure that they were exhibited in the most powerful way possible using sound and visual effects that were designed to pull the viewer more deeply into the experience:

“All of the portraits were beautifully printed and mounted on board, and then displayed in a pitch black room so that they formed tunnels for people to walk through. We had a soundtrack on a loop of the wheezing from the miners that I had recorded during my interviews, together with industrial mining sounds, and we provided hard hats and head torches. The only way to view the images was to walk through the tunnels and use the head torch to see. All of the individual stories were also displayed next to each portrait. As you can imagine it had a huge impact; people came out crying.”

By using these techniques, Pierce was able to walk the fine line between exposing the collapse of the worlds of the miners and their families, and displaying their courage and dignity in the face of such adverse circumstances. His photographs are striking in what they say and what they omit, what they make visible and what remains invisible. He supplements some of these gaps with captions containing information that he has selected about each of the miners.

The social construction of illness—of silicosis acquired by black, male bodies working in white owned mines—frames the social context of these photographs. Pierce aims to alert the audience to the pain and loss the photos reveal, and to support the legal claims of the miners and their families in the process. He gives attention both to the male workers and their relatives since each group has been so clearly affected by the men’s illness and their loss of employment.

The photographs also speak to the issue of gender and gendered roles: in most of them the description is of male lives, even when female bodies are present in the same frame. There are women in kitchens, situated in their homes with the accoutrements of everyday life. Their dwellings showing plenty of wear and tear, but also careful maintenance.

Zama Gangi, who worked in the mines for 19 years and contracted silicosis, and his wife Matshozi. Credit and copyright:Thom Pierce. All rights reserved.

Looking at compensation claims through the lens of photography helps us to think about which forms of harm are recognized and which are not—and why. It also leads us to ask who is compensated for the harms done to them and who is not, and what happens when compensation is denied to those who must assume extra responsibilities.

Understanding these questions as they manifest themselves in Pierce’s photographs points to the need for a deep and textured reconsideration of ideas about loss and injury as they are normally understood and quantified for the purpose of compensatory damages in law.

Thom Pierce’s award-winning photographs can be seen at the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize Exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery in London in November 2017.

A longer version of this article has been published in Social & Legal Studies

About the authors

Shirin M Rai is Professor in the department of Politics and International Studies at Warwick University. 

Beth Goldblatt is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology Sydney.  

 


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