Born in Johannesburg in 1980, Ilan Godfrey is a South African photographer who devoted himself to an extensive photographic project on the mine, which is central to understand present-day South Africa and its history. This in-depth work gave birth to a book in 2013, “Legacy of the Mine“, where he especially questioned the entangled and dramatic consequences and impacts this larger economic machine has on the lives of people and communities and on the land. In the course of the interview, Ilan discusses how his approach evolved while working on the ground in close contact with communities and activists and gives insights of his collaborative working process.
His work has received international recognition and Ilan Godfrey is the recipient of awards such as the 2012 Ernest Cole Award and 2014 POPCAP prize. With this body of work, Ilan Godfrey was also one of the finalists of the 2014 Leica Oskar Barnack Award.
Q: Ilan, can you please briefly introduce yourself? How did you delve into photography?
A: My name is Ilan Godfrey. I grew up in suburban Johannesburg. During my schooling I studied various subjects, including painting and drawing, immersing myself in the arts. Little did I know that those early years of creative exploration would become the basis for future projects using the medium of photography.
There was a culmination of influences in my life that would lead me to where I am today: an old SLR camera given to me by my father, the introduction to a black-and-white darkroom at school and a dusty book that lay amongst others on my father’s book shelf titled, “In Our Time – The World As Seen By Magnum Photographers.” These are some of the early signifiers in my life that led me to pursue a career in photography.
At 19, I boarded a plane to London, England, where I studied two degrees in the medium, a Bachelor of Arts (hons) degree in Photography and a Master of Arts in Photojournalism. It became my priority to document daily life, my travels across the world and ultimately find direction in my personal work, which resulted in me spending 11 years working on various projects related to socio-political issues within South Africa. Traveling between my hometown of Johannesburg and London, where I was based, allowed me to continue learning about my home country and the ongoing changes that were taking place.
In 2011, I decided to return to South Africa. Landing on home soil felt very different this time; I was here to stay. I would be returning to focus on several long-term projects that were, up to now, confined to notebooks and mental thoughts; one of them would inevitably evolve over two and a half years into my first monograph, “Legacy of the Mine”.
Q: You were first led to the mine by environmental concerns but soon your work evolved into something that went far beyond this sole aspect. Subsequently, can you please retrace how your own position developed and moved to grasp and give form to such a critical issue for South African contemporary society?
A: Yes, this is correct. Initially “Legacy of the Mine” unfolded after my attention was drawn, a number of years earlier, to the environmental implications and historical and current social aspects of the gold mining industry in and around Johannesburg. This was also supported with the fact that I had grown up in these surroundings and felt a longing to explore them further.
Yet, upon my initiation of the project it enveloped me in research, which in turn began to take me further afield, with early visits to places on the peripheries of Johannesburg. As a result, I traveled to small towns associated with the gold mining industry; these included the town of Meyerton, which lies on the banks of the Vaal River, an area historically known for its black reef.
It was here that a man asked me what my business was and, once I had explained my purposes related to mining, he shared an interesting story. He went on to reveal the effects of burning dirty coal and how he believed his son’s growth was stunted due to the inhalation of these toxins.
It was at this point that I had this realization that the project was not solely about the remnants of gold mining and the environment, but also its long-term health implications, thus, focusing on the key minerals that have played a pivotal role in the shaping of the South African landscape, as we know it today. It is important to establish within the framework of the project that, for more than a century, South Africa has been associated with mineral wealth, both in diversity and abundance. The demand for gold, diamonds, coal and platinum has gone from strength to strength, often shifting in accordance with the political economy and availability of foreign markets. This, as a result, has played a major role in South Africa’s development, its infrastructure and job creation.
It cannot be denied that mining is essential to South Africa’s economy, as much today as it was in the past. However, we need to acknowledge that the environment is as fragile as the people who live on the land. Growth and development are prerequisites for economic stability, yet, we must move forward into a balanced and sustainable future.
I set out to explore this legacy on South Africa’s land and people by providing agency to those whose lives and livelihoods have been destroyed by mining processes and the long-term environmental and social ramifications.
Q: Can you further explain these terrible impacts, please?
A: Mahlomola William Melato’s story reveals in many ways the true cost of giving one’s life to the mining industry. In 1986, Mahlomola began an apprenticeship at the Harmony Gold Mine in Welkom as a boilermaker. After completing his apprenticeship in 1990, he became a teacher but returned to the mining industry in 2007. In 2008, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and in 2010 with silicosis (previously known as miner’s phthisis) and was laid off from his job. He said, “Young men who started on the mine as an apprentice did not know the risk of TB and silicosis. If I knew the risks involved I would not have worked in the mines.”
Though he signed a Medical Incapacity Agreement with Harmony Gold Mining Company, which stipulated that if he became medically incapacitated he must be given an alternative position as well as medical assistance, neither had been provided in Mahlomola’s case. The only financial support Mahlomola received was around $280 per month from the mining industry retirement fund. This fund needed to cover his medical costs, living expenses, university fees for his children and the bond on his home. He also applied to receive government compensation, but he was notified by the Medical Bureau for Occupational Diseases that he did not qualify for compensation. Mahlomola died at home on May 22, 2013, and was buried on June 1.
Mahlomola William Melato’s story is representative of so many men just like him who leave their family and home, traveling long distances to the city in search of work, often finding that they have little choice but to join mining operations. Few can afford to return to their community and, if they do so many are welcomed back weak and sick, a forgotten work force that die a lonely and painful death.
Q: Once you enlarged your angle to the human and social impact of the mine, how did you concretely structure your work on the ground?
A: I broadly categorized the spaces in which I needed to work. As this was an investigative documentary project taking place in areas that represent the most reliable aspects of the issues I wanted to cover, I carefully considered the provinces where mining is a prominent feature.
I have discussed in the book that there is a new form of activism taking shape in South Africa, not one of a political nature but one with an environmental concern. With the ongoing support of these environmental activists and community leaders, I was able to reveal the human cost of mining on various communities, their environment and health.
The inspiration for choosing my subjects and the space in which I work was not defined by statistical or scientific evidence. Rather, it was the product of personal experience, ongoing investigation and knowledge gained through my travels across South Africa’s vast landscape.
Q: In your book’s afterword, you rightly insist on the necessity of giving agency to the people you photographed. I’d be interested then in knowing more about how you worked with people and communities, especially for portraits.
A: Bringing to the project the voices of the people I meet through stories and interviews, I am collectively building on the larger body of work that I am making. To me, it is more a collaborative process; the portraits I make of the people I meet, share various intimate and revealing insights into their lives due to their willingness to have their stories told. In some cases I interview my subjects but there are times that they have a clear message to share and so I will quietly listen, recording their story with a Dictaphone. This process is incredibly important in my working method as it plays a significant role when revealing emotions and the accuracy of one’s experiences.
It also became apparent that extended captions were vital. It would have been a detriment to the people I met and the places I visited if I were not to share their stories and further explain the circumstances I was documenting.
The images and text are two avenues of expression that build a clearer picture of what I want to say. It was important to include in my work these two signifiers as they allow the viewer a more accurate and engaging insight into the places and people I encountered.
With an extensive body of work like this, spanning several years, relationships begin to form and so communities associated in one way or another with mining became aware of the project and what my objectives were. This opened doors to aspects of the project I could never have known about. For instance, I was contacted by Malesela Phillipos Dolo, a community leader from the Sekuruwe village in the Limpopo Province, to urgently travel up to the region to attend a reburial service and document an important ceremony. This would become a significant chapter within my investigations on the platinum aspect of the project.
Q: Can you please explain the context of this reburial ceremony?
A: Anglo Platinum RPM Mogalakwena Section Mine, the largest opencast mine in the world, had relocated approximately fifteen thousand members of the community to make way for its ever-expanding mining endeavours. In place of the community’s farmland and homes, a tailings dam would be established. It was here that the community’s ancestral grave lay and so the mine needed to take the necessary measures to have the bodies exhumed and relocated.
I documented the final reburial of the 149-community member’s remains that were damaged in the exhumation by Anglo Platinum RPM Mogalakwena Section Mine. With the help of Amanda Esterhuysen and Forensic Anthropologist Professor Maryna Steyn of the University of Pretoria, they were able to re-establish the remains belonging to each body. This continued over several years up until the day this important ceremony took place.
Here is the caption that accompanies the image in the book:
“The exhumation by Anglo Platinum’s RPM Mogalakwena Section Mine of 149 graves from a section of the Blink-water farm was not without controversy. A mechanical digger was used in the process. Some bones were broken as a result and the skeletons were not all kept separate. Community members became suspicious when they were restricted from witnessing the exhumation of family members. The situation was further exacerbated when on the day of reburial they noticed that the number of coffins did not correspond to the number of exhumed graves. Protests ensued and 47 people were arrested. After failed attempts to stop the reburial, the bodies were swiftly buried. The archaeologist Frans Roodt from the Limpopo Heritage Resources Agency was approached to help and after an investigation lasting several years by Amanda Esterhuysen and forensic anthropologist Professor Maryna Steyn of the University of Pretoria, their findings were shared with the community of Sekuruwe. On 27 November 2012 the remains of 149 people were reinterred. After a long and emotional battle, the Sekuruwe community had finally reburied their own people and appeased their ancestors.”
Q: Susan Sontag once wrote that photography is in a way like alchemy. It has the power to transform even the most terrible side of things into something pleasing to the eye. In your book, we find really magnificent photographs of the landscapes left from the mining activities. I was wondering then how you negotiated this aspect while working.
A: When navigating these spaces, it became apparent that there was something powerful yet sinister in their message. There is a false sense of beauty that comes over the landscapes photographed, which was important for me to bring across in the images.
The viewer is gently introduced to a space that is not entirely natural yet beautiful in an uncomfortable way. It is only at the back of the book that the true reality of what is happening in the images is revealed through the extended captions. My aim is for viewers to question the photographs. It is for this reason that I placed a sequence of landscapes devoid of human presence at the start of the book.
Q: What kind of supports – readings, encounters, discussions, previous photographic works, etc. – sustained you through this journey?
A: I initially collected news articles, searched the Internet, referred to various books and spoke to organisations that were associated with the impact of mining on local communities and the environment.
At every stage in the project’s development, there were new and interesting aspects of the story that had to be told. As the project gained momentum so did my research, ultimately incorporating a cross section of South African society, all connected in one way or another by ‘The Mine.’
My travels on the open road allowed me to engage with people who revealed untold stories that cannot be found in research. This resulted in me taking some time to understand the complexities of the varied issues being shared, thus spending several weeks at a time in communities that I was documenting. Personal stories of mistreatment by mining operations or complicated legal misrepresentation related to occupational health issues were all-important layers within the context of the project that needed to be unraveled and fully understood.
Even though it is evident that a project of this nature is far-reaching and covers a large expanse of the South African landscape, it is tied together through microcosms of visual narration of untold stories forgotten by the larger economical machine that is the mine. Small towns built around the discovery of mineral wealth within these larger provincial expanses provided me with a base from where to work.
Q: Now that your work on the mine has found new life into a book, what are your next projects?
A: I am hoping to begin a new book project, which I have begun researching. It’s thematically very different from the mining project. It will include a cross section of South African society encompassing tradition and modernity from a specific cultural mindset.
Thank you for your time, Ilan!
– Leica Internet Team
Connect with Ilan on his website.