“Disrupted” started off as a project capturing traditional black and white landscape images of one specific site. As my awareness shifted, I started using colour to portray the harsh reality of the disruption of our landscapes as witnessed further afield. I have included both as each tell their own tale.
Gold mining has been re-shaping the veld and hills around Johannesburg for more than a hundred years. Many of the signs of progress we see today owe their existence to mining, however, back when it all started, no one fully considered the disruption it would cause.
I grew up in Johannesburg during the 1950s to 1970s when Johannesburg was recognised as the gold capital of the world and gold mining was at its pinnacle. Gold was the darling of economists and the main contributor to our national income and few questioned the undesirable by-products of this industry. Over time gold has lost its shine but the mine dumps have remained as a prominent feature of the Johannesburg landscape. And, after so many years they almost appear natural, as if they’re meant to be here. We have absorbed them into our daily routines, we drive past them on our way to work every day and, unless we are part of one of the less fortunate communities living right next to or on top of a mine dump, we barely notice them.
I started photographing in the 1970s. I always had an affinity for landscapes, especially the immaculate black and white work of Ansell Adams and Edward Weston from the f64 Group. In 2006 I saw the Brakpan Tailing Dam from the air during a commercial flight and was fascinated by the surface textures, accentuated by the oblique early morning light. A week or so later I made an unauthorised trip to the site and was nearly arrested in the process, but I wasn’t ready to give up on my idea of photographing what I had seen. Getting permission to work on the site proved difficult at first, but with some perseverance I succeeded. However, I was not allowed to drive onto the dump, therefore I had to park my car on a neighbouring farm. This made every visit a 12km hike there and back – a trip I made many times over the next year.
The sprawling expanse of this particular mine dump covers 560 hectares – the size of a small farm. Once again, I was fascinated by the way this industrial wasteland, when left exposed to normal climatic forces for long enough, started to resemble natural desert scenes or even scenes from another planet. Interpreting these scenes in black and white was an obvious choice as this location fell within my “landscape” frame of reference of that time.
While I was working on the Brakpan Tailings Dam I started noticing other dumps outside of this area more consciously. This gradually led to a conflict which I found quite difficult to reconcile. Although I was mesmerised by the beautiful textures of the Brakpan Tailings Dam, I could not ignore the blatant ugliness and toxicity that confronted me at other mine dumps.
I started photographing them too, however I soon realised that there wasn’t any room for romanticism here; that my black and white interpretations were no longer suitable. My fascination had transformed into a feeling of apprehension and introspection and I was forced to admit that I had been turning a blind eye to the wounds inflicted on the surroundings in my pursuit of shooting beautiful landscapes.
Through this realisation something new emerged. Away from the Brakpan Tailings Dam I chose to work in colour and I relied less on compositional techniques normally associated with traditional landscape work. On and off, this continued for the next ten years.
I’ve never considered myself an environmental activist, but these industrial landscapes have changed me. I have become more aware of the impact of mining on our surroundings and it has increased my awareness and empathy with the communities living on and around mine dumps.
I continue to be fascinated by the disruption caused by mining and how we, despite visible evidence, are willing to assimilate this into our daily lives as if it’s normal. Whether we are consciously aware of these mine dumps or not, the inhabitants of Johannesburg are dealing with the negative consequences of mining every day.