Ilan Godfrey: Photographing the seam of suffering
In a globalised culture saturated with fears of climate change it is easy to ignore the local effects of mining on people and their environment. But Ilan Godfrey’s ongoing body of work, Legacy of the Mine, provides a graphic portrayal of how people have struggled to cope with the burden of mining.
It has also won him the first OPENPhoto African Photographic Competition for 2012.
The theme of the competition was Money, Sex and Power: The Paradox of Unequal Growth.
Legacy of the Mine speaks directly to the enormous and historical power of the South African mining industry and Godfrey’s images reflect a humanism that makes the viewer pause and consider the stark reality of the inequality in mining.
This collection not only captures isolated moments of the lives of ordinary people affected by the legacy of mining but also challenges the ideological portrayal of “the mine” as a symbol of progress, prosperity and wealth. Godfrey’s subjects thus become symbols of the struggle for environmental justice in the country.
By congregating a disparate network of people and places, Godfrey succeeds where others have failed: to provide a space for them to be heard and for the magnitude of the damage to be felt.
In this way, his work reveals deep compassion for the ruined landscapes and their inhabitants.
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.
Lives at stake
Not all those affected by mining suffer in the same way: the mining of different minerals results in different forms of environmental change. Whether the environment is subject to ongoing exploitation or written off as irreparable for alternative land use, people’s lives are usually at stake.
Godfrey powerfully demonstrates both the social relevance and complexity of the legacy of mining and provides a fresh face for South Africa’s growing environmental justice movement.
Born in Johannesburg in 1980, he moved to London in 2000, where he worked as a photojournalist and studied photography. For the following decade, he frequently travelled between the United Kingdom and South Africa. It was during these visits that he began to understand and document South Africa’s social issues through the lens of an insider-outsider.
In early 2011, he returned to South Africa to develop his long-term project. According to him, winning the award is an important development as he is hoping to commit himself to this work full time.
It has been recognised both locally and internationally and his photographs have been exhibited in galleries and museums worldwide.
He has established links with leading members of the South African environmental justice movement, including Mariette Liefferink, the founder of the Federation for a Sustainable Environment.
Founded in 2007, the federation has been driving grassroots struggles for environmental justice and drawing attention to the challenges encountered by local communities.
The federation is also at the heart of a ground-breaking new social movement bent on changing the way we understand the legacy of mining in South Africa. Its focus on advocacy reflects the historical success of similar measures taken in the past.
The passage of the Atmospheric Pollution Prevention Act in 1965 can be seen as a product of the work of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research and a wide range of outspoken civil society representatives, who were united against the growing scourge of smoke and diesel fumes.
Back then, the regulations marked a turning point in South Africa’s environmental history. Companies previously untethered by state regulation were finally subject to public scrutiny. However, the scope of the Act was limited. Standards of natural beauty were largely established by the mining industry to suit its needs.
Eye of the beholder
The smoke stack was projected as a symbol of progress and strength, and the acrid smoke itself sublimated to portray a different kind of beauty in the eyes of those who benefited most.
This approach has often masked the crime of placing the burden of risk of mining-based pollution on local mining communities.
Godfrey’s work is a personal and ideological negotiation of the distorted, dusty landscapes, of underground coal fires, desiccated tracts of land and smoky horizons.
He has spoken to many individuals affected by mining, including workers concerned about the occupational hazards related to mining, people suffering from lung diseases related to dust or smoke exposure and farmers concerned about protecting their land from the effects of mining.
He has discovered the scope of the struggle and it has goaded him on, unveiling layers of hidden tales of daily suffering and loss.
The racial and political tensions often implicit in the rural communities where mining has taken place are dwarfed by the overarching legacy of the mines.
The competition was convened by Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist and Bang Bang Club member Greg Marinovitch and the global panel of judges had first-hand knowledge and experience of African documentary photography.
Godfrey’s award-winning collection and those of the three runners-up will be exhibited at the Cape Town Convention Centre from May 22, coinciding with an Open Forum conference taking place there.
Supported by the Open Society Initiative of Southern Africa, it will provide a unique opportunity to focus on the factors shaping African democracy and governance.