'The Objectors' - Facing SA's conscription years

This Thom Pierce portrait is of Richard Steele who, in 1980, was sentenced to 12 months military imprisonment for objecting to military service.

This Thom Pierce portrait is of Richard Steele who, in 1980, was sentenced to 12 months military imprisonment for objecting to military service.

What would you do if by law you had to join the army and fight for a cause that you did not believe in? This is the question that I have asked myself hundreds of times over the past year. 

I know what I hope I would have done but, in the words of Arthur Conan Doyle, “It is easy to be wise after the event”. 

Clearly this is simplifying the issue of mandatory conscription and there are many nuances to the story that should not be overlooked. It is a small part of something much bigger, but the more I learnt about it, the more I felt it was a story that needed telling.

This is why I spent the last year travelling around South Africa, creating a photographic portrait series that presents the human faces of the fight against compulsory military service for white males during apartheid. 

This project started at the end of 2013 when I read a book called Under Our Skin: A White Family’s Journey Through South Africa’s Darkest Years by Donald McRae. It was a memoir of his time growing up in South Africa with the threat of mandatory conscription looming. 

Being from the United Kingdom and only moving to South Africa in 2009, I knew very little about the South African Defence Force and had only heard of the term “conscientious objector” a couple of times. 

I asked around and heard fascinating stories of men who joined the army but refused to fight, feigning injury or even faking musical ability so as to join the army band. Others objected on a religious basis and were given lengthy alternative service and then there were the few that publicly refused their call up, risking their personal liberty to make a stand against participating in a war that they did not believe in. 

I was intrigued to find out who these people were. I wanted to meet them, hear about their experiences and I wanted to photograph them in order to preserve their story. 

A little online research revealed several articles, theses and papers that provided me with some background information and I gradually built up a list of people that I could approach. I made some phone calls, wrote some emails and, after a couple of months, found myself in the Durban office of Richard Steele, homeopath and conscientious objector.  

The camera is an amazing tool even without taking a photograph it can give you a point of access into peoples’ lives. Steele and I spent an hour or so chatting and in his quiet and considered manner he explained about his call up, objection and incarceration. 

He told me about the support he received from his family and the faith that kept him going through that time. He gave me a few names of people I should get in touch with and told me about the End Conscription Campaign (ECC). The ECC played a crucial role in publicising and supporting the objectors. Importantly, it was also an opportunity for women to be involved in the protest and so it seemed right that the parameters of the project should reflect this.   

The project slowly unfolded in this same manner and took me all around the country. The people I met were extremely humble, yet firm in their convictions. In general they were proud of the stand that they took but were clear that they should not be glorified for it, the message needed to be that this is just one of many stories of ordinary people who did extraordinary things during the struggle. 

In photography there is a fine line between art and documentary, it can be a matter of presentation and context. The intention of the series was to make pieces of art that could be studied and considered by the viewer, the stories providing the context and meaning. 

The photographs are simple headshots, all taken in the same way against the same backdrop. They are presented as larger than life images to engage the viewer, challenging them to consider their own morality through the powerful stories of others.  

An exhibition of 12 of the portraits is currently on show at the The Castle in Cape Town and I have been moved by the interest and positive response from a wide range of people. 

I was concerned that the military personnel at the Castle may feel that the work was a judgment on their choice of occupation but I was pleasantly surprised by their appreciation. 

This series is not simply a statement of right or wrong, the issues are far too complex for that, but I hope that the portraits and the stories provide an opportunity for viewers to question the power and importance of individual action.    

The Objectors by Pierce is showing at The Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town until October 30.    

Pierce is a photographer based in Cape Town. Central to his work is the use of photography as a way to engage with the world around him. He uses the camera to explore issues of cultural, social and historical significance and to discover the diverse and rich country that he now calls home. To see more of his work visit www.thompierce.com

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