Snatched images turn 'Horsemen' into pretty postcards

Hlokomelang Motoko, The Horsemen of Semonkong. (Thom Pierce)

Hlokomelang Motoko, The Horsemen of Semonkong. (Thom Pierce)

Thom Pierce’s The Horsemen of Semonkong is arresting in its aesthetic beauty. The riders – men, women and sometimes children – look regal, especially with Lesotho’s imposing mountains dominating the background.

It’s obvious that Pierce has an eye for strong imagery and a sense for pomp and occasion.

“Initially it was just very striking as soon as you get over the border. It is just a different way of life. Within that kind of visual interest lies a much deeper story about the way the people live on a day to day basis, their livelihoods and ways of transport and working as well. The aesthetic tells a much deeper story,” said Pierce of his series, which opened at Circa Gallery in Johannesburg on October 13.

He told another publication that the horsemen reminded him of “heroic paintings of knights going into battle”.

Pierce, an Englishman who has been in South Africa for a few years now, got his inspiration for the project while working on The Price of Gold, a series about silicosis commissioned by a nongovernmental organisation. The series involved going to Lesotho where, on encountering his subjects, Pierce made a mental note to return to the country.

Over two separate visits, he nailed down the project, which consists of 85 portraits, edited down to 42, in eight days.

He and an interpreter walked the footpaths and horse trails of Semonkong for up to eight hours a day, photographing people as they came across them.

In interviews about the series, Pierce says the work came as respite from the usual slog, where his method of producing photographs can be quite “intense”.

But besides the aesthetic quality of the images, little emerges about the cultural life of Semonkong. With his subjects lined up and posed according to his wishes, Semonkong and its riders disappear into an abstract tableau.

There is a distance and aggression that runs beneath the stillness of these images. It is a compendium of worries sparked by not seeing the lives of these riders unpacked.

Pierce says he hopes to publish a monograph to go with his pictures, but for now, man and terrain might as well blend into picturesque postcards. Seen this way, the images’ warmth reflects the heavy-handedness of their execution.

In May, when he embarked on the project, he insists he had no idea he was going to make money off his subjects, so he didn’t explain the commercial future of these photographs to them.

“In a lot of the work that I do, there is a solid explanation around it because it’s human rights work and so you can say to people, ‘This is what I’m doing because of this subject’,” Pierce says.

The Horsemen of Semonkong
Mamasisi and Masisi Letsapo, The Horsemen of Semonkong. (Thom Pierce)

“It’s a very different thing to explain to people that you want to take this picture because it makes for a beautiful art work. The intention of it at the time of doing a project is just to make as beautiful a piece of artwork as you can, I suppose.”

Pierce’s editions are selling for between R20 000 and R32 000 each. The largest prints, somewhere between (132cm by 108cm) have three editions per print, while the smallest prints (82cm by 67cm), have nine editions per print.

After Circa in Rosebank, this exhibition should hit Circa in London before Christmas.

Even if Pierce shot for all the eight days he spent on location, that is hardly enough time to build meaningful rapport with his subject. With photography’s complex history, laced with anthropological assumptions, colonial and ethnographic gazes and impositions of power, Pierce would be wiser to spend time mitigating against that history.

In examining some of his earlier work, some of these outdated modes of photographing Africa are apparent. In some of his human rights work, Pierce shows himself to have a knack for environmental portraiture that seems to hanker after his subject’s poverty rather than merely acknowledge it.

In an early work titled Platfontein, Pierce documents the Khwe, focusing primarily on its rappers. The Khwe were shunted around the frontline states during apartheid South Africa’s cross-border anarchy, eventually ending up in a government settlement outside Kimberley. Pierce tells us the rappers make do with rudimentary digital equipment and makeshift bedroom studios. But how do we explain Daniel “Russian” Kapira posing next to his propped-up two-plate stove and little else? And could we have a little more classrooms and a little less bedrooms for #TextbooksMatter?

Why is that it is only Pierce’s white subjects (in The Objectors) that deserve the respectful neutrality of grey backdrops and the right to speak for themselves?

The Objectors was a piece made around a specific group of people that I had to research quite heavily around who they were,” he says. “So I guess it was a very different approach that entailed having to contact people beforehand, go to their house, set up a backdrop and take the photograph. The group went to prison for refusing military conscription. I had to find out who they were.”

Looking at the two works, I was struck by the easy commodification of The Horsemen versus the monumentalisation of The Objectors, which was shown at the Castle of Good Hope and is with the South African National Gallery.

“While The Objectors is for sale, and I would happily sell it as art, the opportunities that I have been offered to show it were not at commercial galleries,” he said. “It is quite an aesthetically severe body of work and had enormous impact as a collection of work. It works very well collectively but not so well as individual pieces.”

In conversation, Pierce seems to be a man aware of ethics and the history of his craft. Coming from England, one would expect the image of Prince Harry in his philanthropist hat, straining to take a close-up of a nameless herder, to be etched on his mind as reminder of power dynamics in photography.

In a post-interview email Pierce explained that he will “hopefully” use the proceeds from the profits of The Horsemen to fund important work in Semonkong. As of yet, he has not clarified how this will be carried out.

Pierce is a gifted photographer with a knack for moving and, at times, chilling photography. But it takes nothing away from his practice for him to critically humanise his subjects.

Nineteen of the images are on show at any given time at the gallery on a rotational system. The Horsemen of Semonkong runs until November 12

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo

Kwanele Sosibo studied journalism at Durban's ML Sultan Technikon before working at Independent Newspapers from 2000 to 2003. In 2005, he joined the Mail & Guardian's internship programme and later worked as a reporter at the paper between 2006 and 2008, before working as a researcher. He was the inaugural Eugene Saldanha Fellow in 2011. Read more from Kwanele Sosibo

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