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Thom Pierce: Postcards from Xolobeni, postcard by Bonisile Elsie Sibiya

Work / Photography

Thom Pierce on using photography to amplify the protests of a rural South African community

“I have a passion for making work that addresses injustice,” says photographer Thom Pierce, whose latest project, Postcards from Xolobeni, transformed his portraits of a community threatened by a proposed titanium mine into powerful letters of protest. “I want to take important stories and make them something that can’t ignore be ignored,” Thom continues. “I want to go further and think more broadly to find ways that engage large audiences in a subject that they might not ever know about and then give them a means to engage, participate and join the fight.”

Born in Jersey but now based in Cape Town, Thom’s work often focuses on social injustice – 2015’s The Price of Gold, for example, drew attention to the exploitative working conditions in gold mines in South Africa. He regularly works with NGOs, academic institutions, public interest law firms and media organisations to draw attention to the human side of a story, with the intention of shaking an audience out of its complacency and compelling them to take action.

The people of Xolobeni are a self-sufficient community that lives off the land and sea in a very rural part of South Africa’s rugged Eastern Coast. The nearest shop, for example, is a two-hour journey, with most only travelling there once a month to buy essentials like sugar and oil. This resilient community had been fighting against plans for a titanium mine – currently proposed by Australia’s Mineral Resources Limited and its South African subsidiary – for more than 20 years. If successful, the mine would scoop up more than 20km of the mineral-rich coast, displacing hundreds of people from their ancestral land, cutting off their access to the sea, destroying grassland, estuarine and marine ecosystems and requiring the relocation of ancestral graves.

“After my first visit to the area I felt passionate about the fact that the people needed a voice,” says Thom. “It is a beautiful part of South Africa where people genuinely live off the land and sea. In a world where there is a shift towards living more responsibly, creating less waste and less pollution, it stands of an example of how people live harmoniously in their environment. Then a large foreign corporation wants to destroy all of that for personal profit. It’s David against Goliath and David deserves some support.”

Thom’s striking portraits show the importance of the land and sea in the community’s lives. “I wanted them to be engaging and beautiful, to grab the attention of the viewer but to also tell a story. Each one needed to take in the environment whilst also drawing the viewer towards the individual,” says Thom. The photos show a proud and happy community, defiantly standing up for their way of life. “I genuinely got the sense that people loved the way they lived,” says Thom. “They were not enticed by the money that mining could bring, they didn’t want the shops. They understood that the quality of their lives didn’t come from money, but from their freedom to live the way that they wanted to.”

The next step was to transform the portraits into postcards of protest, inscribing messages from the participants onto the reverse of each. After much deliberation with the community, it was decided to translate those messages written in the local language of Xhosa into English – to make them harder to ignore by the mining company and the international press. “We talked at length and helped them to reduce the message to something that was able to fit on the postcard,” says Thom. Each inscription was then written out in English and then translated back to Xhosa for people to decide if it correctly represented what they wanted to say. “It was a long but important process to get right,” he adds.

On 23 April the Amadiba Crisis Committee took the Department of Mineral Resources to court, requesting a ruling that no license could be granted for a mine without the community’s consent. The judge is yet to rule on the outcome but, thanks to Thom’s project there’s plenty more eyes and ears awaiting the decision. “Great photography is not about the mechanics of photography, the camera is merely a conduit,” adds Thom. “Great photography is about what is in front of the lens and the reasons for creating it. Being a photographer is not about being interested in photography, it’s about being interested in the world.”

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Thom Pierce: Postcards from Xolobeni, portrait of Fakazile Joyce Ndovela

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Thom Pierce: Postcards from Xolobeni, postcard by Mabhude Danca

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Thom Pierce: Postcards from Xolobeni, portrait of Khanyisile Ndovela

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Thom Pierce: Postcards from Xolobeni, postcard by Khanyisile Ndovela

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Thom Pierce: Postcards from Xolobeni portrait of Nokwakha Mboyisa

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Thom Pierce: Postcards from Xolobeni, postcard by Themba Yalo

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Thom Pierce: Postcards from Xolobeni portrait of Nomsa and Valumsindo Fana

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Thom Pierce: Postcards from Xolobeni, postcard by Nomsa and Valumsindo Fana

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Thom Pierce: Postcards from Xolobeni, portrait of Ntombikayise Yalo

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Thom Pierce: Postcards from Xolobeni, postcard by Vezokhwakhe Ndovela