Anywhere silent and foreign to a person tends to be ominous at 5 a.m. Mining villages ever the more so, given the off-cast, icy lighting of processing plants set across desolate, empty landscapes. So even without its recent, violent history, Marikana would be a strange place to roll into during the thick, pre-dawn darkness.
During August of last year, miners at the Lonmin platinum mines in Marikana began a strike, asking for higher wages. Accounts differ, and the official inquiry isn’t set to produce a report until October, so I’ll do my best to avoid making any unbacked statements. In short: the attempts at negotiating were a failure, violence occurred, 44 people died in the ensuing confrontations (mostly miners, though several police and security officers were also killed).
June 17, about 10 months after the majority of the killings (34 people were killed on August 16), marked the end of the mourning period for the families of the dead. A cleansing ceremony was held at Marikana for the families of the deceased. We drove out from Johannesburg in the early hours of the morning (or the late hours of the night, depending on your predilection). When we arrived it was clear that the event was not going to be intimate: a large tent and small stage had been set up for visitors, with loose tape strung between posts to indicate parking areas for VIPs and media. Although originally scheduled to begin around 5:30 a.m., the ceremonies didn’t actually begin until well after 8 a.m.
The orchestration of the event aside, it was still a heady experience. Whatever the official account of last year’s events turn out to be, it’s difficult (dare I say impossible) to disregard that amount of trauma, sadness, grieving. From my own experience, it’s always a bizarre balancing act of both accepting and blocking the feeling of empathy that wells up in your stomach when confronted by that much emotion. If you get caught up in the emotion. then you won’t shoot, you won’t think, you won’t function. If you hold out the emotion entirely, then the photos will be stale and detached.
To be clinical, I would say it’s all about finding an inner balance, of being objective and focused. To be honest, I would say it’s just really damn hard.
Photos taken on assignment for the Mail & Guardian.