On the Mines
As Bourke-White discovered, the bedrock of South Africa’s economy and racial system lay deep beneath the streets of Johannesburg, in its gold mines. Much to the distress of her white hosts, she insisted on descending more than a mile underground to photograph Black workers in a mine shaft.
Almost overcome by the heat and humidity, she took photographs of a pair of unnamed gold miners at work in their usual spots. Her much-reproduced candid portrait of these sweat-soaked workers became an iconic image of Black South African working life under apartheid. But Bourke-White also sought to portray the “lives that they lived when they weren’t working,” as she put it.
Her method of constructing what she called a “mosaic” of images proved well-suited to the interlocking system of rural poverty, long-distance migration, pass laws, and residence in cramped and locked mine compounds that defined the lives of South Africa’s Black miners. As she reported to a friend at the end of her trip, “The constant supply of cheap laborers, without whom gold couldn’t exist…are kept on the job by the poll-tax. The Europeans impose the tax, the ‘native’ has to leave the land and trek to the mines to earn his tax.” After eleven months of mine work, the Black worker returned to “the wornout, eroded, badly cultivated land of his reserve again” to see his family.
Bourke-White also took the unusual step of photographing Black workers engaged in refinery work, perhaps as a contrast to the shocking conditions she observed on the mines. She believed in a deep connection between the aesthetics of industrial production, the dignity of labor, and the usefulness of the final product. The gold mines of apartheid South Africa represented a fundamental corruption of this dynamic: a brutal system of labor and racial degradation had been wedded to the production of material with little real practical value.
From now on I just hate gold and diamonds. Such useless stuff.
Brought out of the ground with such painful scraping, and so useless and