John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Photographer Dillon Marsh contrasts the total output of South African mines against settings of violence and ecological devastation.
If you were to sift through all the dirt and rock extracted from South Africa’s Koffiefontein Mine—a gaping, 2,000-foot deep crater once considered to be one of the planet’s largest kimberlite diamond mines by average value per carat—how much valuable material would you find?
For an answer, examine the above photo of Koffiefontein taken by 36-year-old Cape Town artist Dillon Marsh. Squint hard and you’ll notice that on the cliff slightly below center is a metal rod holding a crystalline orb. This object is a representation of the roughly 7.6 million carats or 3,350 pounds of diamonds extracted from the mine since the late 1800s, making it the mother of all wedding stones. Still, in the context of the massive hole, it’s a glassy fleck hidden in a nuclear-blast pit.
Over the past couple of years, Marsh has trekked to many of his country’s yawning mines to create similar visualizations of their total yields for the intriguing series, “For What It’s Worth.” The photos’ backdrops are unaltered, while the spheres of precious metals and stones he molds digitally using historical weight records. (The artist sizes them as accurately as he can, though in some cases these century-spanning records have conflicting numbers.)
“With regards to copper and diamonds, I calculated the total amount extracted from each individual mine,” says Marsh, who just wrapped up a different project about neglected diamond-mining towns in South Africa and Namibia at Gallery Momo. “When it came to gold and platinum, I broadened my perspective to look at entire goldfields and the total national production of the six platinum-group metals.” He then converts those amounts into volumes accounting for density differences across materials, and uses Google satellite images to scale them to their scenes.
For instance, here’s a shot of a mine in Nababeep that looks peppered by Thor’s BB gun, denting it with the 333,770 tons of copper removed during its lifetime:
“I first became interested in mining when I read about the old copper mines found near Springbok in South Africa,” says Marsh. “These were the first commercial mines in the country, and the descriptions of the hardships endured while extracting and transporting this metal inspired me to start this project.”
Treasure-seekers have dug for precious metals in lower Africa since at least the 1600s, but it was gold-and-diamond rushes of the 1800s that really began to change the face of what’s now South Africa. The economy lurched from largely agrarian to industrial. Some encampments located on deposits, like Johannesburg and Kimberley, grew into current-day cities, while others turned into ghost towns when claims ran dry.
The scrabble for high-priced resources set the stage for vast social upheaval. European colonialists overran indigenous populations, seizing land and creating systems that paid black miners pennies and mandated where they could and could not live. One report estimated more than 36,000 gold-mine deaths in the first 60 years of the last century, caused by falls, explosions, heat stroke, and sepsis developed from injuries. Other calamities include the 1922 Rand Rebellion among striking miners and the turn-of-the-century Second Boer War, a power struggle between the British and Afrikaners in which almost 100,000 people died.
The frenzy has quieted down somewhat. Mining made up more than a fifth of South Africa’s GDP in 1980; last year, it only comprised 8 percent. The industry remains humming with nearly 500,000 workers, though, burrowing for profitable stuff like diamonds, gold, chromium, platinum, palladium, and coal. It’s this undying hunt for riches that takes Marsh into the field to photograph mines, some active, others not, and a few being rebooted for further exploitation in the coming years.
“On most occasions, I had little difficulty accessing the sites that I photographed,” he says. “I encountered a few security guards, but they seemed primarily tasked with preventing illegal miners from entering the abandoned mines. The risk of falling into deep pits was sometimes a real concern, but I’m really afraid of heights so I think that made me extremely cautious.”
Marsh has also photographed landscapes that might look innocuous to outsiders, but hold significant and often painful memories for those in the know. One of his images shown below depicts a glistening globule of rhodium, commonly used as an anticorrosion agent in jewelry, plopped in flat, dirt-covered terrain. While the storm clouds and lightning in the background are ominous, it’s the history of the site that should be frightening—in 2012, police fatally shot 34 men striking from a platinum mine there during the notorious Marikana massacre.
Whether these surreal scenes are indicators of what brought South Africa its commercial clout, indictments of blood-tinged rapacity, or both, is up to the viewer. “My intention is to create a kind of visualization of the merits and shortfalls of mining in South Africa,” Marsh says, “an industry that has shaped the history and economy of the country so radically.”