Thom Pierce is a Cape Town-based photographer. Originally from the U.K., Thom moved to South Africa seven years ago and enjoys art and documentary photography. He has made a profound and successful effort to tell stories and bring attention to the often forgotten communities around him. He deftly uses the camera to communicate the stories and the reality in which these communities live in day in and day out. In addition to being featured in numerous publications and books, a collection of Thom’s work was acquired by the South African National Gallery for its permanent collection. This year, Thom was selected as a winner of the prestigious Piclet Popcap Award for contemporary photography. Thom speaks to atlas this week about the courageous Khoi-San/Khomani people of his Andriesvale series, his intellectual and artistic approach to photography, and his recently completed project involving the people of Semonkong.
How did you first become interested in photography?
Thom Pierce: I do not really remember. I have seen photographs of me at a young age with an SLR around my neck, but there is no defining moment when I became interested. I used to take a lot of photographs and develop them in a darkroom that I built at home, but I never gained a huge passion for it until I was much older and until I understood what was interesting about photographing.
Do you specialize in a specific genre of photography?
I like to call it documentary portraiture. Telling stories using techniques from documentary, formal portraiture, and fine art photography. Photography is my way of engaging with the world. I am interested in people and their stories and I am endlessly fascinated by the way photography can be used to translate and communicate.
How is documentary portraiture different from other genres like landscape, street, and portraiture?
I think that documentary is a mix of all of the above. It is not creating scenes like you may do in some forms of portraiture but it also is not claiming to be an unnoticed observer. There is a collaboration between me and the subjects and an agreement to tell a specific story. I am not directing what is happening but I am also not claiming my presence does not have an impact on the situation. To me, framing choices in documentary photography can be more specific so that you try to make the best out of the environment that you are in much like landscape. I think the lines between all genres are — and should be — blurred.
These images from your Andriesvale series are about a group of Khoi-San/Khomani people. These are very compelling and moving photos. How did you first hear about them? How did this project get started?
This was quite an early project for me in terms of my career and my life in South Africa. I was looking for a subject that would take me somewhere new and broaden my knowledge of the country I was living in. A friend told me about a project that the university in Durban was doing with a community in the Northern Cape. I met with the facilitators and asked if I could go along on their next field trip. I often look to universities for interesting research to see if there are any project ideas.
Did you encounter any challenges while working on this project?
The hardest thing was trying to explain to the community what I wanted to do. It is really important to me that my intentions are understood and there is a verbal agreement between me and the subjects. I realized early on that “Bushmen” (a problematic term but one that is most universally understood in this context) are usually portrayed in a very romanticized way, in monochrome, and in their traditional clothing. I really wanted to give a more realistic and accurate representation but this is a very hard intention to explain to anybody especially in their second language.
What did you take away from this project? What message do you want viewers to take away from it?
What I took away from the project was that there is big difference between our idealistic view and reality. I think that so much of photography is a cliched look at the world as seen through a filter of how we want things to be represented. But the truth is very different from that. It is important that we, as photographers, do not just accept the preconceived ideas as truth but that we go, explore, and report back.
Are you currently working on any projects?
I have just finished a series of portraits called “The Horsemen of Semonkong” that I shot in the last couple of months in the small mountain kingdom of Lesotho. I am very excited about it as it is a temporary departure for me — leaving behind the more issue heavy work to focus on something more aesthetic. This project may be found here: www.thompierce.com/semonkong.
If you could go on a photo shoot with any photographer (living or deceased), who would it be?
Nadav Kander, Arnold Newman or Sebastian Salgado. I love the slightly older generation of photographers who take their work extremely seriously and are incredibly professional about their approach. I want to see that in action.
Is there a lot of support for photographers in your community in South Africa?
Yes and no. In South Africa, photography is seen as very important as a tool for change and documenting the ongoing struggles of the country. There are many great photographers who work tirelessly dealing with difficult subjects. Unfortunately, like the rest of the world, photography as a profession is undervalued and it is common for photographers to be exploited.
Thanks for being our featured photographer of the week, Thom!
For more information about Thom, visit his website. All images © Thom Pierce.