“bared life” – looking at stereographs of south african miners produced in the early 1900s (rosemary lombard, 2014)

This is a research paper I wrote in 2014 for “The Public Life of the Image”, an MPhil course offered through the Centre for African Studies at the University of Cape Town.

“[T]he striking mine workers at Marikana have become spectacularised. It is a stark reminder that the mine worker, a modern subject of capitalism, in these parts of the world is also the product of a colonial encounter.”

— Suren Pillay (2014)

“We need to understand how photography works within everyday life in advanced industrial societies: the problem is one of materialist cultural history rather than art history.”

— Allan Sekula (2003)


I pick up the odd wood and metal contraption. This is a stereoscope, I am told. It feels old, in the sense that there is a certain worn patina about it, and a non-utilitarian elegance to the turned wood and decoration, though not as if it were an expensive piece – just as if it came from an era where there was time for embellishment. It feels cheaply put together, mass-produced and flimsy as opposed to delicate, the engraving detail of the tinny sheet metal rather rough, the fit of the one piece as it glides through the other somewhat rickety in my hands.

stereoscope 02

stereoscope 01

From two elevations, a stereoscope almost identical to the one I used. Various kinds were devised in the 19th century. The particular hand-held variety, of oak, tin, glass and velvet depicted here dates back to 1901, Based on a design by the inventor Oliver Wendell Holmes, it is perhaps the most readily available and simplest model.

I reach for the pile of faded stereographs; flipping through them slowly. There are 24, picked up in an antique shop in an arcade off Cape Town’s Long Street together with the viewing device. A stereograph is composed of two photographs of the same subject taken from slightly different angles. When placed in the stereoscope’s wire holder, and viewed through the eyeholes, an illusion of perspective and depth is achieved as the two images appear to combine through a trick of parallax.

Susan Sontag remarks that “[p]hotographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation, and fantasy”2. And Allan Sekula calls the photograph an “incomplete utterance, a message that depends on some external matrix of conditions and presuppositions for its readability. That is, the meaning of any photographic message is necessarily context determined”3. In what follows, while unable to offer definitive conclusions, I will look more closely at 2 out of these 24 pictures and, through a contextual discussion, attempt to unpack a few aspects of the complex relationships of photography with its subjects and also with public circulation.

Each thick, oblong card with its rounded, scuffed edges discoloured by age has two seemingly identical images on it, side by side, and is embossed with the name of what I guess must have been the photographer or printing studio’s name in gold down the margin: “RAYMOND NEILSON, BOX 145, JOHANNESBURG”. The images depict miners underground. Some are very faded, to the extent that the figures in them appear featureless and ghostly. There is virtually no annotation on most of the photos. On just a few of them, spidery white handwriting on the photo itself, as if scratched into the negative before it was printed, announces the name of the machinery or activity in the picture and the name of the mine: “Crown Mines”.

I pick up the first card, slot it into the stereoscope, and peer through the device. On the left of the two images, the writing announces: “Ingersoll hammer drill cutting box hole. C215. Crown Mines.”

Photo 1: Stereographic image of miners in Crown Mines around the turn of the twentieth century.

Photo 1: Stereographic image of miners in Crown Mines around the turn of the twentieth century.

I slide the holder backwards and forwards along the wooden shaft to focus. I’m seeing two images, nothing remarkable, until suddenly, at a precise point on the axis, the images coalesce into one, three-dimensional. The experience is that of a gestalt switch, the optical illusion uncanny. I blink hard. It’s still there. It feels magical, as if the figures in the photos are stepping right out of the card towards me. Their eyes stare into mine through over a century of time, gleaming white out of dirty, sweaty faces.

Startlingly tangible, here stand two young white men in a mine shaft, scarcely out of their teens, leaning against rock, each with a hand on a hip and a jauntily cocked hat. They are very young… yet very old too, I immediately think: definitely dead now; and perhaps dead soon after the picture was taken, living at risk, killed in a rock fall or in World War One. A pang of indefinable emotion hits. I am amazed at how powerfully this image has flooded my imagination. Even with the difficult viewing process, the effect is astonishing.

I am reminded of Susan Sontag’s contention that all photographs are memento mori: “To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt”5.

I also notice that the trick of parallax (and concurrently, the evocativeness) works most pronouncedly on the figures in the foreground, probably due to the camera angle and vanishing points of the perspective. Behind the two white youngsters, almost fading into the darkness, is a black man, holding up a drill over all of their heads that seems to penetrate the tunnel of rock in which they are suspended.

He appears to have moved during the shot as his face is blurred. This could also be due to the low light in the shaft. Though he is looking straight at me, I can’t connect with him like I do with the figures in front. He is very much in the background, a presence without substance. The way the photo was set up and taken has placed him in that position, and this viewpoint is indelible, no matter how hard I try to look past it.

Photo 2: Stereographic image of Johannesburg miners around the turn of the twentieth century.

Photo 2: Stereographic image of Johannesburg miners around the turn of the twentieth century.

There is no writing on this one except for what seems to be a reference number: “C269”. The figure in the foreground is a black man, miming work with a mallet and chisel against the rock face, though clearly standing very still for the shot, as he is perfectly in focus, his sceptical gaze on us, a sharp shadow thrown on the rock behind him. This is no ordinary lamp light: it seems clear that these pictures have been professionally illumined by the photographer, perhaps using magnesium flares, because these shots definitely predate flash photography.

To the man with the chisel’s left stands a white man, face dark with dirt. He is holding a lamp in one hand, and his other grasps a support pile which bisects the shaft and also the photo. Tight-jawed, he stares beyond us, his eyes preoccupied, glazed over. Behind the two men in the foreground, there are more men – parts of two, perhaps three workers can be seen, one a black man crouched down at the rock face behind the man with the chisel.

What strikes me most trenchantly about this picture — the punctum, after Barthes7 — is the man with the chisel’s bare feet. He is at work in an extremely hazardous environment without shoes. Looking at all the photographs, every white worker is wearing boots, but there are several pictures where it is visible that many of the black workers are barefoot.

This is shocking visual evidence of an exploitative industry which does not take its workers’ safety seriously: these men are placed at incredible risk without the provision of adequate protective attire: none have hard protection for their heads, and black workers are without shoes. Men not deemed worthy of protection are, by inference, expendable. From these photos, one surmises that black lives are more dispensable than white.

I am really curious to find out more about these pictures. Perhaps the visual evidence here is echoed in literature? Perhaps they can tell us things the literature does not?

Who were these people posing? There is nothing on the back of the photos. No captions, no dates. Who was the photographer? For what purpose were these pictures being taken? The lack of answers to these most mundane of questions lends the photos an uncanny, almost spectral quality.

I have technical questions about how these pictures were taken too, such as about the lighting and the camera used. Surely it was large and difficult to manoeuvre down into the mine – probably an expensive exercise, too?

With virtually no annotation or background information, there is little direct guidance in understanding how or why these stereographs came into being. I assume that as a viewer now, my experience and interpretation of the images would be informed by a very different paradigm to that inhabited by viewers at the turn of the twentieth century. Hence, I attempt to examine the broader historical and theoretical milieu for insight. As John Tagg reminds us, “The photograph is not a magical ‘emanation’ but a material product of a material apparatus set to work in specific contexts”.8

Elizabeth Edwards suggests, after Rochelle Kolodny, that there are three interconnecting models that act in structuring interpretation and representation of photographic images. Each contains varying ideological assumptions about the nature of the world. According to Edwards, “romanticism” looks at the world as idealised aesthetic essences, “realism” at the world as empirical facts, and the “documentary mode” is concerned with “the world of action” in an ‘inspirational’ way, related to political or social commentary and discussions of intentionality.

These various lenses can be brought to bear when composing or analysing an image. Edwards contends that, in practical terms, the creation of an image generally involves more than one of these modes, and, moreover, that a photograph may be interpreted according to different models at different times via different perspectives and provide diverging insights:

[A]lthough ‘meaning’ may theoretically be open-ended, it is also historically and culturally determined. From the moment of its creation the photograph will ‘mean’ something, reflecting the photographer’s intention. While this meaning may remain with it, or may be recoverable through historical research, it becomes stratified… beneath other meanings attributed to the image. These may be in complete opposition to the photographer’s intention since different bodies of knowledge are deemed significant as the photograph is used to express different preoccupations… Ideas extraneous to the picture itself thus give meaning to it, both for its original audience and for subsequent generations of interpreters. … It is often the very tensions in a photograph, the very circumstances of its creation which are of historical significance, and these abstract qualities are documents in themselves… [T]he very fact that people are photographed is part of their history, their changing existence in a broadening world. Photographs can, with close contextual examination, be read as broad texts which reveal these ‘hidden histories’ rather than as individual descriptive documents.9

I google “Raymond Neilson”, trying varying permutations and keywords in conjunction with the name, with no luck. I google “old South African mining photographs”. I find only one promising reference in a forum post from 30 April 2013 on heritageportal.co.za, a “discussion, education and marketing platform serving the South African Heritage Sector”:

We have recently been asked to find a good home for some photographic equipment and old photos. A lady brought us the items, having recently admitted to hospital an elderly relative with a terminal condition. She discovered the items in a previously unknown cellar in her relative’s house in Bentham, North Yorkshire, England.

The items are an old wooden handheld Stereo (3D) Viewer with 46 stereo prints mounted on thick cardboard. The 14x8cm black and white prints are of professional photographs taken underground, with pro lighting, of Miners and their equipment inside Mines in Johannesburg, and we are sure that these images are of great significance to South African Mining history.

Although a lot of the prints have deteriorated around the edges, the detail and sharpness of the images, are, quite frankly, staggering, especially through the 3D Viewer; they seem to come to life! I notice that some of the Miners posing in the photos are holding lit candles to help make them a focal point, with white men at the front wearing work boots, and coloured men at the back barefoot! Unfortunately we can’t find any dates on the photos. The names of some of the Mines are in faded handwriting along the bottom of the prints:

Kleinfortein G.M
Nourse Mines
Cinderella Deep G.M
Comet G.M
Cason G.M (we guess that G.M means goldmine?)

All the prints have the printers’ name and address along the side; G. B. Neilson, 15, Victoria Street, Georgetown.

We have contacted MuseumAfrica and they have agreed to add this to their photographic collection.10

The description fits what I am looking at, too, so I follow up with Diana Wall, Collections Manager at Museum Africa in Newtown and former curator of the Bensusan Museum of Photography, who chats to me at some length about the historical context of these photographs.

Diana is not familiar with the name “Raymond Neilson”, and says that dating the images precisely is impossible, but that they were most likely made around the turn of the twentieth century. The stereoscope, she tells me, is typical of those used in Victorian homes for education and amusement – looking at stereographs was a popular form of entertainment until around 1920.11


I find scant information surrounding the use of stereoscopes, although this appears in a 1940s book on Victorian photography:

During the latter half of last century it was a favourite family pastime to spend an evening looking through stereoscopes. They were a sort of forerunner to our present-day home cinemas. Queen Victoria herself ordered an apparatus at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. The demand was mostly for scenic views, landscapes and travel pictures and there were several firms supplying them. The London Stereoscopic Company was one of them, but as a special line it produced a number of comic genre series which seemed to have great success. Strangely enough, these somewhat burlesque pictures are today almost the only records of Victorian domesticity and street life, and as such deserve our interest.12

From the information I have at my disposal, I really cannot tell for what purpose these photographs were intended. I cannot imagine an overtly business-related purpose for them – the annotation is too intermittent: if there were a commercial purpose to naming the machinery in some of the shots, it would most likely have been named more consistently.

If they were to be used for advertising or documentary purposes, this would be of a “cabinet of curiosities” type, in which the spectacle of seeing something usually invisible to the audience would be the main attraction. Perhaps the photos could have had an educational function, although the documentation is too imprecise to serve any real use as an inventory record.


John Berger speaks of the photograph as a trace which does in space what was done with the faculty of memory rather than with a painting or a drawing before the advent of photography – a photograph is tightly related to the real and belongs to its subject in a way that a drawing cannot. Sontag13 uses the analogy of something “stencilled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask” to describe a photographic image. Berger contends that the camera plucks a set of appearances from a potentially never-ending stream, and fixes them, unchanging. He says that before photography, only memory could do this. However, while memory preserves meaning, photographs do not – the instants of appearance they record are violently “prised away from their meaning” and do not narrate anything in themselves14.

The stereographs do narrate empirical information, though, and while, as Edwards says, the visible phenomena such as bare feet might be imbued with differing meanings from various vantage points, the images remain powerful repositories of presence.

Sontag argues that the act of photography functions as a control mechanism exerted upon the world — upon our experience of it and upon others’ perception of our experience:

Photographs really are experience captured, and the camera is the ideal arm of consciousness in its acquisitive mood. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge — and, therefore, like power…. Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire15.

As Edwards16 (among others) has shown, the collection of photographic evidence is a tool of colonial knowledge production, both in the strict sense of, for instance, anthropometric photography and in the more “leisurely” sense of the photographic postcards that circulated in Victorian society, creating audiences.17

The will to knowledge as power and dominion: this is the quintessential colonising mind-set.18 These stereographs allow their audience, from the safety and comfort of their drawing rooms, to see underground into the hot, filthy, dark, dangerous bowels of the earth, to survey and thus to “own” the workings of the very source of the wealth driving the expansion of the South African economy.

I imagine that a strange mixture of romance and detachment accompanied this Victorian parlour experience – a voyeuristic frisson, and perhaps an element of disavowal, too19. That the men in the pictures are all unnamed reduces them to mere exemplars of hive workers, archetypes void of individual identity and thus as interchangeable as antsor moles in burrows, existing in a liminal, abject state, almost already buried alive, even as they engage us with their eyes in the moment of being “shot”.

This terminology is apt. The violence of the camera echoes the violence of colonial exploitation. The action of taking a photograph renders the subject of that photograph an Other.20 As with any other means of recording, as the recordist, one necessarily occupies a position of power in relation to that which one is representing. A photograph has the authority to concretise this into binary difference, rendering the subject an opaque and mysterious object, but simultaneously one within the bounds of rational apprehension, collection, appraisal and control.


Diana Wall and I speak about conditions on the mines for black workers.

These pictures were taken less than twenty years from the day in 1886 when gold was discovered on the Rand. Johannesburg mushroomed out of the veld with the rise of the gold mining industry. People flocked to the cities in search of economic prosperity. To facilitate the extraction of the seams of precious metal from the earth, an enormous reservoir of labour was required, such as did not exist at the time.

Through an ingeniously designed system of laws and controls set up by government in concert with mine-owners – hut taxes, migrant labour, compounds, contracts, passes – workers who had previously lived as subsistence farmers, but could no longer afford to with the new taxes, were coerced into joining the capitalist machine. They became tied into perpetual servitude by impossibly low wages and enervating bureaucracy. Through the systematic exploitation of the workers on its lower rungs, the burgeoning industry enriched society’s privileged upper echelons, sowing the seeds for the vast socio-economic inequalities and abuses that persist to the present day.21

Photographs sometimes allow us to access information about material conditions that may be obscured in written accounts.22 Diana tells me that men had to pay for their own protective clothing from the meagre wages they earned. I have not been able to find corroboration of this particular fact in literature, but it would explain why those workers who probably earned the lowest wages, the black workers, do not wear shoes in the stereographs: they were probably unable to afford them, and were not provided with them by their employers.

Bare life. These images give a literal sense of mineworkers living in a paradoxical state of exception akin to Agamben’s homo sacer, outside of the protection of basic human rights yet simultaneously under total control of the juridical system: constructed as docile black bodies23. Still to this day, each mineworker occupies a role that is utterly essential to the entire economy, yet he remains unindividuated, underground, hidden from the public eye. The extreme force and lack of accountability which characterised the South African government’s actions to quash the 2012 Marikana miners’ strike bear out that this status of exception persists to the present.24


To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder – a soft murder…25

I wonder if any of the people in those images ever got to look at themselves through a stereoscope. While it is not possible to ascertain with certainty who the intended audience for the pictures was, it would not be contentious to assume that the envisioned viewers were not the mineworkers themselves.

Historically, the growth of South Africa’s gold mining industry has tended to be told as a “story of ‘progress’ – of modernisation, technological achievements, an expanding economy… related as the story of the ‘randlords’, men like Cecil John Rhodes… [showing] how they were able to gain fabulous wealth – and, at the same time, shape the future of the country.”26

This kind of telling obscures the fact that none of this triumph would have been possible without the backbreaking labour of countless workers who hewed the riches from the ground, bodily. The stereographs, by naming the machines in the pictures, yet not the workers, betray a similar focus: essentially, a colonial tale of white men’s technical conquest.

The workers in these pictures are silenced. The photographs afford them no way to represent themselves. The tableaux in which they pose as dutiful units of labour power belie the rich ways in which workers on the Witwatersrand did find means for self-representation, exercising sophisticated, creative agency despite the abject conditions they endured.27

There have been paradigmatic shifts in social perspective between the moment of the stereographs’ origin and the present moment at which I encounter the images – one such example would be the increase in space for narratives which speak of the agency of labourers. Such shifts in awareness foreground different questions and encourage alternative, critical readings of documentary material from the past.

From my vantage point more than a century later, it is impossible to decipher fully what the originally intended purpose of these stereographs was. However, in reading this collection across what Ann Laura Stoler terms “the archival grain”28, I bring to these representations a different set of preoccupations, allowing hitherto hidden meanings to materialise, and fresh insights to emerge from the faded configurations of shadow and light fixed on each card. I find it truly wondrous that photography as a technology exists and enables this, in ways that writing cannot.


1 Various types of stereoscopes were devised in the 19th century. The particular hand-held variety, of oak, tin, glass and velvet depicted here dates back to 1901 and was based on a design by the inventor Oliver Wendell Holmes, and perhaps the most readily available and the simplest. Source of information and pictures: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O39988/stereoscope-underwood-and-underwood [Accessed 16 November 2014].
2 Sontag (1973: 23).
3 Sekula (1982: 4).
4 From the private collection of Anette Hoffmann. Used with kind permission.
5 Sontag (1973:14), cf. Berger (1972) and Barthes (1981:14).
6 From the private collection of Anette Hoffmann. Used with kind permission.
7 Barthes (1981:27): “A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me, but also bruises me, is poignant to me.”
8 Tagg (1988:3).
9 Edwards (1992:12).
10 Available: http://www.heritageportal.co.za/forum/johannesburg-mining-heritage [23 May 2014]
11 Diana Wall, pers. comm., 26 May 2014.
12 Strasser (1942:117).
13 Sontag (in Berger 1972:50).
14 Berger (1972:51).
15 Sontag (1973:4).
16 Edwards (1992:6).
17 See, for instance, Udo Krautwurst (2009) on early German anthropology, photography and audience formation.
18 cf. Foucault (1976).
19 cf. Shepherd (2013).
20 Said (1978); Hall (1997).
21 See Wolpe (1972:432), Legassick (1975), and Callinicos (1981) for more details of how the mining industry in South Africa secured cheap labour.
22 There are parallels here with Nick Shepherd’s discussion of the nameless absence of black archaeological coworkers from written accounts of archaeological fieldwork, which is revealed by these workers’ visible presence in the contemporary photographic record (Shepherd, 2003).
23 Agamben (1995), Foucault (1976).
24 Cf. Pillay (2014). It is outside the scope of this paper to discuss the spectacle of the miners’ uprising at Marikana, and how the presence of cameras changed the course of events as well as interpretations of what actually happened afterwards, but I would like to relate these representations of miners at different historical moments in a trajectory.
25 Sontag (1973:14).
26 Callinicos (1981:iv).
27 Cf. Tracey (1952); Coplan (1994); Callinicos (1981); Abrahams (1946); Van Onselen (2001) etc.
28 Stoler (2009).


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