Friday, December 7, 2012

Treasure Hunting: Photography and Mines


Neville Petersen expects a song and dance when he arrives at a mine shaft. East Rand Proprietary Mines South East Vertical (SEV) shaft in Boksburg has been closed since 2005, but there are a few guards stationed at the entrance who aren’t keen to let us in. It’s not the buried wealth underground that needs protecting, or even the dilapidated structures above ground, it is simply a knee-jerk reaction; this compulsion to conceal its business from the prying eyes of strangers. After 15 minutes of patient negotiations, Petersen returns to the car and parks it under a large tree overhanging the driveway. We must wait for a more senior security manager to allow us entry into the mine’s premises. A group of men are tending to the manicured gardens leading up to the entrance.

There seems little reason now to maintain appearances; the only visitors are unwanted. They are mostly scavengers that enter under the dark cloak of night to steal cables. And then, there is Petersen, a former photojournalist who has made a habit of roaming around these abandoned institutions with a camera attached to his eye. This is his third or fourth visit to SEV, but he sees new things here all the time; because the imposing shaft building and all the dilapidated machinery and empty buildings are caught in an aggressive state of entropy, their exteriors are constantly changing. Nothing remains stagnant, not even a decommisioned mine.

There are all sorts of logical explanations for Petersen’s fixation with these edifices – it is the buildings, the discarded machinery that capture his interest. It might have something to do with growing up on the East Rand, Springs, in-between two mines. The imposing architecture of the shafthead frame is imprinted on his consciousness as in much the same way as the blue of a highveld sky. So, perhaps it was always written in the stars that he would one day want to survey the activities connected to this enduring motif, untangling the mystery that they weaved into his childhood dreams.