UPDATE: On May 13, 2016, South Africa’s high court approved the class action lawsuit against South Africa’s gold mining companies.

Imagine finding out the job that you had done for 35 years had made you sick. And that the sickness meant you were no longer employable in that industry. And that the skills you had learned, after being denied a formal education, were of no use in any other job. You are in your early 50s with no way of making money. And you are sick, so sick that you cannot walk to the end of your garden without having to stop to catch your breath. Imagine that and then look me in the eyes and tell me you don’t deserve compensation.

Over a 20-day period in September and October 2015, I traveled around South Africa and Lesotho to photograph the miners and widows named in the application for a groundbreaking class action lawsuit against 32 South African gold mining companies. The people I met had contracted silicosis, a preventable but incurable disease that causes shortness of breath, lung infections, respiratory failure, and tuberculosis. I wanted to show that they were more than just names on a piece of paper.

My journey involved driving a total distance of 3,100 miles and photographing between two and six portraits each day. I started in the Eastern Cape countryside, one of the most beautiful sights in South Africa and home to many of the former gold miners. There, hills roll into each other, spotted with colorful houses and the winding roads teem with school children, cows, goats, and donkeys.

Navigation in these rural areas is difficult. Distances are vast. A single place name can encapsulate an area spanning hundreds of miles, and the concepts of near and far are relative. When I stopped to ask directions I was often assured the home we were looking for was nearby, only to arrive hours later at a tiny house perched on the top of a distant hill.

Nosipho Dala is the widow of Zwelakhe Dala, who died in March 2015. His death certificate states that he died of natural causes. He was 55 and suffering from silicosis. He worked on the gold mines for 28 years and received no compensation when he got sick from exposure to the silica dust.

The one place a young black man from a rural area was likely to find work during apartheid was in the mines

Patrick Sitwayi, 57, here with his daughter-in-law, has silicosis from 22 years in the gold mines. He needs crutches because his toes were amputated after becoming infected, he says because of the primitive safety equipment and the hot working conditions, which caused excess sweat to collect in his plastic gumboots.
Alloys Msuthu, 61, lives in Ramafole in the Eastern Cape. He has silicosis from 32 years working underground on the gold mines. “I was liked by my supervisors because I was meeting my targets. My team used to listen to my instructions and respected me. I had pride in my work and dedicated all my energy and time to it. That is why I got silicosis.”

I spent at least an hour with each person before taking their portrait, talking and asking questions about their lives. The majority of the miners I met started working there out of a sense of desperation. They were denied a good education and many needed to start supporting their families early on. A job was hard to come by, but the one place a young black man from a rural area was likely to find work during apartheid was in the mines.

As soon as we crossed the border into Lesotho, the landscape changed. Many of the houses there are made of stone and horses are a common form of transport. The roads are windier, and people seem to drive more slowly, but the distances are just as vast. If you want to find someone in this country of hills and valleys, you simply ask a passerby to shout across the valley at the top of their voice. Someone else will reply at the top of their voice, and it goes on like that until the person in question has been located.

Matiisetso Nong, 58, is the widow of Samuel Leponesa Nong, who died in 2007. He worked on the mines for 31 years and was taken home to Lesotho in a company ambulance when he was retrenched due to second-degree silicosis and tuberculosis. He did not receive any compensation.
Dyamara Jibhana (right) – here with his brother Phillip – lives in Whittlesea, Eastern Cape. He worked on the mines for 39 years and received no compensation when he was diagnosed with silicosis and sent home. He worked at Beatrix Gold Mine in the Witwatersrand Basin in Johannesburg until 2008. He is now 65 years old and waiting to hear whether he will receive some money to help him live with his condition.

The images were hung in a pitch-black room

Zimoshile Bozo – here with his sister Zoleka and her children – is 57 years old and lives in Hofmeyr in the Eastern Cape. He worked for 27 years at Blyvooruitzicht Gold Mine, and was diagnosed with silicosis in 2008. He didn’t receive any compensation and now has to rely on his sister to care for him, as he is unable to find work.
Myekelwa Mkenyane – here with his daughter Nophiwe Nqoko and granddaughter– was 18 when he started working on the gold mines. He worked for 35 years and was discharged in 2009 when he was diagnosed with silicosis. He received R36,000 in compensation ($2 186) but has not been able to work since.

We had a long list of people to visit. In some cases, we photographed the widows or children of the men who had died. In Lesotho, we spent hours trying to find one of the miners, talking to his neighbors, shouting across the valley, hiking up and down the hills, asking everyone that we could find in his village, but in the end we had to give up. I felt like I had let him down. The value of the project for me was that it gave everyone a voice.

Four days after the end of my journey, I put on an exhibition of 56 portraits with the help of volunteers from the Treatment Action Campaign in the basement of the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, next door to the High Court where the hearing was taking place. Everyone attending the court case, including those representing the mines and the miners, were made aware of it. In the evenings, lawyers, court clerks, and members of the public came through to see it. The images were printed in large format and hung in a pitch-black room with only the light from miners’ helmets to view the images. A soundtrack of them breathing, which I had recorded in the field, was played over speakers to complete a fully immersive installation.

The hearing ended two weeks later. Judges from the High Court are currently deliberating their decision, which is expected imminently. If the class action is granted, the number of potential claimants that it will represent is estimated to be over 250,000.

Maleburu Lebitsa, 60, is the widow of Lekhoanyane Isaacs Lebitsa. She lives in Leribe, Lesotho. Her husband died in 2010 after leaving the mines due to his occupational lung disease. They were married in 1977 and for the next 33 years he was away from home most of the year.
Matsekelo Masupha – here with her granddaughter – from Berea in Maseru, is the widow of Mokonyana Robert Masupha, who passed away in 2008 after 29 years in the gold mines. He was diagnosed with silicosis in 2003, and was compensated R89,000 (approx. $5,406). Mrs Masupha now earns a living by farming and selling traditional medicine. “Considering the hardship I face now, I would say that I am disappointed in the company that my husband worked for. He went there as a young man, he spent his entire life there but he came back with nothing to show for his work.”
Xolisile Butu, 60, lives in Skhobeni, Eastern Cape with his 86-year-old mother, Adelaide. He was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis in 1992 after seven years in the mines. Mr Butu recalls what he describes as “the problems between Xhosas and Zulus” on the mines. The fights got so bad that the po-lice would be called and had to break the groups up using teargas.
Zama Gangi, 60, – here with his wife Matshozi – organized traditional dancing competitions when he worked at South Deep Gold Mine. There were no prizes, it was for fun, pride and to keep their heritage alive, he recalled. In 2007 he was diagnosed with silicosis and was told to bring his eldest son to replace him. He was retrenched in 2008 after 19 years and was paid no compensation.

Visit www.thompierce.com/tpog to view the series in its entirety.