Platinum, a collaboration between London-based writer Jack Shenker and British photographer Jason Larkin, seeks in both content and presentation of text and photographs to remind us that we are after all privileged observers of the events leading up to the massacre of at least 34 mine workers in South Africa’s platinum belt.
Larkin has spent a great deal of time thinking about how to make books and get them into the world. The stories he has covered as a photographer in the last several years have compelled him to think about the politics of art books – who makes them, who distributes them and, most importantly, who can afford them.
Platinum, the second collaboration between Larkin and Shenker, reflects these sensibilities. Larkin’s photographs accompany Shenker’s essay “Marikana”, a wide-ranging analysis of how South Africa got to Marikana, and how this event might come to define the country in years to come. Shenker is unflinching in his criticism of big business and the mining industry, and Larkin’s photographs offer a fairly dispassionate but astute look at the people and the landscape of the platinum belt around Rustenburg.
The publication of these two elements of the story takes the form of a loose-leafed folder of sorts: six posters printed back-to-back in full colour, and the essay — in English and with a translation in isiXhosa by Lulu Mfazwe-Mojapelo – as a separate booklet. All are held together with an elastic band inside a plain card sleeve with the title handstamped on the front.
The thinking is to disrupt expectations about what a book might comprise, as a way, albeit imperfectly, of reflecting on Shenker’s central theme: that your perspective on things like Marikana depends very much on where you are looking from. The traditional photobook, that usually luxurious, costly publication on heavy art paper, is quite literally dismantled in Platinum.
Perhaps this conceptual and aesthetic manouevre will persuade us to look more carefully at what is right before us. Platinum is also in part a gesture meant to include a wider than usual audience.
In their previous collaboration called Cairo Divided about the manifestations and effects of the Arab Spring in Egypt, Larkin and Shenker settled on a broadsheet with photographs and an essay in English and Arabic. They felt this was the best way to disseminate the story they sought to tell, but also to exploit the democratic possibilities that a free newspaper on cheap paper represented. It was also a way of commenting, albeit obliquely, on the uprising itself.
The success of that publication persuaded Larkin that it was an excellent way of getting another important South African story – about the re-mining of Johannesburg’s golden heaps of toxic waste – into the world.
Although his photographs of the mine dumps were several years in the making, the newspaper version of After the Mines was a fast production and the relative cheapness of newsprint meant that it could be sold for a modest US$6.60. And once again, a translation of the essay by journalist Mara Kardas-Nelson, this time into isiZulu, the most widely spoken language in Gauteng where most of the dumps are situated, was an important element of the publication.
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