‘Ernest Cole – Photographer’ on Exhibit

ernest cole

Ernest Cole was one of South Africa’s first black photojournalists. He fervently aimed to reveal what it was like to be black under apartheid to the world. He depicted the lives of the South African people as they struggled to traverse apartheid’s persecution, law and rule.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, Apartheid is defined as a “former South African social system” wherein persons from other racial groups “did not have the same political and economic rights” as white South Africans and therefore were coerced to live apart from white people. The Preus Museum in Norway notes that it was the term used for South Africa’s “racial segregation policy” and its “social system,” which lasted for 46 years.

Cole was motivated by French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photo-essays. He recorded incidents during apartheid from 1958 to 1966. His powerful and formidable images encapsulated everyday life such as a school boy studying by candlelight, lines of migrant workers waiting to be discharged, young men arrested and handcuffed for entering cities without the proper passes among others.

The photographer’s minimalistic remarks that supplemented the mostly uncropped photographs attest to the oppression and events that took place during the apartheid era. His photographs are not only remarkable for their subject matter, but also for their historical potency.

Born in 1940, Ernest Cole grew up in the black freehold township of Eersterust, near Pretoria, as the son of a tailor and laundry woman. Cole became fascinated with photography as a teen, and he obtained a job in Johannesburg as a darkroom assistant at DRUM magazine in 1958. While at the magazine, he began to socialize with other artistic young black South Africans – journalists, jazz musicians, photographers and political leaders that came together in the escalating anti-apartheid movement.

In the mid-60s, Cole was vehement in his political beliefs. The photographer set off, at great personal risk, to create a book that would convey to the world the destructive consequences of South Africa’s apartheid system.

ernest cole


The photographer operated in zones that were frequently patrolled by police. It forced Cole to be more clandestine in his tactics. He snuck his camera into the mines and prisons, used a long-range lens to shoot from a distance, and even went so far as to deceive the apartheid bureaucracy into changing his “racial identity as colored or mixed race.” This misrepresentation gave Cole more liberty in traveling in the cities and townships.

Cole was detained in 1966 with a gathering of petty thieves whom he had made friends with so he could document their lives. The South African police determined that Cole’s identity was falsified and he was presented with two choices. The photographer could become a police informant or he could face a penalty for fraud. However, Ernest Cole opted for a third option. He fled South Africa and headed to Europe. He brought very little with him apart from the layouts for his proposed book, and Cole had his photographic works and negatives smuggled out of the country shortly after.

In 1967, Cole’s project was achieved when New York publishing house, Random House printed House of Bondage. The compelling and potent depictions revealed the economic disparities and prejudice that supported apartheid. Although the book was prohibited in South Africa, contraband copies of the book circulated nevertheless. House of Bondage took a vital part in influencing South Africa’s tradition of activist photography that surfaced in subsequent decades.

Unfortunately, the circumstances that fueled Cole’s imagination and beliefs did nothing for his own comfort and welfare. In 1990, he died homeless in New York, after over 23 years of exile. He never had the opportunity to revisit South Africa and left no known negatives and only a few photographs behind.

An association of Swedish photographers called, Tio fotografer, with whom Ernest Cole had once collaborated with in Stockholm, received a collection of Cole’s works. They were eventually given to the nonprofit Hasselblad Foundation.

In 2006, the South African photographer, David Goldblatt received an award from the Hasselblad Foundation, and requested that the organization makes Ernest Cole’s collection public. Cole’s work was exhibited in the U.S. at the Fowler Museum at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). It is currently at the Preus Museum in Norway until June 1, 2014. The Ernest Cole – Photographer retrospective will be shown at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University (NYU) in New York City from September 3 to December 6, 2014.

By: Dawn Levesque

Fowler Museum
Grey Art Gallery NYC
Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Preus Museum