Ernest Cole: The Brutal Realities of Apartheid

Martin Luther King Jr. once famously said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” His words resonated strongly with the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, highlighting the interconnectedness of social justice movements around the world. This June, Ernest Cole: House of Bondage opens at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. The retrospective pays homage to the seminal work of the South African photographer, who is celebrated as one of the foremost chroniclers of apartheid’s brutality.

As a young Black man born in a township in Transvaal in 1940, Cole experienced the daily humiliations of the system from the inside. He said: “Three-hundred years of white supremacy in South Africa have placed us in bondage, stripped us of our dignity, robbed us of our self-esteem and surrounded us with hate.” The body of work that Cole left behind serves as a haunting reminder of the injustices endured under apartheid, but also the resilience and humanity of those oppressed by the regime. His photographs are a testament to the enduring struggle for justice and equality. The images are not just documents of history, but also powerful symbols of resistance and hope. It’s important that these pictures are shared widely.

During apartheid in South Africa, racial classification was a central component of the discriminatory system. People were categorised into racial groups, including “Black,” “Coloured,” “Indian,” and “White,” and these classifications had significant legal and social implications. Being classified as “Black” under apartheid subjected individuals to severe restrictions and discrimination, including limited access to education, employment and public facilities. In contrast, those classified as “Coloured” faced somewhat less severe restrictions but still experienced systemic racism and segregation. The classifications were arbitrary and designed to enforce racial hierarchy and oppression. Cole was one of the first Black freelance photographers in South Africa, only possible due to his reclassification from “Black” to “Coloured.”

House of Bondage, first published in 1967, captured the stark realities of apartheid with unflinching honesty.  Cole’s documentation of everyday life, commissioned by Drum and The New York Times, shed light on the harsh living conditions endured by Black South Africans. Through his lens, the world saw the plight of miners, domestic workers in white households, as well as the state of transport and health sectors. He paid close attention to children and young people who were denied a proper education under the Bantu Education Act, which was introduced while Cole was still in high school and caused him to leave in protest. 

In 1966, he fled South Africa, smuggling out his photographs to the UK before settling in New York. House of Bondage was his magnum opus, unveiling the brutalities of apartheid to the world. In 1968, the apartheid regime banned him in perpetuity, stripping him of his South African passport. Between 1969 and 1971, Cole spent an extensive amount of time on regular visits to Sweden where he became involved with the Tiofoto collective and exhibited his work. From 1972, Cole’s life fell into disarray, and he ceased to work as a photographer, losing control of his archive and negatives. Having experienced periods of homelessness, he died aged 49 of pancreatic cancer in 1990. In 2017, more than 60,000 negatives missing for more than 40 years were discovered in a Stockholm bank vault. This work is now being examined and catalogued. 

The exhibition at The Photographers’ Gallery showcases over 100 photographs, covering all 15 thematic chapters of House of Bondage, including previously unpublished works from the chapter Black Ingenuity. Visitors can also view early original prints, personal documents and ephemera, offering insight into Cole’s creative process. His enduring legacy extends far beyond his photographs. His life story, marred by displacement and disenfranchisement, serves as a poignant reminder of the power of art to transcend boundaries and ignite social change. As we immerse ourselves in Cole’s world, we are invited to reflect on the past, confront the present, and envision a future where equality and justice prevail.

Ernest Cole: House of Bondage is a collaboration with Magnum Photos, curated by Anne-Marie Beckmann and Andrea Holzherr, and adapted for The Photographers’ Gallery by Karen McQuaid, Senior Curator. In 2022, Aperture re-released House of Bondage with an additional chapter, underscoring its enduring relevance. Additionally, Ernest Cole’s documentation of New York City during the American Civil Rights Movement is showcased in Ernest Cole: A Lens in Exile at Autograph, London, from 13 June to 12 October.

Ernest Cole: House of Bondage opens on 14 June and continues until 22 September 2024. 

Words: Anna Müller

Image Credits:
1. SOUTH AFRICA. Mamelodi. 1960s. Typical location has acres of identical four-room houses on nameless streets. Many are hours by train from city jobs. © Ernest Cole / Magnum Photos
2. SOUTH AFRICA. 1960s. Albert Luthuli, president of ANC, en route to Oslo with wife to receive Nobel Peace Prize for 1960. Then–as now–he was officially in banishment. © Ernest Cole / Magnum Photos
3. SOUTH AFRICA. 1960s. Pensive tribesmen, newly recruited to mine labour, awaiting processing and assignment. © Ernest Cole / Magnum Photos
4. SOUTH AFRICA. 1960s. Pass raid outside Johannesburg station. Every African must show his pass before being allowed to go about his business. Sometimes police check broadens into search of a man’s person and belongings. © Ernest Cole / Magnum Photos