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‘It is an extraordinary experience to live as though life were a punishment for being black. No day passes without a reminder of your guilt, a rebuke to your condition, and the risk of trouble for transgressing laws devised exclusively for your repression’ – Ernest Cole
Born in the Eersterust, Pretoria in 1940, photographer Ernest Cole gave the world an unprecedented look into the brutal reality of apartheid South Africa. Considered one of the greatest documentary photographers of his time, Cole captured the rarely seen truth of Black existence under the apartheid regime. His reportage would see him banned and exiled from South Africa. He continued to photograph the lives of Black people in Sweden and the United States, dying in New York City in 1990.
Cole became interested in photography at a young age. He left school in 1957 and found work in Johannesburg, first as an apprentice to a photographer, though he was largely self-taught, then at a number of magazines, including the popular Drum magazine. His early work chronicled the horrors the apartheid regime, capturing the ways Black people’s daily lives were impacted by it. He’d spend much of the 1960s determined ‘to show the world what the white South African had done to the Black.’
Cole wanted to make photographs that focused on the lived experiences of everyday people, and sparked empathy in the viewer. Wanting to travel the country and pursue his work with more liberty and ease, Cole managed to get classified from ‘black’ to ‘coloured’ by the Race Classification Board by straightening his hair for the pencil test and changing his surname from Kole to Cole. While being coloured allowed him to move around more freely, he was still risking his life photographing the grim reality of apartheid, venturing out to document police checks, conditions in the mines, and township raids.
In 1967, he published the groundbreaking House of Bondage, which through photographs and text gave an intimate, unique, and deeply harrowing account of the realities of Black people’s lives under apartheid. Each chapter of the book explores the impact of the regime on different aspects of Black life; housing, education, employment, childcare, medical care, and daily life. In not centering the violence and overt degradation of the system in his images, Cole introduced viewers to truly insidious, parasitic, and invasive nature of racial segregation. He left South Africa in 1966 to complete the book. His first and only book, House of Bondage was received with great critical acclaim. For many around the world, it was their first glimpse into the brutality of life for Black South Africans and brought apartheid into the public visual consciousness. By 1968 both Cole and House of Bondage were banned in South Africa. Cole never returned home.
House of Bondage has become one of the most important photobooks of the twentieth century. While Cole’s work captures a climate of terror, it ‘also witnesses a people’s determination to continue living: socialising and studying, playing sports and music’ (Oluremi C. Onabanjo, writer and curator). He revealed the untold and unseen stories and moments of the oppressed, the despair of a nation and its longing for freedom. A groundbreaking photographer, he in many ways exemplified the revolutionary potential of the artform.