Ernest Cole, born in 1940, was one of South Africa’s first black photojournalists, he passionately pursued his mission to tell the world what it was like to be black under apartheid.
With imaginative daring, courage and compassion, he portrayed the lives of black people as they negotiated through apartheid’s racist laws and oppression and created one of the most harrowing pictorial records of what it was like to be black in apartheid South Africa. He went into exile in 1966, and the next year his work was published in the United States in a book, House of Bondage, but his photographs were banned in his homeland where he and his work have remained little known.
Pretending to be an orphan, Cole had by then, somehow managed to persuade the Race Classification Board to reclassify him as coloured (mixed-race), despite his dark skin.
His fluency in Afrikaans, the language of most coloureds, probably helped. His ability to pass as coloured freed him from laws that required blacks always to carry a work permit when in “white areas,” and this mobility proved crucial to his photography.
In an unpublished biography from late 1966 Cole wrote that it was a Baldafix folding camera in a drugstore window that caught his attention and set him on another path. A family friend lent him a twin lens reflex camera and he quickly began making money taking snapshots.
Cole spent the next few years exposing the evils and social effects of life in South Africa. His series of disturbing images reveal passport arrests, "Europeans Only" signage and chaotic, cramped conditions on black-only commuter trains.
April 7–July 7, 2013
Ernest Cole (1940–90), one of South Africa’s first black photojournalists, passionately pursued his mission to tell the world what it was like to be black under apartheid. With imaginative daring, courage and compassion, he portrayed the lives of black people as they negotiated through apartheid’s racist laws and oppression.
Lines of migrant mineworkers waiting to be discharged from labor, a schoolchild studying by candlelight, parks and benches for “Europeans Only,” young men arrested and handcuffed for entering cities without their passes, worshippers in their Sunday best, crowds crammed into claustrophobic commuter trains; these are just some of the scenes that Cole captured between 1958–66.
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