Friday, April 15, 2011

Ernest Cole: South African photojournalist who exposed the daily evils of apartheid

photos courtesy © the Ernest Cole Family Trust
The Hasselblad Foundation Collection
“He wasn’t just brave. He wasn’t just enterprising. He was a supremely fine photographer" 
David Goldblatt on Ernest Cole. 
The harrowing and evocative photos of Ernest Cole have been among the most viewed posts on this blog (see here and here). Cole was the first photojournalist to expose the daily reality of the horrors of life for black South Africans living under apartheid in the 1950's and 1960's. 

His photos provide a remarkable pictorial record of daily life for black South Africans in South Africa. Cole's photos focused not on the big events surrounding apartheid but the daily horrors  and inhumane conditions experienced by black South Africans.
Ernest Cole was born in South Africa in 1940 and received his first camera as a gift from a clergyman. He worked as a photojournalist  and on his own initiative Cole undertook a comprehensive photographic essay in which he showed what it meant to be black under apartheid.

Cole was only in his 20's when he took the photos which were set in the 1950's and 1960's. He risked his life and freedom to take the photos. Cole had himself classified as "a coloured" under South African laws so he could own a camera and move around taking photographs . By pretending to be an orphan Cole managed to persuade apartheid bureaucrats to reclassify him as colored, or mixed race, despite his dark skin. His fluency in Afrikaans, the language of most coloreds, helped. His ability to pass as colored 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.

He went into exile in 1966, and smuggled his photos out of South Africa. The photos were published in the United States in a book, “House of Bondage,” in 1967, with the result that in 1968, Cole was banned from South Africa and settled in the United States.He never returned to South Africa.
The photographs caused an international furor at the time and unsurprisingly were banned in South Africa, where both Cole and his work were little known until recently.

Cole died in exile in New York in 1990 aged 49, the week after Nelson Mandela was released from prison. He was homeless, destitute and penniless, and without even a camera. His work was largely unseen and unknown inside South Africa.

You can read more about Ernest Cole here and here. A documentary about Ernest Cole has also been made of his life and work. This BBC Programme focused on Ernest Cole's work and includes interviews with Cole himself.

Many of Cole's prints were re-discovered in Sweden in 2006 and viewed in public for the first time in South Africa at recent exhibitions.

Some of his photos can be viewed here at this The New York Times photographic piece and this New York Times article provides some background on Ernest Cole and the recent exhibitions.

The New York Time describes the views of today's South Africans viewing Cole's photos for the first time.
Jimmy Phindi Tjege, 27, who like many young black South Africans has never held a job in a society still scarred by apartheid, had come to the exhibition with his girlfriend, Nomthandazo Patience Chazo, 26, who works for the government and has a car. They had driven from their black township, Daveyton, about 30 miles away.
Ms. Chazo was struck by a photograph of four hungry children scraping porridge from a single pot set on a concrete floor. Mr. Tjege singled out another picture, one of a serious boy squatting on the floor of an unfurnished schoolroom, clutching a chalkboard, with two tears of sweat running down the side of his face.
“I feel angry,” Mr. Tjege said, as he gestured to the rest of the gallery with a sweep of his hand. “This room is full of anger.”
Mr. Cole’s captions and photographs are imbued with wrenching emotions.

Next to a photograph of a maid holding a white baby girl whose lips are pressed to the woman’s forehead, the caption says: “Servants are not forbidden to love. Woman holding child said, ‘I love this child, though she’ll grow up to treat me just like her mother does.’ ”

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