Sunday, March 16, 2014

Witnessing the evil of apartheid: The power of Ernest Cole's apartheid-era photographs

photo by Ernest Cole (1940 – 1990)
“Penny, baas, please baas, I hungry…” This plaint is part of nightly scene in Golden City, as black boys beg from whites. They may be thrown a coin or, as here, they may get slapped in the face1960-1966 [Caption from Ernest Cole House of Bondage] © The Ernest Cole Family Trust Courtesy of the Hasselblad Foundation, Gothenburg, Sweden

This remarkable and chilling  photo was taken by Ernest Cole in apartheid South Africa sometime between 1960-1966. As the caption above describes, the photo shows a white man slapping a black child who is begging on the streets.

I have written before about Ernest Cole (here, here and here) and his remarkable photos. Those blog pieces  are among the most read pieces on this blog. The photos above and below are photos of Ernest Cole I have not seen before. They can be found in this review of an exhibition of his work.
A slideshow of some of his photographs is here.

Ernest Cole is one of South Africa's most important photographers. 

Cole (b 1940) was a colored South African who was one of the first photo journalists to chronicle the lives of his fellow black South Africans living under apartheid. Cole smuggled his camera into mining camps, hospitals and prisons and used a camera hidden in a paper bag to photograph pass arrests.

Cole's photos showed the daily brutality and hardship endured by black South Africans. The stark black and white photos he took were so powerful that his work was banned and he was forced into exile.

In May 1966, Cole left for France, England and New York to showcase his apartheid photographs. He arrived in New York in September 1966 and took his photographs to the magnum Photographic Agency. A publishing deal was arranged and his book of photographs titled House of Bondage was published in 1967, and immediately banned in South Africa.

Cole received a grant for another book entitled, ‘A study of the Negro family in the rural South and the Negro family in the urban ghetto’. However, it was never published. Many of the photographs for the publication were taken, but why the book was never published is unknown.

Cole moved to Sweden where he took up film making and although he stopped taking photographs, his South African era-photographs continued to be used by the African National Congress and other groups trying to expose the evil of apartheid.

Cole died of cancer in 1990 in New York, just days after Nelson Mandela was released. He was 46 years old, and was penniless, destitute and homeless.

Cole photographed in the midst of his subjects, and his photographs evoke intense discomfort and anger at the evil of apartheid. As Marcus Bunyan notes, his photos propel us as the viewer into the maelstrom of oppression and injustice of apartheid.

In taking the photographs, Cole also placed himself at great personal risk. The work was always dangerous as fear of discovery and arrest was also present. Cole regularly had to hide his negatives to avoid discovery.

In recent years there has been renewed interest in Cole's apartheid era photos and his work has toured as a photographic exhibition throughout South Africa and the USA.

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.

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