Over at The Futures Company’s blog I have a short end-of-year piece on the South African photographer Ernest Cole. It seemed a good idea to share a version of it here.
I thought I knew the political and cultural history of the anti-apartheid struggle well, having followed it closely during my teens and twenties. But I realised at the Barbican’s sprawling exhibition of ’60s and ’70s photography that I knew nothing of Ernest Cole, the black photographer who was the first to document the petty humiliations and the institutional cruelty of South Africa’s legalised racism. Cole changed his name and his history to qualify as “Coloured” rather than “Black” under South Africa’s Pass Laws, which gave him the freedom to travel. In the early ’60s he became the country’s first black freelance photographer, filming – often illicitly – life under apartheid; his work was published as a book, House of Bondage, in 1967.
The image at the top of this post, of Africans having to risk their lives crossing railway tracks to board their poorly signed and vastly overcrowded trains, is described by a commentator in the exhibition as being the single photograph which expresses the ugliness of apartheid.
Speaking truth to power comes with a price: the book was banned in South Africa and by the time it came out Cole had exiled himself in the United States, where he died in poverty in 1990, living just long enough to see Mandela released from jail. But thanks to his white South African contemporary, David Goldblatt, also represented at the Barbican exhbition, many of his originals have been rescued from the vaults.
On a related theme, I fulfilled a small ambition this year to make a video of Robert Wyatt’s version of Peter Gabriel’s song ‘Biko’. It’s on YouTube.