On Ernest Cole


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.

The Ernest Cole picture at the top of this post, ‘Train Staton’, came via the blog (Notes on) Politics, Theory and Photography. It is used with thanks. There is more (and some great links) at Colin Penter’s excellent blog, and is used with thanks. The exhibition, ‘Everything was moving‘, is at the Barbican in London until January 13th.

1 Comment

  1. Andrew I stumbled across your post about Ernest Cole in which you were kind enough to mention my blog so positively. Many thanks for your kind words. I have not had a close look at your various blogs yet but will doso I also work as a self employed social scientist and consultant in areas of social policy, social justice and civil society. Like you I stumbled across Cole’s photographic work by accident and found myself deeply moved by the power of his images and his remarkable courage. The Cole pieces have proved to be among the most read pieces on my blog so it is good to know that other people are finding about his remarkable photos and work. Again thanks for the kind words.Kind regards and best wishes from Perth Western Australia.

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