Ernest Cole (1940-1990) is a treasured South African photographer. Born in Pretoria, he began taking photographs when he was just a young boy and got his first break when he was employed as an assistant to a studio photographer in Johannesburg in 1956. Two years later, in 1958, he joined the famous Drum magazine where he worked as an assistant to Chief Photographer Jürgen Schadeberg whilst completing a correspondence course with the New York Institute of Photography.
Along with his colleagues at Drum, Cole stood firmly against the apartheid regime, and sought to use his art as an opportunity to capture images which depicted the cruelty and suffering that his people endured. Cole was even known to have hidden his camera in a paper bag at great personal risk in order to record arrests and unfair working conditions.
After holding positions at various publishers within South Africa for a number of years – such as at The Rand Daily Mail and Bantu World (now known as The Sowetan), in 1966 Cole travelled abroad to France and the UK, and ultimately settled in New York. Having taken his body of work with him, he showed his images to Magnum Photos who immediately offered Cole a publishing deal. In 1967 House of Bondage was published, comprised of images exposing the realities of life in South Africa for people of colour. Unsurprisingly, shortly after its release, the book was banned in Cole’s home country, and Cole himself denied re-entry.
Although Cole sadly passed away at the age of 50 having never returned to South Africa, his legacy is a significant one. Cole’s photographs were used extensively by the ANC in a number of publications, as well as by the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid. His work is held in major international collections such as MOMA, New York, and has been exhibited in prestigious museums around the world including the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; the Tate, London; The Barbican Centre, London and Grey Art Gallery in New York.
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