“[A]nything I say cannot be written in the newspapers, but that doesn’t matter. It’ll stand in the future because I’m sure South Africa will be free.”
“Yes, South Africa is my country,” said the photographer Ernest Cole. “But it is also my hell. For the first 26 years of my life I was one of the 13.5 million Black people who live (or should I say ‘exist’?) under a system that takes away all of their rights as human beings and uses them as ‘things’ to do the menial labor for some 3.5 million whites who control the government, the economy, the army, and the police of the fifth richest nation in the world.”
In 1967, at the age of 27, Cole published House of Bondage, which revealed, in photographs and texts, the experiences of Black people under apartheid in South Africa. Born in 1940 in Eersterust, Pretoria, Cole became interested in photography at a young age. He left school in 1957 before graduating, rejecting new laws that limited the scope of his education, and found work in Johannesburg, first as an apprentice to a photographer and later at a number of magazines. As a young photographer working at South African magazines, Cole covered a variety of news and social interest stories. In the late 1950s, he studied several books by the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, which he later credited with inspiring him to create the photobook House of Bondage. Like Cartier-Bresson, whose photographs often focused on the lived experiences of everyday people, Cole wanted to make photographs that sparked the viewer’s empathy, and in doing so, he raised international awareness about the brutal reality of apartheid in South Africa.
To make House of Bondage, Cole managed to skirt a climate of censorship and surveillance. He did this in part by changing the spelling of his surname from “Kole” to “Cole,” and by convincing the Race Classification Board to reclassify him as “colored,” a racial category that was afforded more freedom than the category of “native,” or Black. As scholars have observed, Cole’s insider perspective as a Black South African gave him direct experience of what he photographed. (More often, 20th-century documentary photographers and photojournalists covered places and cultures other than their own, using photography as a form of witnessing.) Cole left South Africa to publish his book, smuggling layouts, negatives, and prints out of the country. He traveled first to Paris and London, where he met with members of the photojournalist collective Magnum Photos, and then to New York. By May of 1968, the book was banned in South Africa; Cole never returned to his country of birth.
House of Bondage was the product of six years of research, photographing, and editing. Each of the book’s chapters represents a different aspect of life under apartheid, illustrating segregation’s impact on housing, education, employment, childcare, medical care, and daily life. Cole understood the importance of context in constructing the meaning of a photograph, and most photographs in House of Bondage are accompanied by texts written with a powerful sense of irony and economy, as well as explanatory captions. For one image, in which three police officers have stopped two men on the street, Cole explains the necessity of identity paperwork for Black men, writing: “White policeman oversees check of one man’s documents, while another, who said he forgot his pass, stands by handcuffed.” In another section, about housing laws that prohibited Black people from owning land and displaced them to neighborhoods far from cities, Cole depicted children in landscapes of tract housing and tents.
As curator Oluremi C. Onabanjo and scholar Sally Gaule have observed, *House of Bondage*’s power lies in its focus on everyday life under apartheid rather than on scenes of overt violence, making the effects of state-mandated segregation seem relatable and insidious. In many photographs Cole showed Africans conforming to rules about where to stand, sit, or enter buildings. In one photograph, a white woman sits on a bench marked “Europeans Only” while, barely visible in the background, a Black man sits on the ground. Cole captured the abundant signage in bold, sans-serif type enforcing apartheid laws, which indicated the inferior bus stops and back entrances Black people could use.
While shooting and printing his photographs, Cole described himself as a perfectionist, a quality evident in the careful gradation of black and white tones in many of his gelatin silver prints. This rigor also extended to his career. Cole was frustrated with the demands of photojournalism and the lack of control he had on assignment, as well as the racism he experienced and witnessed in the United States. In 1968, he secured a grant from the Ford Foundation to photograph the experiences of Black people in urban and rural parts of the US. As he explained in a letter to the foundation, he preferred to work on his own books instead of photojournalism assignments because “art, like truth, cannot be captured on schedule.” Many of Cole’s photographs taken in Harlem in the early 1970s pay close attention to scenes of people in a community, whether listening to music or leaving a church.
Cole’s physical and mental health declined in the early 1970s; he was frequently unhoused until his death from pancreatic cancer in 1990 in New York City. In 2017, 60,000 of Cole’s negatives that had been missing for 40 years were discovered in a bank vault in Stockholm, offering new insights into his life and career. House of Bondage, out of print since the 1980s, was republished in 2022, making its monumental achievement widely accessible once again.
Note: Opening quote is from the MoMA audio stop for Cole’s photograph Untitled
(c. 1960). https://www.moma.org/audio/4371.
Kaitlin Booher, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow, Department of Photography, 2023