Collection 1950s–1970s


Ernest Cole. Untitled. c. 1960

Gelatin silver print, 9 7/16 × 11 15/16" (24 × 30.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The Family of Man Fund. © 2023 Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos

Artist, Ernest Cole: Well, It all started at the end of 1956. I had just finished my second year in high school, and instead of going further. I decided to leave school because the government had deliberately lowered the already low standard of education for Africans.

Narrator: From 1948 to the early 1990s, South Africa was governed by a system of racial segregation known as the apartheid system. Under apartheid, Black South Africans experienced political, social, and economic discrimination at the hands of white settlers who had colonized the country. Ernest Cole was determined to expose these conditions. He spent seven years traveling the country and creating images that documented the many forms of violence that defined everyday life for Black South Africans.

Ernest Cole: So about May, 1958, I got my first break on Drum Magazine. It was then also that I met a lot of Africans, who themselves were very concerned about what was going on in South Africa at the time. And it was also then that I became aware of the existence of the United Nations. So then I decided I could help the outside world by photographing and slowly I started documenting what life was really like in South Africa.

I wasn't quite sure what form my work was going to take, but later in 1959, I saw my first photographic book. So then I decided this is the form I wanted my work to take. I was of course aware that after finishing it, it wouldn't be possible to remain in South Africa. But then, I didn't care because this is a chance you take and all of us have taken if you don't want to live under those miserable conditions.

I was very naive when I started out because I thought all the noise at the United Nations was leading somewhere; in other words, that they were gonna step in and bring about some change. But in coming away, I found out that South Africa really was just one of the topics on the United Nations' agenda. And that it was up to us there to really bring about change.

I've been banned in absentia. Which means anything 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.

Archival audio excerpted from Images for Millions: Photography as a Social Weapon. 1971. Sweden. Directed by Rune Hassner. Courtesy SVT and Birgitta Forsell