In the introduction to his only book, “House of Bondage” (1967), South African photographer Ernest Cole, who would soon be forced into exile, wrote, “You may escape but you carry your prison smell with you.” His powerful images and the tragic ending of his life 22 years later open a window on how blacks lived under the apartheid regime.
If the photographs have preserved their emotional impact, it is in large part because they were taken from the inside, as a black man in Pretoria, Soweto, Johannesburg and elsewhere in South Africa in the late 1950s and early ’60s. One of the first black photojournalists in the country, Cole knew the lives he was depicting intimately because it was his life too. He understood and had access to the people and places he photographed. Working unobtrusively, without a flash, he would occasionally hide his camera under a sandwich and an apple in a brown paper bag with a hole when he went to mines and nonwhites’ hospitals; he even had himself arrested so he could photograph prisoners in several jails.
It is his own world that Cole presents with rigor, subtlety and elegance and with no pretense of objectivity. The photographs are political, but they do not illustrate political ideas. Instead, they are faithful to the complexities of life and show both miserable and happy moments — homeless boys sleeping in a park at dawn, homes being razed as residents stand dazed with nowhere to go, naked children on a lawn playing with a water hose, children jumping rope in Mamelodi, where Cole lived with his mother.
He was born Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole in 1940 in a black township on the edge of Pretoria, the fourth of six children, into a family of modest means. His father worked as a tailor and his mother as a laundress. A loner, Ernest was a curious child. His fascination with photography began when he was quite young, when a Roman Catholic priest he knew from attending Mass — Cole was very religious — gave him a camera. “I couldn’t get over it,” Cole says in “The Photographer,” a 2010 collection of his work. “For the first few days I carried it around with me wherever I went — even to school. I went around taking snapshots of school friends, beer parties, babies, and I made quite a bit of money.” When a friend gave him a catalog from a photography correspondence school, he realized that he could take up photography as a profession. He practiced for hours getting the camera up to his eye fast, shooting and then dropping it back under his jacket.
After holding several menial jobs — he was a messenger and sweeper and sold magazines door to door — Cole became an assistant to a Chinese photographer at the age of 15, and with his earnings bought a Yashica C camera with a flash. He also performed odd jobs for Zonk magazine. With the proceeds from his work, he bought two Nikon Rangefinder cameras and lenses, a significant upgrade.
In 1958 his career took off after he went to see Jürgen Schadeberg, the picture editor of Drum, a Zonk competitor and the leading South African photography magazine of the time. Drum published essays on the lives of South African blacks by noted photographers such as Ian Berry and Peter Magubane. Schadeberg hired Cole to design page layouts for Drum, where he learned about editing and sequencing pictures and became more political. While working at the magazine, he enrolled in a correspondence course in photography, later taking a position as a photographer at Bantu World, the black daily newspaper of Johannesburg. By the early 1960s, Cole was a well-known name in photography in South Africa, freelancing for a number of newspapers and magazines, including The Rand Daily Mail, Sunday Express, New Age and Drum.
Thanks to Struan Robertson, a British photographer with whom he shared a studio in early 1964, Cole came to study the work of famed French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. He was impressed by Bresson’s theory of the decisive moment and his refusal to crop his photographs. Another important influence was New York Times foreign correspondent Joseph Lelyveld, with whom he collaborated in 1966 on long text and photo essays, including a profile of Helen Suzman, a relentless challenger of apartheid.
In 1966, Cole was arrested while on assignment for Drum for a story on tsotsis, township gangsters who mugged whites on the streets of Pretoria. He had gone along with them on several robberies without incident, but this time, the undercover police were watching, and he was arrested with the gang. When he protested that he was a photojournalist, the police asked him to tell them everything he knew about the gang and give evidence in open court or face prosecution. To keep his promise to the tsotsis that he would not identify them in his story, Cole went into hiding and, with Lelyveld’s help, got a passport and a plane ticket to the United States via France.
He would never return from exile. A year later, his book was published and was immediately banned in South Africa; it sold out everywhere else. Contraband copies of the book were circulated in his homeland, and the book was republished in England in 1968. The photographs in it and in the exhibition are a record of the oppressive conditions under which the black population lived in South Africa and of the myriad effects of apartheid — a student kneeling on the floor to write in a primitive school without chairs, a group of naked black men lined up for a medical examination, a crowd waiting for transportation to the mines, concrete barracks for miners crammed with 20 bunks, an African township bulldozed to make way for a white expansion.
With their dark, defiant and bitter vision but classic and rigorous compositions, the images form a counterpoint to the optimistic, apolitical and humanistic tradition that the “Family of Man” exhibit, first shown at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and book expressed in 1955. While “The Family of Man” sought to show the unity of the human condition throughout the world among different races and cultures, Cole’s pictures demonstrate that under apartheid, black lives were lived under profoundly different conditions from white lives’ and that it was futile to try to compare them.
In a way, Cole never recovered from exile, and when he lived in the United States, mostly in New York, his photographic projects of the early 1970s on the conditions of African-Americans in the South, funded by grants from the Ford Foundation, were not successful at all. He found it difficult to understand their lives, and in some ways found the racism in the United States even more extreme than in his native South Africa. “Is this the America of Ebony?” he asked angrily in “The Photographer.” On the far side of the hill, the grass was not any greener.
In the early 1970s he suffered from mental health problems, which culminated in paranoia. Cole died at 49, broke and homeless, from untreated stomach cancer, just a week after Nelson Mandela walked free.
Reprinted Courtesy, Carole Naggar for Aljazeera America, September 2014