Ernest Cole’s ‘House of Bondage’

The South African photographer Ernest Cole is largely forgotten now. But in 1967 the publication of his “House of Bondage”–his mostly clandestine photographs of the workings and effects of Apartheid–by a New York publisher had major repercussions inside and outside the country. Cole had left South Africa the year before with only the negatives. The photographs are stark and powerful. Like the one, above, of recruits to gold mines around Johannesburg, “who had been lined up in a grimy room for a group examination.” Cole took the photograph “… after sneaking his camera into the mine inside his lunch bag.”  The white authorities were embarrassed and banned the book immediately.  Despite the fame, Cole died depressed and lonely in Harlem in 1990 aged 67. (A story for another day is that right before he left South Africa, Cole hurriedly had himself reclassified as coloured).  The point of this post is that the largest retrospective of his work is now being shown in Johannesburg, with plans to travel through the rest of South Africa and hopefully to the US, including New York City.

The New York Times. [h/t Jonathan Faull]



Sean Jacobs

Also goes by Hasan Wazan. Life President.

  1. Maybe the answer is obvious, but when you say he was reclassified as coloured, what was he previously classified? And what was his thinking?

    1. @Lara:

      He was classified as Bantu/African which as you know meant black in the context of that period. He got himself reclassified because as a Coloured he was subject to somewhat less restrictive laws, particularly the pernicious pass laws and would therefore be able to have access to a lot more places so he could pursue his photography. Also, when time came for him to leave SA he was able to get a passport because of his Coloured classification, something that would have been almost impossible under Bantu/African classification. This was not passing in the conventional sense because he never left his family and friends, continued to live in the townships and pretty much used the re-classification to enable his art/profession.(It's somewhat telling that he only altered one letter in his name as part of his reclassification process: he went from Kole, his original last name to Cole. Ah the vagaries of apartheid!). This kind of thing wasn't uncommon at all under apartheid. My aunts got themselves reclassified as Coloured so they could attend the University of the Western Cape instead of having to travel away from home to attend one of the universities designated for Bantu/Africans.


  2. I found 'House of Bondage' in and old bookstore for £1…. i took it without even looking inside…..when I got home I could believe my luck… takes a great eye and a big soul to take this kind of photographs…..hopefully this exibition will find its way to our grey island too….

  3. @Liz: I also have a copy of "House of Bondage" I got in a secondhand bookshop on the south side of Chicago a few years ago.

    @Lara Pawson and @EKapa: During the summer I was asked to write a short piece on Cole's passing for an exhibit in Johannesburg "Passages" (curated by Gabi Ngcobo).One of the surprising facts about Cole is that he only applied to become a coloured in 1966 right before he left South Africa for the US in 1967.

    Basically what I found was that information on Cole’s decision to pass is not readily available beyond that which is passed down by his friends and associates (i.e. that he had noble goals). We do, however, get glimpses of his anxiety or the stress the decision brought his family in short scenes from the only documentary film on Cole’s life, that by the photographer, Jurgen Schadeburg. But even then, Schadeburg’s film neatly sidesteps the issue of passing by not probing Cole’s motives. There is this quote from his sister, Catherine Dilokweng Hlongwane: “[My brother, Ernest] did a funny thing. He started stretching his hair … My mother [Martha Kole] was worried. He did not want to tell the truth … [Finally] he said, ‘I don’t want this pass. I want to be a coloured.’

    BTW, whatever Cole's motives, the larger issues about this kind of embarrassing and painful history (often of survival) is that like with play whites (coloureds who passed for whites), we won’t know how many ‘play coloureds’ there were. What the writer Zoe Wicomb has said of play whites applies: “We don't even know how many of them there are. There's no discourse, nothing in the library, because officially they don't exist [anymore].”

    1. Thank you. What a brilliant photographer. I feel ashamed not to have heard of him before. And delighted, once again, to have learned something from this brilliant website.

      1. Sorry. That response above was for ekapa. This one is for you, Sean, to say that these subtleties of survival, the ways that people find to fight back and to survive and to swim against the tide of oppression, are in many ways the most revealing. We hear about the big demonstrations, the major fights, but these more individual struggles, these subaltern perspectives of protest, are (for me anyway) the shafts of light, the cracks that really reveal so much about – in this case – the fight to defeat apartheid. I'd love to read more on Cole/Kole. A book by you Mr Jacobs?

  4. cole's photographs mirror the cruelty of whites towards the blacks..the experiences of blacks in south africa reminds me of the ill-treatment of lower caste in India…

  5. Est-ce que l'un d'entre vous , pourrais me renseigner ? Je recherche des commentaires et analyses de ses photographies. Merci! [ Grand Photographe ]

  6. Do yourself a favour, and make an effort to find, read or borrow the book from the Library, and you'll understand. A better book to find your answer is Ernest Cole, Photographer, which explains things like these. You may not have lived through apartheid, so you wouldn't know. I hope you'll understand once you inform yourself.

  7. Lucky you….I have been trying to get it since 1968 when I lost my only copy, banned at the time, and therefore dangerous to have. I will soon order it from Amazon. Great courage it took to achieve what he did. I'm glad you liked it. It's a treasure.

  8. I discovered so much about Ernest Kole in the other book about his book, "Ernest Cole, Photographer", where there were some very useful insights to many aspects of is life, and his contribution. I truly admired this man, and still do, and mourn the loss of his life and possible further contribution to the art of Truth Telling and being an honest and courageous witness to the apartheid tragedy that tore not only families apart, but the whole country. Kole was one of the best. He did what most of us would have done, if we had the opportunity, in those dark days. His work lives, and his memory is cherished. I cried when I read the book about him recently, and am carrying it home with me soon, after my dauhetr and son-in-law offered it to me in France, where i am visiting them. I knew about Ernest, and saw him once leaving a chapel in Johannesburg; and then in London in 1978, but couldn't get to talk to him. He died a terribly lonely and painful death, because of apartheid. They wouldn't even allow him to return home to go and die in peace, as they had stripped him of his citizenship, and refused to give him a passport, as he lay dying broke, poor and ravaged by cancer. That was his impact: they feared him even on his deathbed.

  9. As a photographer, I was glad to learn of Ernest Kole for the first time. If there is any chance that his work wikk be shown in NYC, please let me know. I am a retired Prof. from the Fashion Institute of Technolofy (FIT) in NYC and would like to advise the photo faculty of such an event.
    Len Speier

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