Ernest Cole: House of Bondage – A powerful record of life under apartheid

These boys were caught trespassing in a white area. (South Africa. 1960s.) by Ernest Cole
These boys were caught trespassing in a white area. (South Africa. 1960s.) by Ernest Cole - Ernest Cole / Magnum Photos

When Ernest Cole decided to publish a book of his photographs documenting the lives of black South Africans under apartheid, he knew that he would have to leave his home country. “I didn’t care,” he later said. Things were bad enough. Simply to pursue his career as a freelance photographer, he’d had to alter his surname of Kole and be reclassified from “black” to “coloured” – this meant he didn’t have to carry a passbook, which would have severely restricted his movement.

It also allowed him a passport. So in 1966, aged 26, he got out and settled in New York; to secure his exit visa he claimed he was taking a pilgrimage to Lourdes. A year later House of Bondage was published. This was the first comprehensive account of the realities of apartheid to be circulated outside South Africa – where, as Cole predicted, both he and the book were summarily banned. He never returned before dying, in 1990, from pancreatic cancer.

The photobook, long out of print, was reissued in 2022 by Aperture and is now the basis of an exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery in London. (There is also a concurrent show of Cole’s later work, shot in the United States, at Autograph ABP in Shoreditch.) More than 50 years on, Cole’s images of apartheid – all black and white – have lost none of their unsettling power. It’s only a shame there isn’t room to show all of them.

A segregated bridge at Pretoria rail- way station by Ernest Cole
A segregated bridge at Pretoria rail- way station by Ernest Cole - Ernest Cole / Magnum Photos

The exhibition smartly mirrors the structure of the photobook, divided into chapters on different aspects of daily life for black people in South Africa. “Nightmare Ride,” for instance, focuses on the segregated trains: “too few, too full, too slow”, as Cole writes. The issue is that “[t]he law requires non-whites to live far from the white residential and business areas where most of them work” (the wall texts are all lifted from the calmly furious captions and essays in Cole’s book – though, oddly, the gallery repeats the same extracts over and over).

One particularly striking photo, chosen as an endpaper in the book, shows a train platform divided as if by an invisible line: on one side, five or so white people; on the other, countless black people, packed shoulder to shoulder. One man is standing so near the platform’s edge that his shoes teeter over.

Doornfontein railway station in rush hour. This picture shows the reality of apartheid without the need for any words.
Doornfontein railway station in rush hour. This picture shows the reality of apartheid without the need for any words. - Ernest Cole

Cole’s own experiences are threaded through the images. In “Education for Servitude”, he highlights the degradation of the schooling system following the Bantu Education Act of 1953 – Cole himself left school in protest. “Black Spots” refers to the African townships demolished to allow for white expansion; in 1960, Cole’s family had been forcibly relocated in this way. The images show people living in tents as temporary accommodation, or resting on chairs and mattresses amid rubble.

Yet, even in the most horrific situations, Cole’s elegantly composed photographs (he said he was inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson) retain the dignity of his subjects. And, just occasionally, we see people enjoying themselves: its own form of protest. The final section of the show features a chapter not included in the original 1967 photobook – perhaps Cole worried it would dilute the message – entitled “Black Ingenuity”. Here, men and women are depicted engaging in creative pursuits: writing, dancing, playing music, boxing. It’s a hopeful note to end on.

"Penny baas, please, baas, I hungry." This plaint is part of nightly scene in the Golden City, as black boys beg from whites. They may be thrown a coin, or... they may get slapped in the face. by Ernest Cole
"Penny baas, please, baas, I hungry." This plaint is part of nightly scene in the Golden City, as black boys beg from whites. They may be thrown a coin, or... they may get slapped in the face. by Ernest Cole - Ernest Cole

Until Sept 22; thephotographersgallery.org.uk