The struggle to free South Africa from apartheid was one of the most remarkable challenges of the last century, and photographers played a crucial role in this struggle. By shifting their focus to provide visual resistance in the form of valuable documentation of everyday life, image-makers in South Africa had a significant impact on the course of the conflict.
Photographers had various strategies for recording apartheid; some sought to delegitimize it by using their work for political purposes, while others used their work to represent and comprehend it. Regardless, most were driven to document moments of life in South Africa because of a recognized need to reveal the striking injustices of the racist system.
Ernest Cole, South Africa’s first black photojournalist, challenged the power structures of apartheid South Africa in his attempt to reveal knowledge and construct social reality through his photographs. Cole’s subversive documentations of apartheid are meaningful “indigenous counter-narratives.” His work revealed the way symbols of oppression could be challenged, redeveloped, and interpreted in forceful ways. Cole’s photographs have come to define apartheid, and the fact that they are still being discussed today speaks to Cole’s impact on this period.
Cole was born in 1940 in a township in Pretoria. His given name was Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole. He hoped to become a doctor, but he quickly learned that he could never realize his dream with the introduction of The Bantu Education Act, a segregation law that severely limited educational choices for black South Africans. Unwilling to accept the indignity of Bantu education, Cole terminated his studies at sixteen and completed a course through correspondence from Wolsey Hall at Oxford.
Cole eventually pursued a job as an assistant to a photographer, where he gained basic knowledge about how to use a camera.
Cole’s work first appeared in Drum Magazine in 1962 in the article “It’s Integration - Result of Group Areas Act,” about a neighborhood deemed “white” but that later became racially integrated. The article presents the story of a place where racial mixing occurred despite the apartheid laws, which made integration illegal. It presented a subtle, yet powerful, jab at apartheid legislation concerning interracial relations. Cole’s accompanying photographs are considered some of the most intimate documents of interracial relationships from this period.
Indeed, throughout apartheid, the government feared photography—so much so that it eventually banned foreign journalists. Documentary photography was illegal, and so Cole’s work became contraband. By telling the story of apartheid, Cole confronted power structures that otherwise controlled this geographic and political region.
In the mid-1960s, Cole focused his attentions on producing a book titled House of Bondage. Cole received his fifteen minutes of fame with the publication of this book. Published in 1967, House of Bondage contains 183 photographs accompanied by scattered texts. The photographs are indisputably about apartheid; however, the way Cole engaged with the apartheid system and cut across legal boundaries—commenting on, confronting, and seeking to dismantle oppressive forces—makes these pictures even more subversive.
Despite the book’s initial success, it was not well known, especially in his country. Still, he persevered. In his words, “Through sheer frustration, I pursued the shooting of material for my book, which I felt had to be published. But most of which could not be shown in South Africa. Still, I held the hope that it would eventually see the light of day.”
Cole’s commitment and dedication to capturing certain moments is apparent in the way he photographed in Johannesburg. Needing greater access to areas in Johannesburg to collect the proper material, Cole took advantage of the racial classification system to become reclassified as a “coloured” person. This allowed greater mobility through the city and made it easier for him to take the photographs he desired. By pushing the boundaries and through perseverance, Cole gained access to otherwise restricted areas. For example, he wanted to capture the conditions within prison—so he had himself arrested to get a true insider’s view.
Yet he was also selective about what he included in his frame. In his words, “I wanted to shoot the sort of things that I thought were important and they would not print. I did not want to present the image of the African they wanted.”
For example, the images Cole included in House of Bondage demonstrate his subversion of power—he flat-out rejected what “the archive” typically represents. In a section of the book called “The Mines,” Cole captures all aspects of mine labor. However, he purposely neglected one area of life at the mines—the dances. Mine dances were meant to serve as entertainment for miners, but were in reality a spectacle for foreigners. Cole recognized that the dances were not “authentic, African tribal culture” and chose not to include them. By doing so, Cole bucked the long-running practice of exploiting African society and culture for the entertainment of Westerners.
While Cole’s photographs were unable to make a drastic impact in South Africa at the time—especially since House of Bondage was banned in the country—many of Cole’s photos were used in the African National Congress resistance campaigns. Additionally, Cole is credited with inspiring a generation of photographers to follow in his footsteps and document conditions of life in South Africa. But what is most notable about Cole is the visual power of his photographs in forming a space of collective memory and documentation of apartheid.
It is impossible to envision apartheid in the present moment without drawing on anti-apartheid photography, which compellingly documented the landscape of the era. In his forceful, if oblique, manner, Cole challenged an oppressive regime. Cole’s work remains relevant to this day as an international debate rages about the power of photography and the role of news media in general.
Indeed, the power of photography endures, just as it did in Cole’s time: it continues to have a unique capacity to reinforce or subvert power. Our challenge, then, is determining the proper methods and tools of engagement so that visual representations can consistently question the norm, inspire reform, or provoke inquiry. Cole’s work demonstrates that challenging existing power structures is possible through photography and—more importantly—his vision encourages and provokes us towards new means of engagement and ways of seeing the world.