Review: The Photographs of Ernest Cole – Striking and Sensitive


Ernest Cole’s photographs are striking in their simplicity. He highlights the moments we take for granted. A woman cleaning the floor. People waiting at a train station. These seemingly mundane activities are brought to the foreground and in their plainness Cole reveals the stark injustices of South Africa’s past.

Cole’s world is one of the everyman, the average Joe (or Jabulani perhaps?) He turns his observant lens on apartheid South Africa, asking ‘What does it mean to be black under apartheid?’ And to effect: the question kept running through my mind as I saw black men squeezing into the back of a bus or domestic workers hosting their friends outside their employer’s property.

Many of the photographs are from his book House of Bondage, a photographic account of how the apartheid regime affected the lives of the black population. Impressively his photography covers a broad spectrum of living. He explores housing, health care, education, mine workers and religious practices, faultlessly capturing in each sector the spirit of oppression and injustice.

This exhibition is part of our country’s dirty laundry.  As someone born into a free world I felt like I was trapped in some nightmare. The reality of the photographs was incomprehensible to me. They were almost violent in their stark depiction. Yet there is a sensitivity to Cole’s work, such as the way he captures a loving exchange between two people or how he shows boys running through a sprinkler.

The captions below the photographs read like a history book, denoting rather than describing.  Some are without captions , managing to speak for themselves. Refreshingly there is no convoluted creative world view that tries to ‘explain’ (or obscure) the images. The pictures themselves are self sufficient, not needing a larger interpretive framework. They are metonyms for the apartheid condition.

It is in the ordinary and unexciting that Cole reveals the dark secrets of apartheid and the human condition. In one of his quotes he speaks of how photography is a universal language, one that allows different people to connect on common ground.

This exhibition is an important warning to the rest of humanity. It shines a harsh light on South Africa’s shameful past, exposing the depravities to which regimes can sink. In doing so it reminds us not only of how far we have come but also of how far we have yet to go.


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