South African photographer, Ernest Cole’s ground breaking photographs on show in Amsterdam

July 20, 2023


Amsterdam’s is hosting the first exhibition of the artist’s lost archive, rediscovered in a bank vault in Sweden in 2018.

Ernest Cole, the country’s first black freelance photographer fled his native South Africa in 1966. He managed to take with him a secret selection of images documenting the frightening reality of apartheid—photos he knew could never be published in the county of his birth. He went to New York City, where Magnum Photos and Random House published his House of Bondage, exposing South Africa’s apartheid system to the world. The groundbreaking book became international news and helped fuel the anti-apartheid movement.

Ernest Cole, from House of Bondage. Servants are not forbidden to love. The woman holding this child said: “I love this child, though she’ll grow up to treat me just like her mother does. Now she is innocent.” Photo ©Ernest Cole, courtesy of Magnum Photos

In 1968, Cole wrote in Ebony that “I knew that if an informer would learn what I was doing I would be reported and end up in jail. I knew that I could be killed merely for gathering that material for such a book and I knew that when I finished, I would have to leave my country in order to have the book published. And I knew that once the book was published, I could never go home again.”

Sadly, Cole’s fame was short-lived. He gave up photography in the 1970s, and died destitute, at the young age of 49 years in 1990. His original negatives were believed to have been lost until a few years ago when his heirs found 60,000 negatives in a Stockholm bank vault. Now, the first exhibition featuring works from Cole’s rediscovered archive is on view at FOAM.

“Ernest Cole: House of Bondage” showcases the photographer’s pioneering work and the obstacles he overcame in order to capture the images of oppression.

Ernest Cole, from House of Bondage. Acres of identical four-room houses on nameless streets. Many were hours by train from city jobs. Photo ©Ernest Cole, courtesy of Magnum Photos.

Born in 1940, Cole started taking photographs at just eight years old. Authorities greatly restricted the movement of Black people, but Cole was able to change his registration to the slightly less constrained category of “Coloured.” This relative freedom of movement enabled him to photograph scenes of South African life under apartheid in the ’60s. His images showcased the gruelling manual labour conditions in the mines, domestic servants working for white families, their living quarters furnished with milk crates and newspaper carpeting, and packed segregated trains with passengers clinging precariously to the outside of the cars in order to travel during rush hour.

When Cole finally published “House of Bondage” in 1967, the images shocked the world—as the artist knew they would.