Ernest Cole’s apartheid record expanded in Amsterdam

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A major exhibition at Foam presents newfound material from Cole’s extensive documentation of apartheid in South Africa

In 2017, a Swedish bank contacted Leslie Matlaisane, nephew of the late Ernest Cole. They had 60,000 negatives languishing in three safety deposit boxes, and Matlaisane, they explained, needed to collect them.

Matlaisane was confused. The identity of who had arranged and financed the archive’s storage was a mystery (as reported by Magnum, it will remain so until an investigation is complete). Despite the curious circumstances, the boxes revealed a treasure trove: thousands of unseen negatives from Cole’s work in South Africa, and those he made on what began as a commission for the Ford Foundation in the US, documenting Black people’s lives in the rural south and urban north, but which Cole never completed.

Matlaisane, who heads the Ernest Cole Family Trust, brought the newly-discovered archive to Magnum in 2018. Part of it now features in House of Bondage at Foam, Amsterdam, the first overview of the South African photographer’s work.

The show takes its title from Cole’s formative and groundbreaking body of work of the same name, initially published as a photobook. Released in 1967 following Cole’s ‘escape’ from South Africa to New York, House of Bondage documents the depths of apartheid: from the bureaucracy that fiercely infringed upon Black people’s rights, to the direct and violent oppression they experienced.

Cole’s studied black-and-white images are not those of an observant photographer apart from the terrible reality surrounding them. Apartheid was Cole’s life. And his powerful photographs were the first time many individuals beyond South Africa had witnessed the country’s abuse of its Black population.


Harlem, New York City, USA. 1971 © Ernest Cole / Magnum Photos.

Growing up in Eersterust, a freehold township on the outskirts of Pretoria, Cole discovered photography when he was eight. He later worked as a photographer for Drum magazine before becoming the chief photographer at the weekly newspaper Bantu World.

Cole eventually went freelance, making him South Africa’s first Black freelance photojournalist. However, his work saw him flee the country in 1966. House of Bondage was published the following year, and the book earnt Cole a place on the South African regime’s list of banned individuals, effectively meaning he was living in exile.

Despite the success of House of Bondage, Cole struggled to establish himself in the US. He never completed his commission for the Ford Foundation and, by the late 1970s, appeared to have left photography behind. In 1990, after a period of homelessness, he died of pancreatic cancer. 

Alongside unseen images from Cole’s newly-discovered archive, the show at Foam brings together colour images from his work in the US and contact sheets from House of Bondage, looking to the book’s structure to guide its narrative. The title will also be republished by Aperture to coincide with the exhibition.

Above all, House of Bondage endeavours to shed light on an individual who did not receive the recognition he deserved during his lifetime. Indeed, the work was seismic in the global awareness it raised about the injustices suffered by Black South Africans. Today, Cole’s images remain a critical record of apartheid: a terrible period of South Africa’s history that must not be forgotten.

Ernest Cole, House of Bondage, is at Foam, Amsterdam, from 27 January until 14 June

Hannah Abel-Hirsch

Hannah Abel-Hirsch joined British Journal of Photography in 2017, where she was Assistant Editor. Previously, she was an Editorial Assistant at Magnum Photos, and a Studio Assistant for Susan Meiselas and Mary Ellen Mark in New York. Before which, she completed a BA in History of Art at University College London. Her words have also appeared on Magnum Photos, 1000 Words, and in the Royal Academy of Arts magazine.