House of Bondage
by Ernest Cole : 1967
An act of protest and resistance in the form of a book, Ernest Cole’s House of Bondage exposed the raw injustice of South Africa’s Apartheid system. Cole risked everything to strike his blow against intolerance and oppression. His photographs held a mirror up to an inhumane system and had to be smuggled out from the country before he himself was forced into exile. It was a book that would open the world’s eyes to daily life in South Africa, but at great personal cost to its author. As a new edition of House of Bondage is set to appear next month, it’s worth looking again at one of the most powerful photo-books ever published.
To come across a copy of Ernest Cole’s House of Bondage among the cookery and celebrity biographies that fill a charity shop’s bookshelves is an odd sensation. Perhaps more than any other book I have flicked through in those circumstances, this has almost physically embedded within it the life of its author.
Ernest Cole was born in 1940 in Pretoria, South Africa. His life began just as long-standing inequalities between the different peoples of the country were being codified into the ruthless mechanism of oppression that became known as apartheid. Two pieces of legislation in particular were to have a crucial impact on the young man. The first was the Population Registration Act of 1950 which allocated one of four racial categories – black, white, coloured or Indian – to every citizen of South Africa. The second was the Bantu Education Act of 1953, a nasty piece of work that restricted the education of the black population to a curriculum that would fit them for work in domestic service or manual labour and nothing else.
For many people officially categorised as black, the laws that erected the bars of the apartheid regime were only open acknowledgments of what was already happening. There was a range of reaction from docile fatalism, through petty misdemeanor to active opposition. In leaving school at 16 with a fascination for photography, getting a job with the highly respected Drum magazine as an assistant to Jurgen Schadeberg and completing a correspondence course with the New York Institute of Photography, Ernest Cole had a very clear idea that he wanted to commit an act of resistance. That act was to be a book.
As a school boy, Cole had been able to go about without carrying the pass book that black adults were obliged to show on demand, and which restricted their movements. Already, he was frequently being stopped on suspicion of having stolen the camera he always carried and he knew that to get the images he wanted, he would have to try to get classified as coloured. This involved an absurd, but deadly serious, bureaucratic obstacle course described in detail by Cole’s friend Joseph Lelyveld, a New York Times journalist based in South Africa.
The story gives a vivid impression of a driven young man thinking on his feet and prepared to take risks. Starting at the Coloured counter of the Labor Bureau, he was asked for a birth certificate to confirm his race. He told them it had been lost, thereby engineering a trail to the Late Registration of Births Office. There he took along a coloured friend who was willing to testify that Ernest Cole was an orphaned child of Coloured parents. The further he followed the path from office to office, the more risk he was taking of prosecution and imprisonment. But finally, he arrived at the Classification Board of the Bureau of Census and Statistics.
This was his final hurdle. It was an office staffed by men who were supposed experts at telling the races apart – an apparently necessary skill in a system that defined a Coloured person as one “who is not a white person or a native”. Being at the darker end of the wide spectrum covered by that definition, meant it would be especially difficult for Cole to get the classification he needed. The examining officer peppered him with questions about his schooling and childhood, designed to catch him out. When he got through all those without stumbling he was asked one final question – ‘how tall were you when you were eight?’
Cole told Lilyveld that he knew this question would come, and he took his time answering. Standing up ‘so I could really do it properly’, he stretched out his hand and indicated the height of his younger self with a downward palm, the way those of Coloured heritage would do, just like the Europeans. An African would naturally have indicated height with the palm upwards. It was sufficient to mark Ernest Cole as Coloured which would give him enough freedom of movement to gather the range of images that would eventually appear in this book.
In his photography, Ernest Cole seems to have known exactly what he wanted to do. One of his key early influences was Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose 1955 book People of Moscow showed just how effective the medium could be at telling stories of lives and places. His actual pictures, though, had less of the compositional sleight of hand that Cartier-Bresson is known for, and he seems to have absorbed other influences in his practice. The images in the book remind me more of W. Eugene Smith or even Walker Evans, and they fit well with the rise of what Cornel Capa would dub “Concerned Photography”. Capa’s 1968 anthology of documentary photographs that carried the same name was effectively a manifesto promoting ‘images in which genuine human feeling predominates over commercial cynicism or disinterested formalism’.
The description certainly fits Cole’s work. Many of the photographs in House of Bondage have the immediacy of fleeting glimpses that arrest the viewer either through some outrageous detail, such as the “Europeans Only” sign on a park bench, or through a look on a face. Others are more carefully studied portraits with a strong Family of Man sensibility. But, as Cole well knew, their real power would lie in working together between the covers of a book.
Over a period of more than five years, Cole assembled a collection of pictures recording almost every aspect of daily life in South Africa. His Coloured status allowed him to photograph domestic staff working for wealthy white families, and his dark skin meant he could work in the townships and illicit drinking dens without arousing suspicion.
Which is not to say that he didn’t run into difficulties. He was frequently stopped and questioned, on one occasion telling the police as he photographed youths on the streets of Johannesburg that he was doing a story on juvenile delinquency.
And there were places that the authorities would not have wanted him taking pictures even if he had been white. In locations such as the miners’ camps, he had to resort to subterfuge. The powerful image of naked miners lined up for medical inspection like so much livestock, for example, was taken with a camera concealed in a lunchbox.
Cole knew that his book could never be published in South Africa. The witness he was making of the blatant injustice all around him would infuriate the authorities. Increasingly worried that he might fall foul of informers, and concerned that a scattering of his images appearing in foreign publications might come to the attention of people who could stop him working, he set about trying to get a passport. In another dance with bureaucracy, travel documents were only granted when he pretended to be a pilgrim wishing to make a trip to Lourdes. He left his home country in 1966.
Ernest Cole never returned to South Africa. Perhaps the course of his life in exile was not surprising, but it was, ultimately, tragic. Joseph Lelyveld, who wrote the introduction to House of Bondage when it was published in 1967, spotted early on what difficulties lay ahead. It was clear to him that Cole would struggle to maintain a sense of purpose: ‘He had to recognize that no matter how he grew as a photographer, no story could ever mean as much to him as the story he left behind in South Africa…He was free and that was something, but he was also stranded.’
The book was well-received and, with images from it appearing in the Sunday supplements of Europe and America, it opened many eyes to the raw injustices of apartheid. But when Cole was given a two-part assignment by the Ford Foundation to ‘do a House of Bondage’ in the Southern United States and a study of ‘urban negroes’ in New York, Lelyveld’s comments began to seem prophetic.
These were complex situations with differently administered injustices in a country which, at that time, Cole hardly knew. Nothing much came of the work Cole did for these assignments and he became increasingly disillusioned. He travelled around, restless, finding brief companionship with the Tiofoto collective in Sweden. As the 1970s wore on, he dropped away completely and stopped working.
The unravelling of his life meant that his substantial archive of work was vulnerable. Joseph Lelyveld was later to recall that, in 1977, he had accompanied a destitute and homeless Cole to a New York dosshouse called the Pickwick Arms Hotel, where Cole had left a suitcase full of his negatives and the photographs he had of his mother. When they got there, they found that all Cole’s things had been sent to an auction of unclaimed items.
As Cole’s life continued to disintegrate and he took to sleeping in the subways of New York, it was assumed that most of his work was irretrievably lost. In 1989, in urgent need of medical attention, Cole contacted Lelyveld who got him admitted to hospital. He died of cancer early the following year, aged 49. From his sick bed he had spent his last days watching the hospital television as it reported the release of Nelson Mandela.
But there is a twist to Ernest Cole’s story. In 2006, another South African photographer David Goldblatt won the Hasselblad Award. When he travelled to Sweden to attend the ceremony, he took time out to follow up a rumour he had heard that some of Cole’s work was held in a Gothenburg bank. He retrieved a suitcase containing a number of photographs which he donated to the Hasselblad Foundation.
It seems the source of Goldblatt’s information is unclear, and he himself died earlier in 2018. Whether or not this was the suitcase from the Pickwick Arms, there was enough material to spark a reappraisal of Ernest Cole’s career. Exhibitions of his work were held in Johannesburg and New York, a new book, Ernest Cole: Photographer, was published in 2011 and a prize for documentary photography carrying is name was set up by the University of Cape Town.
But, significant as Goldblatt’s contribution was, the whereabouts of the bulk of Cole’s output remained a mystery. Then, in 2017 Leslie Matlaisane, Ernest Cole’s nephew living in South Africa, received a surprise call from a bank in Sweden. The bank said that they were looking to create more space in their vault when they came across three safety deposit boxes containing 60,000 of his uncle’s negatives, and would he kindly come and take them away.
Matlaisane took the negatives and, earlier this year, handed them to the Magnum photo agency. They are currently being examined and catalogued. The story of how they came to be in the bank vault cannot yet be told. The trail is being investigated and it is likely that there will be legal implications around ownership and rights.
Meanwhile, Ernest Cole left this book. It is a mirror held up to a system that saw nothing wrong with itself, yet was terrified of criticism. A place where a majority of citizens were herded and controlled and denied even basic dignity. A place that armed racism with inhuman laws and enforced it with brutal repression. House of Bondage retains its power to invoke anger and incomprehension as to how apartheid can ever have been tolerated by the outside world.
Ernest Cole’s book played its part in breaking that tolerance. It is a book that ought to be far better known. It is his cry of protest and, like a bee’s sting, it cost him his life.
Update: It appears that Steidl will be re-issuing House of Bondage in December this year, which is good to know.
To see more images from House of Bondage, visit the gallery page here.