Ernest Cole – a powerful voice

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In February South Africa made the cover of Time magazine. Cape Town based photographer Johnny Miller has, for some time, been using a drone to make images of where, and how, people live for a project called Unequal Scenes.

For those who have not seen Miller’s cover photograph, it shows two residential areas in Ekurhuleni separated by a road. On one side is the well-to-do suburb of Primrose and on the other is the informal settlement of Makause. The photograph is captioned ‘The world’s most unequal country’.

Naturally social media is full of congratulatory messages for Miller on achieving a cover of Time, and deservedly so. But then there are the trolls who must criticise – I am sure none of them have taken the time to look at Miller’s website because if they did, they would see that he has been making similar photographs across the world on three continents.

All of this got me thinking about Ernest Cole and his photograph of the Doornfontein railway station made in the 1960s. In this one image he sums up the inequality, unfairness and quiet brutality of the apartheid system.

Ernest Cole © Ernest Cole Family Trust

Jurgen Schadeburg made a documentary film about Cole and describes him as: “A man brave enough to smuggle his camera into the tightly controlled mining compounds, and to click away at pass arrests with his camera hidden in a paper bag. His life was dedicated to showing the world the reality of Apartheid, and to bring image and light to tales of oppression.”

Cole is credited as being this country’s first freelance photographer. He began work at Drum magazine in 1958. He went on to work for several publications and throughout the early 1960s his photographs were published widely. In 1966 he travelled to France and the USA with a series of photo-essays of life under the apartheid system. His work was exhibited and published in the book House of Bondage which didn’t go unnoticed back home. In 1968 he was banned from South Africa and was forced to settle in the USA where he died of cancer in 1990.

Our past has been well documented by photographers but to my mind few have managed to do so with the power of Ernest Cole.

Bob Dylan refers to protest music as finger-pointing songs, relying on familiar tropes to get the message across. Photographers do the same, but I don’t think Cole ever did.