Unpacking the legacy of photographer Ernest Cole

Unpacking the legacy of photographer Ernest Cole
One of the best — Lindokuhle Sobekwa, a rising star of South African photography, pays tribute to the storyteller who inspired him most.

This story appears in The Documentary Photography Special VII. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

I remember coming across Ernest Cole’s book, House of Bondage, when I was in high school. At the time, I was familiar with a lot of black photographers – but not black South African ones. So when I learned of his work, I was immediately inspired. The fact that he was also working in his early 20s was particularly influential to me, given that I’m doing the same. 

For those who do not know him, Ernest Cole was South Africa’s first black freelance photojournalist. He worked under the hardship of apartheid in South Africa. Obviously, it wasn’t easy to work under such circumstances. If a black person was found carrying a camera and shooting the kind of stories that Ernest Cole was shooting, they’d be in big trouble. 

So in that sense, he was very brave. If you look at his photos, you can see how personal he was with his stories – he knew black richness, but he also knew humiliation. In 1966, he was able to sneak out of South Africa and go to places like London and New York. His work helped show the outside world what was happening here, which was something that was kind of hidden at the time. House of Bondage soon followed, which was banned in South Africa. 

The first photo of his that really struck me was one of a black nanny with a white child. Despite being taken back in the ’60s, I could relate with that photograph in 2012, because I saw in it the relationship I had with my mother. She used to work as a sleep-in domestic worker for a white family – for a very long time, she was distant from us because she was taking care of another family. The most painful part was seeing her showing love to other children.

It’s something that still affects a lot of black children in South Africa. I remember going to the place my mother used to work and seeing her showing love to the kid of her boss, knowing that I’d never really gotten that love. That impacted me in terms of growing up – I had to grow up fast and take care of myself to survive in the township. When I saw the photograph, I could relate to it. It brought up a lot of unresolved issues, it was very emotional. 

That was one of the things Ernest was good at. Photography is a very suggestive thing – with a great photograph, you look at it and it communicates with you; it triggers something. Ernest Cole photographed in that kind of way. He was not a photographer who went into conflict. But he looked at the critical issues that affected black people: demolition of houses, prison life, the mines… they were not easy things to photograph. 

In that sense, for me, he really is the godfather. A photographer who gave not only me, but a lot of black South African photographers the confidence to know that we could do it too. Ernest was the footprint. He told us we were able to tell our own story. 

© Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos

This story appears in The Documentary Photography Special VII. Get your copy now, or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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