As he battled pancreatic cancer during a scattered life in exile, photographer Ernest Cole watched the release of Nelson Mandela from prison on February 11 1990 lying on his death bed.
That day, his doctor at New York’s Cornell Medical Center gave him therapy without antiemetics. Dr Shahin Rafii is on record as saying: “He was so excited that nothing would faze him.”
Cole died a few days later, having just seen his mother for the first time since he left South Africa 23 years earlier.
Ernest Cole’s work is being exhibited at the Johannesburg Art Gallery until November 21. Curator Gunilla Knape says the aim is to show Cole “as a great photographer, not just a major voice in the struggle against apartheid”.
However, to frame his struggle credentials properly, it’s important to note that Cole refused to join any political organisation.
He believed that “if you want to be free, you should be free. You shouldn’t join organisations to do it,” Knape says.
But this is not to say Cole was disengaged from the liberation efforts of his people. In fact, far from it. His body of work is the most vivid photographic indictment of apartheid’s dehumanising effects.
His decision to finally leave the country was actually a consequence of his commitment to exposing the crimes of apartheid to the world.
The 1969 Swedish TV documentary, Bilder for Miljoen, which features his interview, is included in the exhibition as a video installation.
In it, Cole says he actually wanted to become a doctor. He quit that dream because of the severely lowered standards of Bantu education. “I said that (lowering the standards) is going too far.”
Cole left school in 1956 and became an apprentice to a Chinese photographer before working for Zonk magazine. His big break, however, came in 1958 when he joined Drum magazine, working under Jürgen Schadeberg, who was then head of photography. This is where he is said to have been politicised.
Cole was born in the then township of Riverside (now Eersterust) in the east of Pretoria as Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole.
The Pedi-speaking native straightened his hair and changed his surname to Cole. He became reclassified as coloured, tricking the apartheid race laws.
This meant that he was a little less restricted and could move around easier to take pictures. But he did catch the attention of special branch police, some of whom were suspicious about his identity.
He couldn’t sleep at home because he was a wanted man, marking his first spell of homelessness.
It’s during these years that he worked on his seminal book of pictures, House of Bondage, which was published in 1967, a year after he left South Africa. Banned as soon as it came out, the book would not be seen in his country of birth until the 1990s. The majority of the images on exhibition are culled from this book.
In these pictures, the viewer meets the exquisite evidence of a boundless wreck that was black life under apartheid – its entire kernel captured by Cole’s camera.
Though drawing their theme from a heinous time, the images are not without beauty.
Beauty is possible even in these ruins, and Cole uncovers all of it, from crowded crouching children denied the decency of proper school facilities, to denuded inmates undergoing medical examination, to the absurdity of racial divisions at public gatherings.
To get his images, Cole devised unique techniques and took great personal risks. “He had a sense that his work was even more important than himself,” Knape says. His images of the young tsotsis who robbed white people in the city are telling.
In conversation with the curator, Alf Khumalo, Cole’s friend and fellow Drum photographer, remembers that “Cole had to become friends with them (thugs), and had to promise that his story wouldn’t be published in South Africa, before they accepted him”. He exposed himself to a lot of criminal activities and potential arrests as he spent a lot of time on the streets “shooting and reshooting”.
To photograph in mines and prisons, he carried a brown bag disguised as a lunch box with his camera in it. He captured images through a small hole in the bag.
This closeness with his subjects gave him an ability to interpret them with a unique interior pulse.
His friend, Dr Cyril Khanyile, who took him in while he was homeless in New York towards the end of his life, was also taken by Cole’s sense of seeing beyond the surface.
“Ernest had that ability to really capture the moment .?.?. giving you just a sense of this thing and the power of it.”
Perhaps his most heartbreaking work was his series on wayward boys on the streets of Mamelodi. The caption on one of the photographs reads: “Township mother fights a losing battle to keep son, age nine, from running off to live life off the streets. She tries to assert her authority with threats: What’s your future going to be like without an education? But it’s too late, the boy – called Papa – is out of control.”
Cole’s images reveal without hyperbole the near impossibility of innocence for children like Papa, where lawlessness is imperative for survival.
But these “photographs of the suffering and martyrdom of a people”, as American writer Susan Sontag said, “are more than a reminder of death, of failure, of victimisation. They invoke the miracle of survival.
“To aim at the perpetuation of memories means, inevitably, that one has undertaken the task of continually renewing, of creating, memories – aided, above all, by the impress of iconic photographs.”