At the recent Barbican exhibition ‘Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s’, which closed today in London, a single photographer shone through amongst the expansive photographic documentation of two of the most radical decades in recent history. The exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery focused on views of revolution, war and social change seen first-hand through the lens of leading photojournalists. It was the work Ernest Cole, a relative unknown, whose powerful and compelling shots of the apartheid in South Africa shone brightest, despite their gritty subject matter.

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Ernest Cole, born in 1940, was one of South Africa’s first black photojournalists, he passionately pursued his mission to tell the world what it was like to be black under apartheid. With imaginative daring, courage and compassion, he portrayed the lives of black people as they negotiated through apartheid’s racist laws and oppression and created one of the most harrowing pictorial records of what it was like to be black in apartheid South Africa.

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He went into exile in 1966, and the next year his work was published in the United States in a book, House of Bondage, but his photographs were banned in his homeland where he and his work have remained little known. Pretending to be an orphan, Cole had by then, somehow managed to persuade the Race Classification Board to reclassify him as coloured (mixed-race), despite his dark skin. His fluency in Afrikaans, the language of most coloureds, probably helped. His ability to pass as coloured freed him from laws that required blacks always to carry a work permit when in “white areas,” and this mobility proved crucial to his photography.

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However, like the tragedies of most of life’s great creatives, in exile Cole’s life crumbled. For much of the late 1970s and 1980s he was homeless in New York, bereft of even his cameras. Ernest Cole died aged 49 in 1990, just a week after Nelson Mandela walked free. His sister flew back to South Africa with his ashes on her lap and the negatives of his work were believed to be kept by the hotel he was staying in for unpaid bills. The collection was only recently found in the Hasselblad Foundation in Sweden. At last, his collection of images that create shock and anger have been bought back to life to truly identify Cole as one the world’s finest self-taught photojournalists.

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Images courtesy of The Hasselblad Foundation / The Ernest Cole Family Trust