Updated: Jan 20, 2019
I chose Magnum Photos photographer Ernest Cole as my first documentary photographer to review. I chose him predominately because of his African American descent. It's hard to find representation of minorities FROM minorities because the professional art world is a place usually reserved for white bodies. Just like most of the world. Ernest Cole documented conditions in South Africa during the Apartheid; something I guarantee most Americans don't even know about. We like to think that because we've had a black president, because black people are no longer enslaved in America, because Oprah has her own channel, that we live in a post racial society. That we are so far removed from racism that we don't even need to talk about it. That in fact, talking about race is the very problem with our world. However this couldn't be further from the truth and Ernest Cole depicts that. In raw, black and white images, Cole captures the unjust condition of South Africa during a time that could be compared to Americas "Separate but Equal" times.
In this image he was able to capture the grim working conditions that Europeans kept the native Africans in. Here you see workers being laid off wearing European clothes while new prospects stand in line in their traditional clothing, not knowing their culture is soon to be stripped from them. Literally and figuratively. This is a phenomenon that exists today. In order to "fit in" in the work environment in America, black employees often have to drain their culture so they can fit into the cookie cutter model of what it means to be "professional."
Above is an image of two African men handcuffed together for being in a white space. This too is still prevalent in America today. White citizens use the police as a weapon against black citizens when they feel as if they are in spaces they don't belong. Time and time again, we have the cops called on us for being suspicious in our own skin. In our own homes. Here he focuses on the hands that appear to be in nice clothing and completely ignores the faces of his subject. He focuses on the skin and the condition that the melanin has left them in due to injustices. He reduces these men to their criminality in a way that parallels what has been done to them.
In this final image, Cole is able to capture a white man slapping the face of an African child who was begging for money. Today, white people are only 8% of South Africa yet they own the majority of the wealth. Similarly, in America, the top 1% (All white) own 50% of the wealth. This is a figurative slap in the face to the needy. The way Cole is able to capture the inhumanity of man brings context to statistics like these. He highlights the simple truth. Those with everything treat those with nothing as if it is their own fault for needing help. He is able to exemplify greed in a simple black and white photo. To expose the ruthlessness of hegemony. It's truly inspiring. To see someones work tell you an entire peoples history in only a few images. And this is just the beginning...
I hope one day I am able to capture something as powerful as he has. Although it is sad that we live in a world in which that is a possibility, I truly believe a photo can be a catalyst for change.