A Combustible Object: The Suppression and Recovery of Ernest Cole’s photobook House of Bondage

Art, access and agency - art sites of enabling

  • Sean O’Toole Independent writer, editor and curator based in Cape Town
Keywords: Ernest Cole, photobook, apartheid, censorship, documentary, risk


Ernest Cole’s (1940-1990) much-admired photobook House of Bondage (1967) is considered a landmark event in South African photography. Composed of 183 photos organised into 14 chapters, House of Bondage punctured the tropes of primitivism, pictorialism and ethnography that had for long rendered black subjects as imaginative props for white photographers. It presents a dispassionate visual account of the miseries and insults of black urban life in 1960s South Africa. First published in New York in late 1967 and London in early 1968, it was banned from distribution in South Africa for 22 years. Drawing on primary research for a 2022 exhibition about the South African photobook, this paper looks at the historical context of book censorship, emphasising the under-researched chronology of events between House of Bondage’s initial publication in October 1967 and banning in May 1968. It also discusses House of Bondage’s post-apartheid recovery. An important leitmotif throughout is the subject of risk. What risk did Cole face in making his photobook? And, how did this risk further manifest after his book’s publication?