He left school when the Bantu Education Act was put into place in 1953, and instead completed his matric via correspondence. He started taking photographs at a very young age, and was given a camera by a Roman Catholic Priest in the 1950s, with which he broadened his portfolio.
In 1958, Cole applied for a job with Drum magazine. Jürgen Schadeberg, the chief photographer employed him as his assistant. Cole also started a correspondence course with the New York Institute of Photography. With their support, he decided on a project which entailed recording the evils and social effects of apartheid.
He then worked at the Bantu World newspaper (later renamed The World - now The Sowetan), where he continued his career as a photographer. In the early 1960s, he started to freelance for clients such as Drum, the Rand Daily Mail, The World and the Sunday Express. This made him South Africa’s first black freelance photographer.
Seeking to leave South Africa, he became re-classified as a "coloured." As a result, he was able to leave for New York in 1966. He took his apartheid project prints with him. He showed his work to Magnum Photos which resulted in a publishing deal with publishing rights owned by Random House. The book, House of Bondage, was banned in South Africa.
In the book, Cole writes: "Three-hundred years of white supremacy in South Africa has placed us in bondage, stripped us of our dignity, robbed us of our self-esteem and surrounded us with hate."
Later he received a grant from the Ford Foundation for another book, A study of the Negro family in the rural South and the Negro family in the urban ghetto. This was never published although he did take a number of photographs.
- House of Bondage, Random House, 1967, ISBN 0-394-42935-4
- Defiant Images: Photography and Apartheid South Africa, Darren Newbury, University of South Africa (UNISA) Press, 2009, ISBN 978-1-86888-523-7 (see Chapter 4. An 'unalterable blackness': Ernest Cole's House of Bondage)
- The Photographer, Ernest Cole, Steidl, 2010, ISBN 978-3-86930-137-2
- 2006 - Ernest Cole – Video - 52 min
"This is the story of the first black photojournalist to challenge South Africa’s apartheid system. Risking imprisonment, Ernest Cole dedicated his life to showing the world the injustices and exploitation of segregation. But he paid a heavy price for his work and ended up dying in exile." Journeyman Pictures
Selected group exhibitions
- 2001 - Soweto – A South African Myth - Photographs from the 1950s (by Alf Khumalo, Ernest Cole and Jürgen Schadeberg). The core of the exhibition is the student uprising of 1976. This includes some of Peter Magubane's work.
- 2010 - Ernest Cole: Photographer - Although not the first, this is the largest retrospective of his work displayed in Johannesburg at the Johannesburg Art Galery. The exhibition is a homecoming of sorts for Cole's legacy, as many of his photographs were previously banned in apartheid South Africa.
- 2012 - Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s - This exhibition at The Barbican Centre, London, contained a set of original prints by Ernest Cole long thought lost, but rediscovered recently in Sweden. The exhibition also contained a major body of work on South Africa by David Goldblatt.
- "Ernest Cole". SA History. Archived from the original on 2007-10-20. Retrieved 2007-12-02.
- Ernest Cole,. House of Bondage. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-42935-4.
- "Ernest Cole Dies at 49; Recorder of Apartheid". New York Times. 19 February 1990. Retrieved 2010-11-18. "Ernest Cole, a South African photographer who published a pioneering collection of photographs documenting life under apartheid, died of cancer yesterday at New York Hospital in Manhattan. He was 49 years old. ..."
- "Photographers in This Display". Victoria & Albert Museum. Retrieved 2007-05-01.
- "Exhibitions". Apartheid Museum. Retrieved 2007-05-01.
- "African Photography 1840-1998". The Castle. Retrieved 2007-05-01.
- "Colour this Whites Only". Tate Britain. Retrieved 2007-05-01.
- Dugger, Celia W. (2010-11-17). "Ernest Cole: Photographer". The New York Times. Retrieved 2010-11-18.
- "Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s". The Barbican Centre. Retrieved 2012-11-04.