Ernest Cole (photographer)

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Ernest Levi Tsoloane Cole (21 March 1940[1] – 19 February 1990) was a South African photographer. In the early 1960s, he started to freelance for clients such as Drum magazine, the Rand Daily Mail, and the Sunday Express. This made him South Africa's first black freelance photographer.[2][3]


Cole was a black South African, born in Eersterust in Pretoria, in 1940. His original family name was Kole and he took the name Cole later.[1] He left school when the Bantu Education Act was put into place in 1953, and instead completed his diploma via a correspondence course with Wolsey Hall, Oxford.[4] He started taking photographs at a very young age, eight years, and in the 1950s was given a camera by a Roman Catholic priest, with which Cole broadened his portfolio. As he himself put it: "I quit school in 1957 rather than go along with the 'bantu' education for servitude which had become more strict than before."[5]

In 1958, he applied for a job with Drum magazine. Jürgen Schadeberg, the picture editor, employed him as his assistant.[6] Cole also started a correspondence course with the New York Institute of Photography.

While working for Drum, Cole began to mingle with other talented young black South Africans—journalists, photographers, jazz musicians, and political leaders in the burgeoning anti-apartheid movement—and became radicalised in his political views. He soon decided on a project that entailed recording the evils and daily 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.

Seeking to leave South Africa, he became re-classified as a "Coloured," not "Black" because he was able to fool the authorities.[1] As a result, he was able to leave for New York City in 1966. He secretly took his apartheid project prints with him.[7] He showed his work to Magnum Photos and this resulted in a publishing deal with publishing rights owned by Random House. The resulting book, House of Bondage (1967), 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."[8]

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.[2]

Cole later moved to Sweden, where he took up filmmaking. The apartheid photos he had taken were used extensively by the ANC in their various publications.

Cole died of cancer in New York City on 18 February 1990 at the age of 49.[9]

Photographic legacy[edit]

Cole's negatives were considered lost for a long time, but a collection of 60,000 negatives was found at a bank vault in Stockholm and, in April 2018, given to his heirs who had founded The Ernest Cole Family Trust. There are still 504 photographs held at Hasselblad Foundation, with an estimated value over one million euros, and the ownership of these is in legal dispute.[1]

Ernest Cole Award[edit]

The annual Ernest Cole Award was initiated in 2011 under the auspices of the University of Cape Town.[10]


  • House of Bondage: A South African Black Man Exposes in His Own Pictures and Words the Bitter Life of His Homeland Today. New York: Random House, 1967. ISBN 0-394-42935-4. With an introduction by Joseph Lelyveld and a text by Thomas Flaherty.
  • The Photographer. Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 2010. Edited by Gunilla Knape. ISBN 978-3-86930-137-2. With essays by Struan Robertson and Ivor Powel.


  • 2006 – Ernest Cole – Video (52 minutes). "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."[11][12]


Cole's work is held in the following public collections:

Selected group exhibitions[edit]

  • Photo-journalism exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London[15]
  • Life Under Apartheid at the Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg[16]
  • eye Africa (1960 to 1998) at the Castle's William Fehr Collection, Cape Town[17]
  • Colour this Whites Only at the Tate Museum in London[18]
  • 2001 – Soweto – A South African Myth – Photographs from the 1950s (by Alf Khumalo, Ernest Cole and Jürgen Schadeberg). The core of the exhibition was the student uprising of 1976. This includes some of Peter Magubane's work.
  • 2010 – Ernest Cole: Photographer – Although not the first, this was the largest retrospective of his work displayed in Johannesburg at the Johannesburg Art Gallery. The exhibition was a homecoming of sorts for Cole's legacy, as many of his photographs previously had been banned in apartheid South Africa.[19]
  • 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 in Sweden. The exhibition also contained a major body of work on South Africa by David Goldblatt.[20]
  • 2014 – Ernest Cole: Photographer – This exhibition was at the Grey Art Gallery of New York University in New York City. It featured more than 100 rare black-and-white gelatin silver prints from Cole's archive. This was the first major solo museum show of Cole's images. The exhibition was organised by the Hasselblad Foundation of Gothenburg, Sweden.


  1. ^ a b c d Selander, Torbjörn (22 July 2018). "Lång kamp om Ernest Coles fotografier" [Long battle over Ernest Cole's photographs]. Hufvudstadsbladet (in Swedish). pp. 22–25.
  2. ^ a b "Ernest Cole". SA History. Archived from the original on 20 October 2007. Retrieved 2 December 2007.
  3. ^ O'Hagan, Sean: Review of Ernest Cole: Photographer by Gunilla Knape & Struan Robertson. The Observer, 23 January 2011.
  4. ^ "Looking at Power: The Relevance of Apartheid Photography Today".
  5. ^ Cole, Ernest: "My Country, My Hell!", Ebony, February 1968, p. 68.
  6. ^ Naggar, Carole: "Ernest Cole, photographer of apartheid." Al Jazeera, 2 September 2014.
  7. ^ Randall, Dudley: Review of House of Bondage, Negro Digest, February 1968, p. 94.
  8. ^ Cole, Ernest (1967). House of Bondage. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-394-42935-4.
  9. ^ "Ernest Cole Dies at 49; Recorder of Apartheid". The New York Times. 19 February 1990. Retrieved 18 November 2010. 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...
  10. ^ "The Ernest Cole Annual Photography Award." Africultures, March 2011.
    "About the award." Ernest Cole Award website.
  11. ^ Documentaries: South Africa – Ernest Cole, Journeyman Pictures.
  12. ^ "Ernest Cole Documentary" (review), Johannesburg City Bytes.
  13. ^ "Ernest Cole, The Art Institute of Chicago". The Art Institute of Chicago. Retrieved 6 June 2020.
  14. ^ "Ernest Cole". Retrieved 10 January 2018.
  15. ^ "Photographers in This Display". Victoria & Albert Museum. Retrieved 1 May 2007.
  16. ^ "Exhibitions". Apartheid Museum. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007. Retrieved 1 May 2007.
  17. ^ "African Photography 1840–1998". The Castle. Retrieved 1 May 2007.
  18. ^ "Colour this Whites Only". Tate Britain. Retrieved 1 May 2007.
  19. ^ Dugger, Celia W. (17 November 2010). "Ernest Cole: Photographer". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 November 2010.
  20. ^ "Everything Was Moving: Photography from the 60s and 70s". The Barbican Centre. Retrieved 4 November 2012.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]