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HomeContents > People > Photographers > Ernest Cole

Dates:  1940 - 1990
Born:  South Africa, Pretoria, Eersterust
Died:  US, NY, New York City
Active:  South Africa

Preparing biographies

Approved biography for Ernest Cole
Courtesy of the Victoria & Albert Museum (London, UK)

Ernest Cole was the first photographer to expose the conditions of life in South Africa under the apartheid regime. As a black man he was defined as an ‘unskilled labourer’, so his entry into photojournalism was as a sweeper and messenger at Zonk magazine.
In 1958 he joined the magazine Drum as a design and production assistant and registered for a correspondence course with the New York Institute of Photography. Encouraged by his tutors, he started a project to record apartheid in South Africa and finally got a job as a photographer for the newspaper Bantu World, before becoming South Africa’s first freelance black photojournalist in the early 1960s.
In 1966 Cole got himself reclassified as ‘coloured’, which meant that he was able to leave country. He travelled to France and England before arriving in New York with the prints and layout sheets of his apartheid project in September 1966. Magnum Photos organised to publish the series in book form. House of Bondage came out the following year but was banned in South Africa, forcing Cole into exile. After a period working for Magnum, he moved to Sweden to take up film making, though his pictures were still published extensively, often in anti-apartheid publications. 
This biography is courtesy and copyright of the Victoria & Albert Museum and is included here with permission. 
Date last updated: 11 Nov 2011. 
We welcome institutions and scholars willing to test the sharing of biographies for the benefit of the photo-history community. The biography above is a part of this trial.
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