Pioneering Photographer Who Exposed Apartheid in South Africa and Racism in United States

Mendel Letters
4 min readApr 8, 2023
South African men body searched before being sent to work in the mines.

I recently saw an exhibit of Ernest Cole’s photography from South Africa and the United States at the FOAM photography museum in Amsterdam.

Ernest Levi Tsoloane Cole was born in South Africa in 1940 and died in New York City in 1990. Cole became politicized at a young age. He left school when South Africa’s white controlled apartheid government implemented “Bantu Education.” He refused to accept an “education for servitude.”

Cole started taking photographs when he was eight years old when he received his first a camera as a gift from a Roman Catholic priest. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Cole began a photo project to expose life for Africans subject to apartheid. While working on the project, Cole was arrested a number of times by the South African police.

Men line up hoping to land a job in the mines.

Fearing censorship and further arrest, Cole managed to escape South Africa. He arrived in the United States with his photo record of apartheid. The photographs were published by Random House in 1967 as House of Bondage. In the book’s introduction, Cole wrote that “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.” The photographs documented what life was like for Blacks laboring for subsistence wages in South African mines and living in workplace compounds and segregated townships. Not surprisingly, the book was banned in South Africa and Cole was now stateless.

A white woman sits on a park bench reserved for “Europeans.”

In the United States, Cole received a Ford Foundation grant to create a photographic study of the Negro family in the rural South and urban ghettoes. This project was never completed and the images were lost until they were found in a bank vault in Stockholm, Sweden in 2017. Cole stopped working as a photographer in the early 1970s, disgusted that the only projects he was offered were related to race. For a long time, he was homeless on the streets of New York City and he died in 1990 from pancreatic cancer at the age of 49.

Children playing on a Harlem street on a hot summer day in New York City

In December 1967, less than a year after his arrival in the United States, an interview with Ernest Cole was printed in the New York Times. House of Bondage had been published and he had received the Ford Foundation grant. Cole told the interviewer that white people in the United States were “very much like” whites in South Africa in their attitudes toward Blacks. “I was so very much surprised to find bitter white racism in America. I had been told that being colored didn’t matter at all in the United States — outside of the South, that is. But everywhere I saw racial attitudes that were very much like those I know from South Africa.”

South African school children without desks write on the floor (L). Many lack paper. A man is handcuffed for “trespassing” in a “Whites Only” area (R).

While traveling in the American South, Cole was more frightened than then he had been in South Africa “In South Africa I was afraid of being arrested; in your South, when I was taking pictures, I was terribly frightened of being lynched. I was told to expect discrimination, but the actuality was worse than I had imagined possible.”

Cole explained in the interview that racism in Northern cities might be less blatant, but it was present everywhere. “When I went to call on someone in an office, to whom I had a letter of introduction, almost invariably the receptionist thought I was a messenger and asked, ‘Are you here to pick up a package?’ In apartment houses, doormen eyed me distrustfully as if I were there to steal something. In restaurants, white people physically shy away from black men. And once, in a social gathering, I heard a white girl say, ‘I’m scared.’”

At the time of the interview, Cole was living in Harlem. “Harlem hasn’t been much of a surprise to me. After all, I know the Harlems of Pretoria, where I was born, and of Johannesburg. The only difference is that there are automobiles in the New York slum.”

Cole, who refused to use the word Negro during the interview, had harsh criticism of white Americans. “Blacks in America want respect. They’re treated like children, which they resent. They’re not children. But the whites want them to be dependent. The whites want them to be grateful all the time.”

When asked if he planned to return to South Africa, Cole said “They’d welcome me back in South Africa — to send me to jail, but I’m not about to go back to say ‘Boss’ to any man.”

Cole was not completely happy with the article and wrote a letter to the New York Times pointing out inaccuracies, but it was not published. House of Bondage was reissued in 2022.