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  • Writer's picture@ Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Lost Work of Apartheid Photographer, Ernest Cole, on Show

Updated: Aug 18, 2023

“I love this child, though she’ll grow up to treat me just like her mother does. Now, she is innocent.” (Photo @ Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos)


South Africa forbade the photographing of the daily humiliations and horrors of apartheid, the system of racial segregation imposed by a white minority on a black majority that existed from 1948 to 1994.

Ernest Cole (1940-1990) embraced the mission of revealing the injustices that had been hidden from the outside world. Cole was the first photojournalist to expose South African reality to the eyes of others. His work shocked the world.

He paid a high price for it.

A quiet, self-disciplined man, Cole spent 24 years in exile before dying in New York at the age of 49. Many of his last years are missing pages. More than 60,000 of his negatives – lost for more than 40 years – resurfaced in a bank in Sweden in three safety deposit boxes in 2017, according to Magnum Photos. His nephew in South Africa was contacted to collect them.

The first major exhibition in Germany of Cole’s work, including some of the recovered photos, is at Deutsche Borse Photography Foundation in Frankfurt from June 2 until September 17, reported Expresso (July 14). There are about 130 photographs, early original prints, personal documents, original magazine publications and a 1969 video interview with the artist.

Cole’s book, House of Bondage: A South African Black Man Exposes in His Own Pictures and Words the Bitter Life of His Homeland Today (1967), was considered one of the most significant photography books of the twentieth century. Cole had been inspired by Henri Cartier-Bresson’s layout and style in The Europeans, People of Moscow and China in Transition. In December 2022, Aperture reissued House of Bondage with a chapter of previously unpublished work. Some of the newly discovered photographs are in Aperture’s additional chapter.


Ernest Cole’s family was resettled here at Mamelodi, where there were acres of identical four-room houses on nameless streets. (Photo @ Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos)


Apartheid crushed Sophiatown, a thriving cultural and intellectual center near Johannesburg as well as the six-bedroom home of the family of Ernest Levi Tsoloane Kole, according to Magnum Photos. The government wrested his parents, five siblings and himself from their house and land, which they owned, and resettled them in a rented house in an area with neighbors from the same Pedi tribe.

Their former Indian, Zulu and Ndebele neighbors were sent elsewhere, according to A Biography of Ernest Cole by Ann Hutchinson (November 16, 2020). The family’s financial circumstances changed dramatically: suddenly, the Koles were poor.

Cole, who changed the spelling of his surname when he changed his racial classification, took photographs of families’ changed circumstances, including his own. He took photographs of miners, schoolchildren and others as a participant in a life that was unimaginable to those not living it. He began working for black South African magazines but soon became a freelancer for domestic and international publications without editorial restraints.


These boys were caught trespassing in a white area. (Photo @ Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos)


Students kneel on the floor to write in their books. (Photo @ Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos)


In school (Photo @ Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos)


“‘We sleep anywhere,’ a boy told me, ‘In drainpipes, parks, junkyards, anywhere.’ At dawn, I found them lying in a park, shivering.” (Photo @ Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos)


In 1965, he went to the office of Joseph Lelyveld, The New York Times correspondent, who would become a lifelong friend. Cole shared with Lelyveld his plan to publish “the equivalent of the Cartier-Bresson book” for which Lelyveld later would write the introduction, according to Notes on the Life of Ernest Cole (1940-1990) by Gunila Knape. The two worked on some assignments together, including a layout of two pages of signs reading “Nie Blankes” (Non Whites).

Cole had convinced the authorities that he was colored (mixed race), not black, which gave him more freedom of movement. Still, he had been arrested several times, reported Magnum Photos.

He was always running and flopping at the houses of friends. By 1966, he knew that if he wanted to save his pictures and the book dummy, he had to get out of the country.

That year, Lelyveld was deported in April, 11 months after arriving in South Africa. The reporter, who would return to South Africa in 1980, “smuggled a good portion of his work out of the country when I was expelled.”

In May 1966, Cole left home, leaving some negatives with friends to be posted to him at a later date. A devout Roman Catholic, he had organized a passport and plane ticket under the ruse of making a religious pilgrimage to the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France, according to A Biography of Ernest Cole.

For the next few months, Cole traveled to Paris, London, Hamburg and Copenhagen, approaching potential publishers, especially Magnum, because Cartier-Bresson and other photographers had founded the collective, according to Notes on the Life of Ernest Cole.

Magnum in London showed his work to its biggest client, Sunday Times Magazine, which published a cover and five spreads of his work. In Hamburg, he and Magnum Paris Bureau chief visited Stern Magazine, which published him.

After he arrived in New York, the Magnum office there sold his story to Life magazine. He and the photo agency had laid the groundwork for the successful publication of House of Bondage.


A pass raid outside Johannesburg station. Every African had to show a pass before being allowed to go on. Sometimes, these police checks broadened into body and belongings searches. (Photo @ Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos)


Doornfontein Railway Station in downtown Johannesburg at rush hour (Photo @ Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos)


(Photo @ Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos)


Again, with the help of Magnum through Cornell Capa, he received funding from the Ford Foundation for the assignment: A Study of the Negro Family in the Rural South and A Study of Negro Life in the City, from 1967 to 1971.

James Fox, the new archivist at Magnum’s New York office who had just arrived from Paris, complained that Cole did not stay in touch. Fox, who was Belgian, had spent time in Pretoria, opening a door of understanding and friendship with Cole, according to Notes on the Life of Ernest Cole .

“I think he was trying to keep a low profile. I heard that he had managed to get across to Canada and that he had been to Sweden, but then I never knew he came back.”

The exile sent money back home to his mother. His father had died undergoing major surgery in 1958. Cole also sent money to a neighboring family, struggling to keep their eight children in school. He helped buy one son, a talented musician, a guitar, arranged a secondary school scholarship so that he could graduate and gave him clothes. He looked out for the family, even supplying ithe household with blankets.

When his South African passport expired in May 1968, Cole applied for a new one at the South African Embassy. His request was denied as House of Bondage had been banned in his country.

The problems of obtaining visas and identity certification dogged Cole.

In November 1968, Cole wrote a letter to the Alien Commissioners in both Sweden and Norway asking for a residence visa. Writing about the need to leave the States, Cole said:

“Without wishing to be negative about life in this country, it is quite evident to me that it will be difficult for me to work here at this particular period of my life. In my observation of the Black man’s life in South Africa as presented in the House of Bondage, my personal attitude was committed to exposing the evils of South Africa. When I left home, I thought I would focus my talents on other aspects of life, which I assumed would be more hopeful, and some joy to it.

“However, what I have seen in this country over the past two years has proved me wrong. Recording the truth at whatever cost is one thing but finding one having to live a lifetime of being a chronicler of misery and injustice and callousness is another.

“And such matter is about the only assignments magazines here want to offer me because the subject matter of my first book happened to be centered on a ‘race’ issue, the color of my skin – another incidental matter – and the fact that I endured and escaped the living hell that is South Africa.

“The total man does not live one experience. He is molded and shaped by the diversity of other experiences into some form of the whole man. I will most probably return to the U.S. in the future to complete the cycle of study of my observations made here over the past two years.

"But right now, my earnest desire is to have a breath of fresh air.”


New York City, 1971 -- Cole and visitor, Alf Kumalo, a former Drum magazine colleague, went to Harlem to shoot some houses on fire. Cole advised him to be careful in New York, where the police used their guns to shoot, not threaten. (Photo @ Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos)


On a visit to New York, South African photographer, Alf Kumalo (1930-2012), recalled: “We got into a puddle of water in an area, where there were many South Africans. Ernest was so bitter. He was saying: ‘Is this the America that we see in Ebony?’ because Ebony is beautiful and glossy. ‘Now, we go to America to slum. It’s water everywhere, dirty water. We have to put bricks to go through wherever we are going.' He said it in Afrikaans with so much anger." (1970 Photo @ Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos)


When Cole received his renewed U.S. visa in December, he left for Sweden.

With the support of many Swedish colleagues, Sweden issued Cole an immigrant’s passport, enabling him to travel the world, with the exception of South Africa. He lived between Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo, lecturing as well as displaying his work in galleries, magazines and newspapers. In Sweden, he worked with Tiofoto (ten photographers), a collective who had formed an agency.

His landlady in Skarholmen, a suburb of Stockholm, described Cole as “shy, reflective, pipe-smoking, a not very open person who did not really socialize.”

In the early 1970s, he returned to New York. According to Joseph Lelyveld, he was living in Westbeth, a vibrant artists’ community in the West Village, also the home of photographer Diane Arbus and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

Aubrey Xolie Nkomo, who was sharing the apartment, said that Cole ”also had a studio in the Village with a lot of expensive equipment. Somebody broke in there and ransacked the place, and he was spiritually devastated. They took his equipment and his work.” In 1972, Nkomo (1936-2017), who later became a diplomat and academician, left New York for New Jersey, according to Notes on the Life of Ernest Cole.

By the mid-1970s, Cole began to lose touch with his friends and family. He stopped going to the apartment of musician Abdullah Ibrahim, now 88, an unofficial African National Congress center. It was then that Cole began living on the subway. People left messages for him where they thought that he might see him. After some time, he would turn up again. At this point, he did not have a camera.

The visual artist, Peter Clarke (1929-2014), was visiting New York from Cape Town. He was at Ibrahim’s house once when Cole telephoned and then arrived in a taxi “in a very bad state. He was like somebody who was terribly exhausted, physically and mentally, somebody who was almost in a state of collapse. Abdullah brought him in and then he said to him: ‘Alright, come in and lie down over there on the bed.’ Abdullah explained to us that Ernest Cole was homeless at that stage, and he had nowhere to stay. . . . He was desperate and destitute.

“I was struck by the fact that this brilliant person could end up like that: a refugee who was homeless and for whom there was really no hope at that stage, ‘cause it seemed like he had nothing. It haunted me long afterwards when I thought about what happens with people like that. They go away from home and go out into the world and, in many cases, you don’t even know what happens to them afterwards. They just become lost.”


Changeover: Contract-expired miners are on the right, carrying their discharge papers and wearing European clothes while new recruits, many in tribal dress, are on the left.

(Photo @ Ernest Cole/Magnum Photos)


Mongane Wally Serote, now 79, a poet and writer, invited Cole to stay with him from 1975 to 1977. Born in Sophiatown, Johannesburg, Serote was studying at Columbia University. In 2018, he was announced as the National Poet Laureate of South Africa.

“At that time, he was most reclusive and seemed to be drugged. Nothing about Sweden. On looking back, it was most strange. I was studying and really came late to the flat, when he would be asleep. When I left in the morning, he would be asleep. Ernest was not well at all. He seemed most depressed and hardly spoke.”

Joseph Lelyveld, of The New York Times, was a mainstay in the artist’s life. Lelyveld would contact Jurgen Schadeberg, a German photographer whom Cole had worked for as an assistant at Drum magazine when he was 18, about Cole. Schadeberg (1931-2020) made an eponymous film about Cole in 2004. Together, he and Lelyveld extended a hand to Cole, including raising money, when necessary, according to Notes on the Life of Ernest Cole.

In 1977, Cole asked Lelyveld for help tracking down his negatives and prints from a Stockholm exhibit. The previous year, he had left them and his other belongings in his room at the Pickwick Arms Hotel as he had no fixed address. In his Pulitzer-prize winning book, Move Your Shadow: South Africa, Black and White (1985), Lelyveld, who would become foreign, managing and executive ediitor of The Times, wrote:

“One afternoon, we went together to a cheap boarding hotel where he had stashed his few possessions, including negatives and the only picture he had of his mother. The manager took down a ledger and showed us that they all had gone in an auction of unclaimed articles, held according to New York’s regulations for such sales. Ernest was left with only the clothes on his back.”

Lelyveld said that Cole “was in terrible shape. He was in, not exactly rags, but he had dirty clothes. He hadn’t bathed for a very long time, and he looked like a street person, but he told me that he slept on the subway.”

Lelyveld, now 86, arranged for Cole to stay in the apartment his brother had for the summer.

“He had this idea that no one in New York observed the sky. It was a soulless city and somebody had to watch the sunset. That was his job, he was doing it for all the people of New York. And so, he sat there at the window watching the sunset. This felt spooky to my brother.”

Cole also would spend an hour in the only bathroom. Lelyveld’s brother said that he could not take it anymore. Lelyveld put Cole into the YMCA on 44th Street for awhile.

The next year, Cole asked Lelyveld for help in replacing his green card, his U.S. residency, which he had lost. Lelyveld was successful, but it was not easy. Cole was late for his appointment with the head of the immigration office. Lelyveld took a cab to collect him. When they finally arrived at the building, Cole apologized again but said that he could not enter the building immediately:

“’We have been traveling horizontally very fast across New York, now you want me to go vertically. I must readjust my thinking before I can go up’. So, I stood there watching him readjusting his thinking.”

In 1979, Cole spent a few months living in London with his childhood friend, the South African drummer and composer, Julian Bahula, now 85, after the musician met him in New York and thought that he did not look well. Liza Bahula, Julian’s wife, recalled that “he was mentally ill and needed treatment. He was very very sick really.” He was obsessive about House of Bondage, making “lots of notes in the margins about what he didn’t like”.

Julian Bahula knew that different organizations used Cole’s photographs without permission or a credit line. He suggested that Cole approach the London-based International Defence and Aid Fund, who was using some of his photos, for help. One day, Cole went out and, simply, did not come back.

His disappearance surprised the Buhulas, but it exemplified Cole’s way of living. His movements were unpredictable.

About the same time, Lelyveld and Schadeberg were in contact. Schadeberg met Cole in London and suggested that he apply for a British immigrant’s passport and move to Europe. Eventually, Cole was granted a residence permit.

However, Cole had returned to New York with the financial help of the anti-apartheid group.


Ernest Cole


There is little known about Cole until the late 1980s when Cyril Khanyile, a medical doctor practicing in Harlem, took him in, according to Notes on the Life of Ernest Cole.

“I saw him as a national hero, and my intention was that we had to begin to take care of our own. It was the same thing with Dumile (the artist Dumile Feni, 1942-1991). He also stayed in my apartment during that time. It wasn’t that I was well-off, but I could do that without difficulty.

“I think my first meeting with Ernest was at a friend’s place. He was having what I thought were hallucinations, and I arranged to give him some medicine, some anti-psychotic medicine, which sort of messed him up. I think, maybe, his distrust, and all that stuff, stems from that experience, in retrospect. He never really told me that directly,” said Dr. Khanyile, Notes on the Life of Ernest Cole (1940-1990).

“My intent was to get him a stable residence, to get him into treatment and get him some benefits and just make life easier for him.”

Cole began seeing a psychiatrist at Harlem Hospital and, as a result, began collecting government support checks, which he deposited into a newly opened account at the urging of the doctor. Cole never spent a cent, said Dr. Khanyile, who bought him a camera, not the Leica he wanted, because of the cost, but a Nikkormat.

Dr. Khanyile gave Cole two assignments: to document the homeless, whom – and whose life .. he knew and to document Dumile Feni, who was working on his sculpture His Story in the apartment.

Cole was cautious, Dr. Khanyile said, compartmentalizing everything. He was not forthcoming about his friends in Sweden, and he never told him about Joseph Lelyveld until the very end, when the photographer’s mother and sister were coming to New York.

In 1989, Cole contacted Lelyveld in desperate need of medical care. Through Lelyveld’s doctor, Cole was admitted into New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center as a charity case. Cole learned that he had advanced pancreatic cancer. Lelyveld tried to obtain the exile a travel visa for South Africa but by the time the documents were processed, Cole was too sick to use it, Notes on the Life of Ernest Cole (1940-1990).

Iranian-born doctor, Dr. Shahin Rafii, cared for Cole in the month he spent in the hospital. He said:

“Just a few days ago, I was thinking about Ernest Cole in light of the recent uprising in Iran. Ernest was an amazing, brilliant, compassionate freedom fighter”.

Dr. Rafii arranged for a television connection on February 11, 1990, the day when Nelson Mandela, leader of the anti-apartheid movement, walked out of prison after 27 years. Dr. Rafii said that he sat and watched with Cole, who was smiling and cheerful, although he was not feeling well from the effect of chemotherapy.

“I attended the wake of Ernest and met his family. It was a spiritual experience for me to see how the life of a photographer and freedom fighter had not gone to waste. I feel lucky and honored to have met him.”

Cole’s mother, Martha Kole, and his sister, Catherine Hlatshwayo, arrived in New York two days before he died in the hospital. Lelyveld recalled their first visit with Cole:

“All I remember is just how pleased and moved and satisfied Ernest was to see his mother. It was as if he had kept himself alive till that minute. Like a burden being lifted from him. And, very sweet and soft, she put her hand on the back of his neck to feel for something. And then she said: ‘Ah, he is dying.’”

Both his mother and sister, were with him when he drew his last breaths on February 19, 1990.

A memorial service was organized at an Anglican church. Cole’s body was cremated and his ashes brought back to South Africa in his sister’s lap in the airplane. The African National Congress paid for the funeral.

The night before, the police threw teargas through the windows of the family home in Mamelodi, thereby, strengthening the legacy of Cole, who was unknown to many young people because of his 24 years in exile and his banned book, House of Bondage.

It was not until 2001, according to Protest in Photobook, when the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg mounted enlarged pages of the book on its walls that South Africans at home would be able to view his photographs, which had shocked the world 34 years before.

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