‘Pass raid outside Johannesburg station. Every African must show his pass before being allowed to go about his business. Police check passes for employer's signature, proof that taxes are paid, and legality of presence in white area. Sometimes check broadens into search of a man's person and belongings.’
Ernest Cole was born Ernest Kole in Eersterust, a township near Pretoria, in 1940. He began to take photography seriously as a teenager. Leaving school at 16, he adopted the name ‘Cole’ and became reclassified as ‘Coloured’ rather than ‘Black ’, allowing him to move through the country without a work permit.
In 1958, Cole began working as a freelancer for the renowned Black monthly magazine Drum and later became its Assistant Picture Editor. He soon decided to create a book that
recorded the lives of Black people under apartheid, often working in secret and at considerable risk to himself.
In 1960 the Cole family were moved to the township of Mamelodi when the apartheid authorities demolished Eersterust. Three years later, Cole broke his kneecaps in a scooter accident and so witnessed first-hand the poor conditions in segregated Black hospitals. Then, in 1966, while photographing a street gang, he was arrested and threatened with jail if he did not inform on them. Cole refused and went into hiding before escaping to Europe and then New York, smuggling his pictures out of the country. His book House of Bondage was published the following year and was immediately banned in South Africa. Cole would never return from exile.
In 1967 Cole received a grant for a book on the lives of African Americans in the United States, but this was never published. Later, he moved to Sweden and took up filmmaking. In the 1970s Cole began experiencing mental health issues and became homeless. He died of cancer in New York Hospital in 1990.
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