After holding several menial jobs — he was a messenger and sweeper and sold magazines door to door — Cole became an assistant to a Chinese photographer at the age of 15, and with his earnings bought a Yashica C camera with a flash. He also performed odd jobs for Zonk magazine. With the proceeds from his work, he bought two Nikon Rangefinder cameras and lenses, a significant upgrade.
In 1958 his career took off after he went to see Jürgen Schadeberg, the picture editor of Drum, a Zonk competitor and the leading South African photography magazine of the time. Drum published essays on the lives of South African blacks by noted photographers such as Ian Berry and Peter Magubane. Schadeberg hired Cole to design page layouts for Drum, where he learned about editing and sequencing pictures and became more political. While working at the magazine, he enrolled in a correspondence course in photography, later taking a position as a photographer at Bantu World, the black daily newspaper of Johannesburg. By the early 1960s, Cole was a well-known name in photography in South Africa, freelancing for a number of newspapers and magazines, including The Rand Daily Mail, Sunday Express, New Age and Drum.
Thanks to Struan Robertson, a British photographer with whom he shared a studio in early 1964, Cole came to study the work of famed French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. He was impressed by Bresson’s theory of the decisive moment and his refusal to crop his photographs. Bresson’s book “People of Moscow” would influence Cole’s division of “House of Bondage” into thematic chapters. Another important influence was New York Times foreign correspondent Joseph Lelyveld, with whom he collaborated in 1966 on long text and photo essays, including a profile of Helen Suzman, a relentless challenger of apartheid.
In 1966, Cole was arrested while on assignment for Drum for a story on tsotsis, township gangsters who mugged whites on the streets of Pretoria. He had gone along with them on several robberies without incident, but this time, the undercover police were watching, and he was arrested with the gang. When he protested that he was a photojournalist, the police asked him to tell them everything he knew about the gang and give evidence in open court or face prosecution. To keep his promise to the tsotsis that he would not identify them in his story, Cole went into hiding and, with Lelyveld’s help, got a passport and a plane ticket to the United States via France.