Roger Ballen’s photographs have a singular ability to cause disquiet to the viewer. Never easy or comfortable, the photographs show oddly constructed scenes where walls are scrawled with childlike drawings and figures are distorted and angular, or holding strange props- a live bird, a mask, a pair of pliers. The pictures are always in black and white, rendering them curiously timeless- these could be photos from 50 years ago or equally they could have been taken yesterday. Ballen is interested in the extremes of the body: in his pictures a little boys sucks his breath in until his ribs jut out dramatically, a pair of arms crossed above a table appear removed from their body, a doll’s crooked arm seems to protrude from the back of a white duck. How they got there and what they are doing there are unclear and so Ballen leaves his viewer bewildered, and perhaps a little afraid.
Born in New York in 1950, Ballen travelled widely throughout his youth before finally settling in Johannesburg where he continues to live and work. It was here that the photographer became fascinated with people who were somehow marginalised from South African society and in the 2000s he went on to document them in his series Outland and Shadow Chamber.
More recently he created a series entitled Asylum of the Birds which is a study of a house in Johannesburg where animals nest and burrow amongst the humans that live there, all together in a strange, but convivial, arrangement. A video of the project can be found here and offers a fascinating glimpse into the house and its unusual residents.
Ballen shot into the limelight when the South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord used him to direct the video for their single ‘I fink u freeky’. The photographer’s aesthetic has inspired much of the group’s style and with their rise to fame they have brought Ballen to a whole new audience.
Ballen’s work now features in several major institutional collections such as the Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and he has had solo exhibitions across the world. Last Autumn he featured at Paris Photo with Galerie Karsten Greve and he will exhibit two shows this month in Madrid and Prague. He will also shortly be re-releasing a book of his series Outland with an additional 45 previously unpublished photos.
I had a conversation with the artist about the coming year, his travels and his thoughts on photography.
Can I ask what you’re currently working on?
Phaidon press is republishing Outland in April with 45 previously unpublished pictures in there and new text. I’m working on an Outland video right now, so to go along with the book launch… so I’ve been putting a fair amount of time into that and then I’m working on five or six other books and I’m still taking pictures, and you know it’s just an endless correspondence with the shows
So you’ve got a lot going on?
Yes, and you see I’ve got a lot going on, but I still have to take the pictures [laughs]…That’s the hard part!
So when’s your next show?
The next show is in Prague in February and then also in Madrid in February.
Fantastic, so will you be coming back to Europe for that?
Yes, I’ll come back for that.
So, you live in Johannesburg and you’ve been there how many years?
I wanted to ask why you went to South Africa?
When I was a young man in 1973\74 I hitchhiked from Cairo to Cape Town and then I sort of found it quite an interesting place and then I hitchhiked from Istanbul to New Guinea and then I went back to America in ’76, I think, and then I did a doctorate degree in geology. Then I got married to a South African woman and I came back here in ’82. It’s a good place to do geology and I found it and interesting country linking the first world to the third world and then I thought the climate was good and whatever, and the political issues- it was still an interesting place to be and for my career. I liked that.
You were living in New York before that?
Well no, I lived in Colorado because I was doing this doctorate degree there and then I did a bachelor’s degree in Berkley, California and then I travelled a lot, so I really haven’t spent much time in New York since ‘68 actually.
So you want to stay in South Africa for the foreseeable future?
I really don’t think I have the energy [to move]. Everything is greener til you get there.
Do you find it an inspiring place to be in terms of your work?
Well, I never use the word inspiring. I think I’ve worked really hard, I’ve had a lot of discipline and passion about what I’ve done- I think that’s been the thing responsible.
Do you think your interest in geology influences your work?
Well, yeah I mean you’re dealing with nature. You know nature is an inspiration. You know at the end of the day you can spend a whole month in a beautiful game park or looking at rocks and it doesn’t mean that when you come back and take the pictures it will be any easier. These pictures are a very complex way of seeing, a very complex way of viewing the world and you know perhaps this went back to the time I was in my mother’s stomach…I can’t really say what exactly is the primary cause of what I do.
Is it an impulse of some kind?
No, I don’t think it’s an impulse, it’s more of a meditative process.
In terms of nature, it’s quite interesting how your photographs of interiors as well seem quite wild, do you know what I mean?
Was that the intention?
No, I don’t ever have an intention, I just take the pictures.
And just see what happens?
Yes, well I mean I can’t think about what’s going to happen until it happens. That’s the nature of photography. I mean it’s like writing a play thinking of all the different scenes, you know you can’t predict a lot of the scenes and how the elements fit together, usually there’s something happening that’s very special at a moment…so there’s no point even thinking about it.
So there’s a big element of spontaneity to it?
Yeah I would say spontaneity, but it’s not impulsive spontaneity…It’s a mixture of subconscious thinking and conscious thinking. So it’s not again very easy to say how the mind actually works, you can’t really explain it- in a lot of ways it’s impossible… You know I’m experiencing what I do and I’ve been doing it for nearly 50 years and I have this capability of doing things and I keep learning from what I do.
So how does the process work, you take the photos and then you go back and you decide between them?
Well, you take the photos you develop the film and when you get the film back you decide which is the best one, if there is a best one.
And you always work in black and white yes?
And you’ve never worked in colour or just never wanted to?
Never…well I did, I took snapshots of some of the people I work with, that sort of thing, but I don’t work with colours, I don’t like colours. When I say I don’t like them, I don’t feel comfortable working with them- I feel I can expand my horizons more in black and white.
Do you think black and white is dieing out?
Yes, totally, it is definitely dieing out.
Does that worry you?
Hell, there’s nothing I can do you know. I guess it does worry you, but it’s just another thing.
It’s a shame.
Yeah, I don’t know, there’s a lot of shames around. You look out of your window and you see a lot of things that are a shame. You know you just have to do what you can do and work your best and that’s all you can do I think.
So how was the experience of working with Die Antwoord?
Well I worked with them a couple of [times]. They found my work early in 2005 and they saw my work they said they gave up what they were doing for a year, and then reinvented themselves and started integrating my aesthetic aspects into their stage presentation. So I think I was greatly responsible for, I guess, their development. And then we talked many times about how we would work together eventually. We then worked on ‘I fink u freeky’ and a few other videos.
Are you going to work with them in the future as well?
No I doubt it, they’re in LA right now, I don’t plan to be working with them- I’m busy making my own videos and I don’t really claim I’m a music video person. They’ve moved to Hollywood or something- I’m focused on making my own videos and sculptures now and I’m working on five or six books so you know if another interesting opportunity came along maybe I would do one.
Do you think the immediacy and the apparent ‘realness’ of photography means it can be particularly disturbing?
Yes, definitely…definitely. The thing is that these are all very complicated issues because the thing is- a lot of the things you see on TV or in the newspapers are very terrible events, but they’re not disturbing because you see them so much, so you know every day you see somebody being killed or run over on the highways in Britain or something like this, so a lot of things that are terrible, but you don’t find terrible because you’re so used to them. So the thing is is my pictures, my better pictures or a lot of my pictures, embed themselves deeply in the subconscious, because the mind isn’t ready for those photographs, they don’t have any corresponding experience in some way or another, so the pictures tend to have more of an impact on the person’s deeper mind than something we would normally think of as disturbing because the pictures get into the mind. People aren’t used to having things get in there and stay in there and threaten their image of themselves in some way or another and so that’s why they call them disturbing, they’re not actually disturbing a better way of saying it is that if somebody has some kind of consciousness they’re actually enlightening. You’re right about photography…but there’s so much, there’s like a billion pictures taken every week, so when we talk about this art form or this medium it’s so complicated. So when you talk about the immediacy of photography, for every picture that has any impact there are probably one million that don’t do anything, so it’s hard to talk about this medium in any common way because it’s so oversupplied.
Talking about the subconscious, and that idea of dream-like, nightmarish things that float into the subconscious are you at all interested in the surrealists?
I’m not really…I know a lot about art and photography- I’m interested in things that have an impact on my brain. I was looking at some pictures yesterday from Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and that stuff has a lot more impact on my head in a lot of ways than a lot of contemporary art, cos that stuff is really real stuff- that’s the human psyche in its most bare form, you know not talking about pictures that were taken yesterday by tourists, but pictures that were taken 50…100 years ago…same thing in Africa.
So you mean more primary sources are what interest you?
Yes, real stuff. The way they painted their bodies, the weapons they hold, the type of imagery that comes out of what they’re doing, even their whole mythology is so powerful. The thing is that that interests me and what some of the surrealists did interests me and also some Byzantine art interests me. A lot of contemporary art today doesn’t interest me to tell you the truth. I often make the comment ‘besides the enigma of how of the universe is created, the next biggest enigma is understanding the art business’.
Could you tell me a bit about having travelled around South Africa? You were talking about mythologies that have interested you, did your travels also bring that out?
When I was a young man for almost 5 years I did it with little money and no internet, no nothing, and so that had a big impact on me in a lot of ways. I was travelling with my feet on the earth, if you know what I mean, and so that gave me I think a very sound personal understanding of the climate, the species and the whole rhythm of nature in one way or another. In my own way, and I’m not claiming that I’m the next Plato or Kant or anybody like that, but in my own way, these travels that I made when I was younger and also my geological excursions, because those were again the same type of travelling, dealing with the earth in different places in Africa…because I did spend twelve years in the South African countryside…and so I spent that time travelling around…[which] left me with many impressions. Then after ’94 all my pictures were in and around Johannesburg, so sometimes you know I create more of one wall, one space than you can travelling around the world for years, so it depends where you are and what your style is , what your focus is. But you know I’m not like a student at contemporary art school, I never took any photography courses, but everything is learning step by step, by step. It wasn’t like I decided to become a surrealist photographer when I was 22, in those days the height of [achievement for] a photographer was being on the street, being in dangerous places, or not maybe dangerous, but maybe where there was some kind of heightened situation is some kind of faraway place and I think by doing that you accumulate and become much more aware of the world around you than I think a lot of photographers do with the type of work they do, with the type of experiences they get.
The series about the asylum of birds, that was in a house in Johannesburg, yes? Could you tell me a little bit about how you found the house?
Yes, I found it in the early 2000s when I was working on the Shadow Chamber book and some of the people in the Shadow Chamber building told me about this place where birds and other animals were in the house and they weren’t in cages or tied up- the people were living with the animals. I went over to this place with some of the people from the Shadow Chamber space and then found the place and went back and forth occasionally for about 7 or 8 years until I decided to work on a project involving that place and birds.
On your website it says that you ‘use people like props’. Would you agree with that as a description of the way you treat a human subject?
Yes…I mean I’m a scientist and an artist, so if you’re a doctor you have to deal with the scientific aspects of a person, you know you have to ask what their blood pressure is, you’re treating the human being like a prop, so I’m working with people to transform what’s around me into photographs. I also work with animals and objects and sometimes I work with drawings and sometimes the drawings reflect a given state of mind as much as any human being so the drawing could be as much a prop as a person. The person could be more of a prop than the drawing. So it all comes together, it all has to be fully integrated and you watch it transform into a Roger Ballen photograph. So you know if the person is seen as a prop with no expression, no relationship to the things around them then Roger Ballen would never in a million years show that photograph…