Roger Ballen: Priest of the shadow land
“It’s called Roger Ballen’s Outland. It’s not necessarily your outland, nor anyone else’s outland,” explains the geologist turned photographer/ one-time Die Antwoord video maker; his surreal portraits of those on the fringe of South African society are “self portraits” because “ultimately they make comments about the human condition and the human psyche and people relate to that.”
Beauty is subjective
Ballen’s work has been branded everything from nightmarish to grotesque, but he does not view it that way; “Personally I don’t think there is anything wrong with these photos; these people are not ridiculed. Why do they look any different to you or me, how are they any less beautiful than somebody who wins Miss England?” Reiterating that beauty is subjective and reminding me that when you “look through any newspaper these days and there are worse looking people in far worse situations.”
The shadow land….
Those who appear in Ballen’s Outland series are “living on the periphery of society, the periphery of the mind - in the shadow land,” he tells me. On Ballen’s website, a description of the book ponders “whether they are exploited victims, colluding directly in their own ridicule, or newly empowered and active participants within the drama of their representation.” But Ballen disregards this analysis as “total garbage”, “Nobody except myself will ever truly have an understanding of my relationship with my subjects and I am totally comfortable with that. I must receive at least 25 SMSs per day from people that I have worked with asking me to swing by, do this, do that. I’m like their priest, their lawyer, their doctor. For anybody that believes this is in any way an exploitative relationship, they are so far off the mark it is pathetic,” he bemoans.
Roger Ballen, Cat Catcher 1998
The relationships with these people he met in the early 90s have indeed been sustained and along with the republication of Outland, featuring 45 new images, there is an accompanying video, completed just last month featuring familiar faces. However by his own admission, “some of my greatest photos were taken within five minutes of meeting someone and then I never saw them again.”
Playing with reality
For Ballen there is an overarching concept that drives his art; “the pictures are fundamentally psychological and that’s been the defining aspect of my work for the last 40 years.” However the last 40 years have seen steady evolution for Ballen’s photography, he regards Outland as a pivotal moment when he “started to play with reality”, whilst his work is “always psychological, it’s becoming much more complex.” “The subject focus becomes harder and harder to define with words. The nature of the metaphors is much greyer with multiple meanings.”
The march towards abstraction
When I ask Ballen what’s H A P P E N I N G next, he reiterates this gradual veer towards abstraction, “the last few images from the asylum of the birds book are like apparition pictures” he explains, “they look like drawings from nature. This next series leads on from there.”
Yet in the face of abstraction, things are becoming clearer, “I hope I am developing wisdom as time goes by. It feels good when one can make a comment that has meaning to others.” “Not many people are lucky enough to live like me,” he ponders, “I have a tool for introspect, the camera.”
Roger Ballen, Curled Up, 1998. Courtesy of Roger Ballen