South African-based artist/photographer Roger Ballen’s black and white photographs are so dizzyingly incoherent – with stray narrative threads sticking out in all directions — that they make you feel as if you’re peeking through the lens of insanity. They oftentimes focus on an odd cast of unwashed, gnarled-visaged characters posed amidst utter squalor: wires inexplicably dangle from the ceilings; juvenile stick figures are obsessively scrawled on the walls; broken toys litter the floors; and stray, mangy animals chew on dirty doll parts. Despite hinting at photo-documentary, the photos’ surreal tableaux and recurring motifs (dirty feet, wires, stick drawings) are too pitch-perfectly composed to be natural. They possess the lo-fi brand of dereliction characteristic of outsider artists like Miroslav Tichy and Gerard Petrus Fieret, while their lighting and well-thought-out textural juxtapositions also speak of a highly developed and refined talent. Although there is a lot that is still unanswered about where exactly fact ends and fiction begins in Ballen’s photos, there are some things that are for certain.
The truth is that, as far as we know, Ballen is neither a derelict nor a madman, but instead a world-renowned photographer whose works are in the collections of the MoMA, Victoria and Albert Museum, and Brooklyn Museum (just to name a few). A New York native and Geology Ph.D, Ballen moved to South Africa in 1982 to work as a geologist, but soon found this career usurped by his passion for art and photography (an early passion, as his mother was a prominent NYC photography gallery owner who knew the likes of Cartier-Bresson, Steichen, Arbus, and Kertesz). During the last few years of Apartheid, Ballen began photographing an overlooked population of impoverished white South African platteland folks in their dorps (Afrikaans for ‘villages’) and houses. Initially these were documentary photos unreliant on photographic trickery or staging. As Ballen evolved, as both an artist and a photographer, he began casting these people as players in his fictive narratives; setting up staged scenes in their actual dwellings. Since 1979, Ballen has published eight books and won almost a dozen awards worldwide. In 2008 he set up The Roger Ballen Foundation in order to promote photography education and bring applicable cultural programming to South Africa. He remains one of South Africa’s national artistic treasures. OAKAZINE had the honor of talking to Roger Ballen a bit about his past, present, and future. Interview after the jump. — Text by Marlo Kronberg. Portrait of Roger by Marguerite Rossouw
What is your name, where are you from, and what do you do as an occupation?
My name is Roger Franklin Ballen and I live in Johannesburg, South Africa. I am a photographer/artist and a geologist
Do any aspects of growing up in New York still influence your output? If so, what?
There are infinite aspects of growing up in New York that have influenced my work. Most importantly I was introduced to photography through my mother’s involvement in Magnum and her photography Gallery started in the 1960’s
When did you first start taking your own pictures? What was your earliest subject matter?
I started taking serious photographs in 1968. I was quite interested in capturing various aspects of the Civil Rights era and Vietnam protests. In addition, many of my images during this time were of older men.
Prior to becoming a photographer you worked as a geologist. How does your geology background inform your approach to photography?
My work is fundamentally psychological. Both in photography and geology my preoccupation has been to peer into the interior; to break through the surface and enter a place that is unexplored and mysterious.
Why did you move to South Africa? What was the hardest part of assimilating to that culture?
I visited South Africa in 1974 after travelling by land from Cairo to Cape Town. In 1982, I moved permanently to Johannesburg after finishing a Ph.D and marrying a South African woman. At this time, I was offered a very interesting job in the mineral business. Life in the eighties and nineties in South Africa was quite insular and in many ways I felt isolated from contemporary life. Furthermore, the political situation was quite precarious and almost impossible for me to identify with in any way.
Who is the most interesting person you’ve ever photographed and why?
Every time I take a photograph I am capturing an aspect of myself. Each image is a piece of me. Ultimately, I am quite mysterious to myself. There is no other human being that I find more interesting than Roger Ballen.
What is an interesting, little-known behind-the-scenes story of one of your photos?
Perhaps my most well-known image is Dresie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal. Dresie worked outside in the Garden and as a result had a dirty shirt while Casie worked inside and consequently had clean clothes.
How did you first come into contact with the rural people that featured in Platteland and Dorps? How would you describe their culture in a few sentences?
During the time that I was working as a geologist I came into contact with the rural people that were featured in Platteland and Dorps. Many of the rural people during the 1980’s and early 90s felt alienated and marginalized from events taking place in the cities of South Africa. A substantial amount of these individuals had grave concerns about their future.
How has your relation to human subjects changed over the years?
Up until nearly 2003 nearly all my images contained human faces. For the last eight years the human subject has almost disappeared from my images.
A lot of your pictures feature primitive, child-like stick drawings on walls which gives them the dizzily insane feel of outsider art. What draws you to these sorts of drawings?
It is impossible to know what draws me to these types of drawings. Why do some people prefer red over green?
Why is it important for your work to be in black and white?
First of all I am not drawn to color photography. I am part of the last generation that has grown up with black and white photography. I have been totally committed to this art form and have been passionate towards it for over forty years. My images are abstract and minimalistic; and it is ultimately impossible to separate the art form of black and white from the meaning of my images.
What sort of response do you hope to elicit in viewers?
It is my ultimate hope that my photographs will bury themselves deep inside the psyche of the viewers of my images.
Does the theatrical or filmic influence your work at all? If so, how?
There is almost nothing other than taking photographs that influences my work.
What is your favorite place to photograph in Johannesburg?
My last three projects have been in particular buildings in Johannesburg. During these periods these were my favorite places.
Do you like films? If so, what are some of your favorites?
I like film and will be working on films on my latest work. It has been very difficult to keep up with the creative films in Johannesburg as these type of films have not found a venue there. I was very fond of films by Robert Bresson, Carl Dreyer, and Japanese directors from the 60’s and 70’s.
Who are some interesting South African photographers/artists?
There are a whole host of interesting South African photographers and artists. I would rather not name them for the sake of excluding some
Top five influences on your work.
Nature, dreams, my own photographs, primitive art, introspection
What has been your personal favorite body of photos to work on?
It is impossible to say; I have been passionately involved in every important series that I have worked on.
Tell me about the work you do with the Roger Ballen Foundation, what your mission is, and what the most rewarding results of that project have been.
The purpose of my Foundation is to increase the aesthetic awareness of photography in South Africa. The Foundation has sponsored courses, lectures, and exhibitions. Many individuals who have participated in these events have communicated to me that these programs played a major role in their lives,
Your career highlight.
My career highlights have always been bound up in taking powerful images.
Advice to young photographers.
Work hard, be disciplined, take photographs for yourself not for the market, and find subjects that you feel passionate about. Do not take photographs for fame or fortune.
What’s next for Roger Ballen?
My next book will feature birds in a Roger Ballen world. The images are very complex and hard to define with words; there are numerous references to painting and sculpture. I have been working on this project for nearly three years and hope to produce a book of this work in the fall of 2012.
Make up your own question and answer it.
Who is Roger Ballen? His essence is best found in his photographs.