Roger Ballen lifts lid on Asylum of the Birds

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“I hadn’t really thought about making videos before the I Fink U Freeky video with [South African rave/rap duo] Die Antwoord,” says Roger Ballen ( “I’m a black-and-white stills photographer and it didn’t occur to me that I could make a video alongside what I was doing. But that video was so successful and brought my aesthetic to many people, so it made sense to make one for myself.” 

From 2008 to 2013, American photographer Ballen, who has lived in South Africa for more than 30 years, embarked on a body of work that focuses on birds and explores the notion of ‘asylum’ as both a refuge and a prison. He photographed his subjects at a house in a secret location on the outskirts of Johannesburg, inside which people, animals and birds live side by side. It is here that he created his bizarre and fantastical worlds.

In the images, caged heads and birds are positioned against nightmarish, collage-like backgrounds, and mannequins and headless torsos assume contorted positions. The results are theatrical, stifling and unsettling. Each image is intricately constructed, mixing together installation, sculpture, drawing and photography.

Ballen began shooting footage inside the house and at other locations in and around Johannesburg in August last year. He and director Ben Crossman shot the video handheld using a Canon 5D camera.

“We didn’t have a script and none of the shots was rehearsed,” he says. “There’s something spontaneous about the film – it feels rough and edgy. We didn’t want it to be smooth and perfect-looking. Ben understood the reality I’ve been trying to create and was able to transform it in the video.”

There are four parts to the six-minute film, which can be viewed online at, Ballen says. “In the first part, I’m on the road talking about the house, and then I arrive at the building, which is full of birds, animals and people. You see me making photographs and talking about them, and in the last part people kill, burn and eat the chickens. It’s a film that takes you to a place physically and psychologically.”

The video complements the images by immersing the viewer into a parallel reality, says Ballen. “It explores similar themes to the book – animals, people and the human condition – but on another level. Because a video has sound, you can expand what you’re trying to do. I want to give people an idea of the way I work, and to document the landscapes and the city I’ve worked in for all these years. The video has both a documentary and artistic purpose.

“One thing I learned from doing I Fink U Freeky is that video is a tremendous way of getting your work out in today’s world,” he adds. “But the video is an artwork too, and it can stand on its own. Still photography takes you to one place and film takes you to another. They complement each other well.”

Asylum of the Birds is published by Thames & Hudson (, priced at £32.