The New York photographer Roger Ballen has spent decades photographing the most extreme fringes of South African society. But this is not a documentary project, but a dark cavity into our collective psychology. “I started to work with the subjects in a theatrical, performative way,” Ballen says in our exclusive video interview. “I was there to transform reality.”
Ballen is a hugely contentious figure in South Africa. Making his home there in the early eighties, Ballen began to provide the world with powerfully provocative portraits of marginalised, poverty-stricken communities – an uncomfortable reminder of the failings of the Apartheid system.
Ballen was at first rooted in the socio-documentary tradition. But then he began to evolve. His photographs began to step beyond the role of witness into a complex portrayal of documentary fiction.
Here, poor whites, transplanted to the cities, take on theatrical role-plays within the pictures, acting out their position as social outsiders in an interplay with Ballen’s own symbolistic leanings.
Removed from any established use-value as social documentation, the disturbing photographs ask uncomfortable questions of the viewer. As the book’s introduction inquires: “One is forced to wonder whether they are exploited victims, colluding directly in their own ridicule, or newly empowered and active participants within the drama of their representation.”
The photographer has consistently answered critics accusing him of crude parody with the defence, seemingly unconvincing at first, that he is interested in purely aesthetic concerns, rather than the representation of a community.
“I really do not think of myself as a documentary photographer anymore,” he once said. “For at least the last six years, my goal has been to depict different aspects about South Africa. I am perhaps making some sort of statement about the people here, but that really has not been one of my primary goals. My motivation is aesthetic.
“Earlier on, when I was making socio-documentary work (featured in four previous books; Boyhood published in 1978, Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa, 1986, Platteland: Images from Rural South Africa, 1994, and Cette Afrique-là, 1997), the question I started asking myself was, what is the essence of these places, what is the element that makes these places so aesthetically different? The questions are different now and so the pictures are in a way trying to make more universal statements.”
Outland also includes examples of Ballen’s earlier work, taken over the past two decades, and his dedication to the same subject matter over the years, combined with his continual use of black and white and harsh, direct flash, provides a fascinating barometer not just for the changing status of rural whites in South Africa, but also the values in photographic practice itself.
Like a number of contemporary practitioners, such as the Ukrainian Citibank prize-winner Boris Mikhailov and US photographer Phillip-Lorca diCorcia, Ballen’s approach challenges the established interplay between photographer, subject and viewer, disassociating the images from any notion of objective representation of the real.
“Ultimately, nearly everything we see and do is subjective,” says Ballen. ‘The problem is that most of the world has been brainwashed into thinking that certain pictures represent certain values and ideals about the world. So you have something like The Family of Man exhibition (organised by Edward Steichen, Director of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1955), taking a humanistic approach to present a vision of human dignity – and that is as much brainwashing as somebody taking photographs for Vanity Fair or one of the fashion magazines saying ‘this is beauty’.”
Ballen has been closely connected to photography since childhood. His mother was Adrienne Ballen, a picture editor, an associate member of the Magnum agency, and founder of one of the first ever pure photography galleries, the Photography House in New York. Early on he was attracted and influenced by the enigmatic qualities of the work of Hungarian-born photographer André Kertész.
During the seventies, he travelled the world, producing his first photographic book and working as a geologist, establishing a successful mining business that today provides with him with a certain amount of financial independence.
Ballen’s first book on South Africa, Dorps, was a Walker Evans-style essay on the rural Platteland towns, documenting a vanishing way of life full of “decrepit portents of grandeur and remnants of unfulfilled promises.”
Despite the conventional approach, the photographs in Dorps portray a psychological landscape, fascinated by the isolation of the communities and how that was reflected in the remote outlook of the inhabitants.
“After the war with the British, half of the white population was impoverished,” says Ballen. “If you look at the history a little closer, the reason the apartheid system was created, and why these people voted in a right wing government, was because they were very insecure about their position and they wanted to make sure that they were not threatened by other groups of society. During apartheid a lot of these people were taken care of, and now they are living on the margins. They are in a state of flux at the moment.”
Ballen has made this subject his own over the past two decades. During this time, his pictures have focused closer in upon his subjects, and “increasingly towards and exploration of my own inferiority.” In 1995, he published Platteland, met by damning criticism in South Africa. The photographs presented a direct, unsentimental picture of dispossessed whites living a bare existence in a remote time-warp, most evidenced by the obvious inter-breeding of some of the subjects.
Shortly after publishing the book, Ballen rethought his approach after one of his subjects began to ‘improvise’ in front of the lens and he became struck by the potential of this direction. “Before when I met them I would get them to pose in the environment in the way it was,” he says.
“Beginning in 1994 I got them interacting in their environment, changing the room and transforming it, so it became a theatre in a way. I feel much more like a painter than a photographer right now. I am using a camera, but I am not using it in the traditional way as an observer.
“I am trying to paint with things to create new levels of photographic reality with the interactions with my subjects. You could call these installation photographs. What makes it interesting is that I am not in an antiseptic environment. I am in a real, live environment. A difficult environment in difficult places. I am doing these things there, rather than bringing them to the theatre or some sort of studio. That is why people find them very strange and hard to place.”
If anything, it is this difficulty within the viewer to categorise or judge the image that is central to Ballen’s motivation. His work has continually turned the screw, seeking deeper, darker resonances in the photographs, challenging the viewer to find their own subjective responses and question the role of the photographs’ aesthetics in eliciting a response.
“What makes good art good?” asks Ballen. “Millions of pages of philosophy have been written about this, but ultimately you are looking at it yourself. Why does this picture stay with me? Why does it make an impact and what does it say about me as a human being? Why does it excite or inspire me? That is something of value and from a personal view, and that is what makes art challenging. It transforms you if you let it come in, rather than you saying, ‘Who gave this guy the right to take this photograph?’
“My question would be, why are you disturbed? What is bothering you deep down? Maybe you should look into your own psyche and try and understand this, rather than putting yourself into a state of denial. The pictures are strong because they get inside. They make a statement that is deep in the stomach. They are not aiming for the intellect, they take you to another place. Ultimately what I am saying – and I am putting my own head on the line, which I have been doing for the past few years anyway – is that the pictures are self-portraits. The subject is my state of mind.”