Journeying through Roger Ballen’s photographic world leaves Aditya Nair in a dream state. Warning: You are about to step into the world of absurdism. Leave your sanity behind.
Three years ago, I was thrown headfirst into the world of Roger Ballen’s photography. My introduction to his work was a music video called I Fink You Freeky, by a South African rap trio, Die Antwoord. Visceral, haunting, surreal… even if the three images on this page constitute all you you have seen of Roger’s work, you already know that these words don’t do them any justice.
Roger Ballen’s photographs have an incredible ability to look set up and utterly spontaneous at the same time. They demand your attention from the first glance and are relentless in their weirdness.
Let Your Mind Wander
The longer you spend looking at these photographs the more interesting every tiny detail becomes… the more interpretations your mind creates. For Roger, “The best photographs don’t comprise one or two or three or four or five elements. They integrate thousands of elements at one time. My goal ultimately is to create a very strong intense formal image.”
Listening to Roger talk about his images was an oddly fun experience. When he spoke of the series, he was no longer a photographer talking about his creation. Instead, he often sounded like a professor well-versed in Ballen-esque photography. “If I had to describe my images I would say that they are formally simple and complex in their meaning.”
“André Kertész was an artist first and a photographer second. He made me realize that photography could do more than document.” —Roger Ballen
The Beginning of the Aesthetic
Roger probably has one of the best and envious introductions to photography that I have heard. In the 1960s, his mother joined Magnum as a photo editor. “She frequently worked with photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Elliot Erwitt and André Kertész. They sent her books, prints and would drop by home quite often,” he says in a straightforward tone. “I was inundated by beautiful images from a very young age.” As a resulted Roger developed a strong formal photographic technique, which when combined with his penchant for the absurd, has come to define his visual style.
Despite falling in love with the medium early on, Ballen “emerged” as a photographer only after he was fifty years old. He credits his strong, recognisable aesthetic style to this late emergence. “I had been doing photography for 30 years before I began making money from it. Since I was in Johannesburg, away from the photographic community, I didn’t know what the latest trends were or what galleries were looking for. This distance has helped me photograph whatever I wanted, the way I wanted.”
From Photographer to Artist
Outland is perhaps Roger’s seminal work. The motifs, use of wires, cracks on the wall… even people’s odd relationship with their pets that are seen in Outland can be seen in his earlier works. “The initial images in Outland, they have a documentary style to them that is similar to my previous series Platteland. However, around 1997, I started thinking of myself as more than just a photographer… as an artist-photographer.”
From 1986–2000, the period during which Platteland and Outland were photographed, South African society was in turmoil and uncertainty. In 1984, the National Party, which was the ruling white government, passed the Apartheid legislations. It gave white people more privileges while curtailing the rights of the black inhabitants . Under Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress came to power in 1994, abolishing this legislation.
This led to insecurity amongst the white community. The people who Roger photographed at that time, lived on the fringes of South African society and were unsure of their ability to survive without the privileges of Apartheid.
“It was a transitional period, while society tried to come to a status quo. You can see that in many of the subjects. They weren’t confident in their demeanour.”
However, in his books, Ballen writes that he is not concerned with documenting the decline of colonist ideas of supremacy or even depicting the plight of the marginalised white minority. For him, his subjects are protagonists in a theatrical drama.
A Psychological Take
Despite his work being deeply rooted in the political history of South Africa, Roger says he isn’t a socio-political photographer. “I was always trying to deal with more psychological and human issues through my images.” He has a degree in psychology and often refers to Karl Jung when discussing certain aspects of his images. However, he did face a lot of political backlash, even a few death threats. “The white population I was photographing didn’t like to be seen in this frivolous way. They wanted to be seen as people who could shape of their own reality. However, it was their reality that shapes them.”
“The pictures that leave you feeling there’s something mysterious about what’s out there, are the ones that have done their job.” —Roger Ballen
He continues, “With Outland, I started to develop an aesthetic that revealed to me important aspects and absurdities of the human condition and the way people deal with their realities.”
I am reminded of William Faulkner’s quote, “The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.” This appears to be Roger’s photographic philosophy as well. He puts it slightly differently, “I am tasked with bringing the interior to the exterior.”
The Light Comes from the Darkness
Unsurprisingly, his images are often accused of being dark. Roger welcomes this criticism as a good thing. “When psychologists like Karl Jung or Joseph Campbell referred to the dark side, they were talking about the side of themselves that people repressed.”
As a result, “I hope that my photos will let people reconcile with the fragments of their inner self that they haven’t come to terms with. I have often said that the light comes from the dark. I don’t really understand why people are bothered by the dark. In the Jungian sense, darkness is what people fear inside them. Dark is enigmatic.”
To view more of Roger Ballen’s work, you can visit www.rogerballen.com
Outland: The book is a powerful portrayal of whites on the fringes of South African society. It is the culmination of over 20 years of work for geologist turned artist-photographer Roger Ballen. The soon to be launched the second edition of the book will have 45 new images, that were previously unseen.
This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of Better Photography.