One of the most influential and important photographic artists of the 21st century, Roger Ballen’s “documentary fiction” photographs are often leaving their viewer speechless. Ballen was born in New York in 1950 but for over 30 years he has lived and worked in South Africa, were his previous carrier as a geologist led him to. With his camera then he begun exploring the hidden and dark sides of small South African towns. The artist now works with several mediums such as: film, installation, theatre, sculpture, painting and drawing. Here in in conversation with Maria Abramenko on life, death and other archetypes.
You have been working with focus on portraits over the last 50 years. How do you find your locations and subjects?
There is no formula for finding my human subjects. In some cases I have known people who I thought might work out as subjects and for decades I might not be able to complete a satisfactory image. On other occasions, I have consummated a satisfactory image within minutes of meeting the subject. Most importantly, every aspect of my images is ultimately a subject as I consider my images to be organic. Furthermore, for the last two decades there are far more animals than people in my images. During some of my projects such as “Boarding House” and “Asylum of the Birds” I worked for many years in the same location. In some of my other projects I found locations which were compatible with my aesthetic and where I could successfully interact with the subjects.
There are usually lots of animals represented in your work, is there any emblematic meaning to this? What is your perspective on the connection between animals and humans?
Human and animal behaviour are intricately linked. Most of what we experience as human is a product of evolution which is embedded in primal drives and instincts. It has always been of great interest to me to reveal the crossover between the two. On the other hand, humanity is alienated from nature and this divisive relationship is made clear in many of my images.
When analyzing your artworks I feel there is always a strong contrast and duality represented. How would you describe this?
My images are layered in meanings most of which are visual in nature but comprehensible to the subconscious mind. On many occasions, there are opposing meanings that pervade the imagery which make it particularly difficult to simply define meaning other than to use such words as Ballenesque or perhaps enigmatic.
What can you tell us about your personal experience gained along the years by meeting all the people you have photographed?
There is no simplistic way of describing my experience with my subjects over the 53 years of taking photographs. Nevertheless, I believe this interaction has better enabled me to better understand the human condition.
Not everyone knows that you use to set all the science in your works by involving your own drawings and sculptures. Could you tell us more about the concepts and techniques used, maybe give us some examples?
Beginning in 2002 or thereabouts drawings, sculpture and installations began to pervade my images. Since then, the relationship between all these different artistic media have characterized the so-called Ballenesque aesthetic. Most importantly, these different medias have to be integrated and made coherent through photography.
What are you currently working on?
I photographed exclusively in black and white for nearly 50 years. Since 2017 nearly all my photographs have been shot in color. This media has opened up a whole new aesthetic to me and I hope to produce a publication containing these images over the coming years. During the last few months Hatje Cantz published Roger the Rat which documents a man who absurdly believes he is a rat. Also during this same time, Powerhouse books released “The Earth will come to Laugh and Feast”, a cooperative project integrating my imagery with the words of the important Italian poet Gabriele Tinti. Lastly The Roger Ballen Foundation built a Museum in Johannesburg South Africa which will exhibit art that is sourced from Africa, psychological in nature and be linked to the Ballenesque aesthetic.