Bombay Showcase

Who’s Afraid of Roger Ballen?

Grotesque. Bacon-esque. Ballen-esque. Rarely is an artist’s aesthetic recognisable enough to be used as an adjective, as descriptive of a particular style, as a way to identify the presence of a certain energy that resides in each of their works. Roger Ballen, a photographer who has been making pictures for almost 50 years has achieved this status in contemporary photography in the last decade by the creation of a universe that attempts to pervade every part of our psyche. For 33 of those years, he has used the same camera, “squeezing the essence” out of his subjects within the confines of his square frames. For 20 of the 33 years, he has only taken pictures in one city. Ballen’s theatre is Johannesburg, the judicial capital of South Africa.

The streets, the people on the streets, the people on the margins have always been popular subjects for documentary photographers. Poverty, illness, violence; these are not new concerns. Ballen’s older images, his work from the 90s and early 2000s, also stems from marginal spaces, photographs that are full of people affected by poverty and illness and violence. In his first book on South Africa, Dorps: Small Towns of South Africa (1986), he travels through the small towns and into the countryside to show us the homes, churches and even the bedrooms, the strange assortment of personal objects that represent this old Africa. In the second book from the post-apartheid period Platteland (1994), we see portrait after portrait of the poor white man, those who have lived their entire lives in the bush, beginning to lose all their bearings in a new nation of dominant black politics.

But it is in the next three works that Ballen finds his true muse: Johannesburg. Over the next decade, three books hit the markets that have made him a pillar of photographic history: Outland (2000), Shadow Chamber (2005),and Boarding House (2009); published at a time in which photobooks were still part of an almost underground market, with little of the frenzy and fetish of the kind that they enjoy today. Photographers inspired by these works had seen little, if anything, that combined reality and fiction in such dark and unexpected ways. Ballen had sought out the hiding places of those with almost no relationship left to modern society to produce these works. It is here that the Ballenesque form, the broken relationship between the man and the natural world, the catastrophic claustrophobic conditions of contemporary society, the destruction, the alienation from our own psyche, comes to fore.

The pictures look nothing like any Africa, or poor house, or slum, or gutter that we have ever seen. Man meets animal, becomes outcast, loses sight of the centre, lives unseen, almost unfelt by those who make up respectable class categories: working class, middle class, upper class. There is no defining the characters, no categorising that is possible, of what we encounter here.

This lack of definition is pushed even further in the two bodies of work that are being shown the Sunaparanta Goa Centre for Arts this month onwards: Asylum of the Birds (2014) and Theatre of Apparitions. They show us a new side of Ballen – photographer as actor. In the videos produced along with the books of the work, Ballen is in front of the camera as never before. Not just with camera in hand, but as mad director extraordinaire.

Edited excerpts from an interview with Ballen on his journey.

Last time you were in India you spoke about the travel, over land, that you did in your early 20s. Why did you decide to stay in South Africa? Were you in search of a new home? Did something happen existentially?

When you go back to the early 70s, it was the period of the counter culture, the hippie period. I graduated from Berkeley – which was the centre of this in the United States – and I was quite anti-Western, anti-corporation, anti-a-lot-of-things and feeling quite alienated from the United States.

My mother had died and I couldn’t quite figure out what I wanted to do in life at age 22-23. I traveled the world and I ended up in the bottom of Africa, crossing Africa from Cairo to Capetown. The time that I spent there initially was very good, very positive, people took care of me and I found the culture quite suitable to my needs at the time because it was partly Western and partly African. On one side of the wall I could be an African and on the other side have a Western lifestyle even though there was this apartheid regime which again added an extra complexity, tension, an extra anxiety that I also found personally interesting to contemplate.

It was a small culture, and even is today. At a younger age, that seemed to matter a bit more. And then I married a South African woman. Also [it was] a good place to work in geology because South Africa is the richest country in the world minerologically. I met my wife, I was doing photos, I enjoyed my job, then I had children there, so it was everything,

And you lived there through a historic time.

I went through the end of apartheid… I was the product of a few phases – the Cold War, the counter culture, the fall of communism and now, the computer-electronic generation.

Your past work was more explicitly political. Platteland especially. The subject matter (the poor whites affected by the end of apartheid) was clearly identifiable and the person dominated the image. And now we see The Theatre of Apparitions where not much is physically identifiable or nameable. What is the relationship between your growth as an artist and this increasing abstraction in your work?

The thing is, a lot of people start with abstraction but if you haven’t laid the foundation for abstraction then your abstraction usually is meaningless. As the human being becomes more alienated, the human being’s experience is alien from the physical world around them in so many ways. This, to me – and I don’t know India, it may be has some differences then western societies – is part of the reason for such bad art being produced as the younger people don’t have physical experience, it’s all based on virtual reality.

When I was younger, the height of being a photographer was to take a camera and be in dangerous, confrontational places. By doing this, you got to know a lot about human nature, human behavior. I think this ultimately contributes to saying more in what you do. It’s a generalisation but I don’t think it’s far off the mark.

If you look at the work, if you follow through my career, there is an organic relationship to the way it happens. If you look at Plattleand, or Outland, you’ll see that it has a documentary side to it but it was more about the human condition and people’s inability to deal with chaos around them. In South Africa at the time there was chaos and revolution but that was metaphorically made into human beings’ inability to handle the chaos around them. My goal was to reveal something about the human condition. Being in South Africa might have prompted that but the reason that those pictures still stay on the wall and people relate to them is because they have something universal about them and people don’t have to know anything about South Africa to identify with those photographs.

How does that change your daily life? In Outland or Shadow Chamber every day you were entering spaces that may be familiar but they were dangerous spaces, you were surrounded by a physical energy that you constantly had to be aware of and watching. It was an unpredictable environment. So when your work moves into the studio, is there a shift?

But see, the thing is, I’m in psychologically edgy places. And that’s always been the key. I went to those physically dangerous places to challenge my psyche, to find places in my own psyche that somehow or another correlated to the physical danger, and to come up with pictures that were on the edge. And it’s the same thing with Theatre of Apparitions, those pictures are on the edge of the mind. So whatever I did has always been a psychological journey. The reason I did all those things was to challenge my own psyche, it wasn’t necessarily to challenge my physical masculinity, it was to challenge my psychological being. I was finding those places in my own mind that I hadn’t found before. I’ve been to a place in my mind that I hadn’t discovered before. It’s always been that, even when I did [the series] Boyhood, it’s always been that.

When I read about Ballenesque (the 350 page book that Ballen will release next year), it stirred a question about your relationships to the great epics in literature. Because it seemed like an epic project that you were now working towards. And because of the universal archetypes that emerge in your photographs again and again.

When I was younger, I was very well read in all fields, from English literature to psychology to philosophy to theatre to psychology. I was very passionate about reading and getting to know the world in my late teens and twenties. I think they all had some influence, whether it was Conrad, whether it was Shakespeare, whether it was Beckett, whether it was Pinter, whether it was Dostoevsky, whoever it was. They all added up in a way.

The core Roger Ballen was interested in these things because he was Roger Ballen; he wasn’t interested in reading Superman [comics] or MAD magazine so much or reading gangster stories. So that was my core, always interested in my particular way of expressing the world from [the age of] 14-15. So that’s why I was reading those books and that’s why I was interested in the first place because my core had that inclination.

I think the second thing, which is very important, is that you can read every book in the world but it doesn’t help you take a good picture. A picture is about visual relationships and all the words and all the theories don’t help you when you get to take the picture. The picture is about finding visual relationships that express themselves in a visual way. Grasp that concept. There are great people in philosophy or literature but they cannot even begin to take a picture and vice versa.

Nothing is more real than Nothing , Roger Ballen’s dual series from Asylum of The Birds and The Theatre of Apparitions are on display at Sunaparanta – Goa Centre, for the Arts, Panjim till December 20.

Alisha Sett is a Mumbai-based freelance writer

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Printable version | Jun 13, 2021 5:18:58 AM |

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