Roger Ballen / Barry W Hughes

Roger Ballen: In Retrospect

originally published in HotShoe magazine, issue 197, 2017
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I suppose it’s one of those things of where to start, Dorps is always your starting point…

Well I first came to South Africa 1974. I hitch-hiked from Cairo to Capetown, and I was always interested in photography, did a lot of it, and after that I made a trip from Istanbul to New Guinea by land. Then I went back to the United States and did a Phd in geology and then I came back to South Africa on January 1st 1982. Now I’ve been doing photography since the 1960s. My mother worked at Magnum and started one of the first photo galleries in the States with a few other Magnum people. So I grew with photography, it wasn’t like all of a sudden I became interested in it at age 30 or 32 when I came back to South Africa.

Dorps, I have always told people, was the most important part of my project for a number of reasons; one: I started using a square format camera; two: I started to go inside people’s houses, before that all my pictures were outside; three: I found some of the motifs, such as wires and I guess the type of subjects I would work with for the rest of my career. It is interesting, when I graduated from Berkley in 1972 and did a film called Ill Wind, that film depicted a person that was like a Beckett character, an outsider. So it wasn’t just when I came to South Africa that I got associated with outsiders.

But you know during the Dorps period, because I started using a flash, I literally and metaphorically went inside people’s houses and I started to make more psychological-based images, and it was really the foundation for all my later work. I guess my purpose at the time, which was more of a documentary purpose in a way, was to capture the unique aesthetics of these small towns. You know they were undergoing a period of change; at one time there was a colonial grandeur in Africa that these places symbolised. They had churches and Victorian architecture that people felt proud of, that were able to withstand the forces of Africa by just being there. But by the time I was photographing these places in the early 80s, colonialism was basically finished. There was no longer any grandeur left in these places, they were falling apart. I guess that’s also been something that I’ve delved within my work over the last thirty-four years – the issue of whether chaos or order rules the universe. This is the period when I began to feel that chaos is prevalent and certainly I haven’t changed my mind since.


So in a lot of ways, you actually started off then, photographing a shadow of a former self?

Yeah you’re right, it was a shadow of a former self, a figment of a former self, a relic of a former self.


That goes a long way to describing colonialism, doesn’t it? It’s always a projected image, it’s an aspirational thing that rarely ever plays out to be a long-standing reality in the end.

I guess we have two forces that are parallel to each other but slightly different, that I came in contact with when I was younger. There was colonialism, when I travelled in my five-year trip, colonialism was petering out. Most of the countries got their independence, but there was definitely still a strong element of a colonialism past in a lot of Africa and some parts of Asia.  Then there was part of a counterculture that I understood at the time. There was something that we still refer to as Imperialism. That’s what we deal with today, like economic imperialism, corporate imperialism and everything else that is involved with that. That wasn’t part of South African culture at the time. You had three pervading forces: you had the colonial past, it was an English colony for many years, then it was in the middle of Apartheid. Then you had forces from outside, whether they were political forces or economic forces playing some role in the country at the time, but not to the degree that you find now. Now South Africa is a part of a global network like most places in the world. These places were really isolated, South Africa was really isolated – I was really isolated.

So this is an important thing, because I sort of disappeared when I was younger. When I traveled Africa I didn’t use a phone for nine months. Somebody living in this environment today can’t get away from a phone for nine seconds let alone nine months.  So you know it was a disappearance, and I think, as we talk it’s quite important to realise the aesthetic I developed over these years; a lot of it I attribute to the fact that it was me in an isolated environment, where I developed this aesthetic sort of pondering on myself and meditating on who I was and it was full of self-criticism; it was done in a isolated way. I didn’t really have that many people to talk to about what I was doing. The culture here certainly didn’t like what I was doing and I didn’t really have anybody to talk to about my photography, so it was really a passion and a hobby. I started doing this in the 60s and only started selling pictures in 2000, so for over thirty years I never really sold a picture.


Do you think that’s where some aspect of the wires in your pictures came from? Relating to telephone wires or barbed wire fences by the sides of roads that you saw while traveling?

I think the wires have two distinct meanings with a formal relationship that the wire linked one part of the picture to the next, so it was like a line in the picture, filling negative space. And then the content part of it, what does a wire mean, even in those days, a wire could symbolise technology, or forces that you have no control over. It could mean all sorts of things to all sorts of people, but I’m always very reluctant to say one thing or another. Anything I do could have multiple meanings, sometimes opposite meanings. But commonly said, it symbolises a number of things, but as you mention it could be an alienating force too.

There was a wire period and the wire period became very prevalent in the Outland period. I found the first few wire pictures in Dorps, I found the wires in people’s homes, but the real wire period came about during the Outland period where every picture had a wire in it.


The wire motif reminds me of the naked light bulb hanging from a single wire in the rooms of Francis Bacon’s paintings. It’s a very similar thing, isn’t it?

Yeah, if you look at the new Outland book, and on the back cover you’ll see a picture called Dejected and you’ll see something parallel to Francis Bacon in that character and those wires.


This leads me to something that has struck me about your work: there are only two people I know who are able to portray human limbs in that very distinctive manner, and that’s you and Bacon.

Thanks. You know as time goes on those limbs become more important because as you go from the beginning of 2003 the limbs take the place of the faces. Limbs start to appear and be reflections on a state of mind in a way, so you’re right, the limbs become crucial to the meaning of the picture.


So you’re seeing that the mind doesn’t need the rest of the body anymore, it’s just talking purely through the thing that makes the gesture and the gesture itself.

Right, you’re absolutely right, the joints become the faces. It’s trying to contrast a two dimensional reality with a three dimensional reality, with the real and the unreal, and at some point in all of the pictures it’s not clear what’s what.


In that confusion your pictures gradually become dioramas and those layers start to blend one on top of the other, where you’re not quite sure where the flat mask is, or if its a three dimensional mask, where it’s a life size drawing that’s been cutout and where the figure is in the space of the photograph. How does this come about?

I have no idea where it’s going to go, I never start with any ideas. I never use words as a basis of what I’m doing, and I never have a preconceived idea of what I’m going to do, because to me the most important thing in the picture is how these forms fit together, and inorganic when merged with the inorganic become organic. So basically I’m there to create a life, that’s the key. I’m there to take something and make it alive, and I have to find a way in creating that electricity in those pictures, that can only be found by being there and placing things and transforming things. That’s why there is no point for me to think about anything until I’m there.


So, do you actually prevent yourself from thinking of it beforehand or is it just the way you work?

I just don’t bother, it’s a waste of my energy and I like to have a relaxed mind. Like with an animal, you see what an animal does when it’s fed? It goes to sleep, it does nothing; it doesn’t waste energy. You see this is one of the rules of the animal world, animals don’t waste energy: energy is precious. I would be putting myself in a situation with no purpose because I understand what I do and I guess I have a confidence, this is an important part, when I go in there and reach the place I’m going to photograph that I’m going to do what I have to do. So I don’t have any anxieties either. It’s like an interior confidence because I’ve been at this for 50 years already, so I know I’m going to get there.


That must be a comfortable place to be?

It’s always difficult. I’ll never say it’s easy. I think when you see a good athlete, a good athlete has to be confident about what they are doing, can’t sit there being nervous trying to hit a golf ball. It’s like your inner mind is such that it’s able to find direction no matter how much wind is out there. That’s why photography is difficult because there’s no limitations on it, there’s a million billion things to point a camera at. Most people don’t know how to make anything, most people just point and shoot and then if they think they’re any good they talk about what they did, but the picture doesn’t give any semblance of having any order to it. The key thing is being able to create a coherency in the image that has complexity, simplicity, and form at the same time. Complexity of meaning, and simplicity of form, that’s what I would say my work is about.


It’s one of those things where you often quote Beckett as an inspiration for talking about complicated things in the simplest of ways.

When I did the Outland book, people said ‘oh you must have been inspired by Diane Arbus or Weegee or somebody’ and I said look, I thought they were great photographers, but they didn’t really play much of a role in the meaning of these pictures. I have said that Beckett was the closest thing to having a parallel meaning to what I was doing and saying in the Outland project.


I have always drawn that correlation with Platteland, that it was full of Beckettian characters.

Well you’re right because Beckettian characters don’t pretend to be able to order their lives, so they are at the mercy of the forces and they have total acceptance of that. They have no motivation in a way.

Their motivation has been neutralised, and I guess there are a couple of correlations between Beckett and what I was doing. The first was the sets were really simple, the sets and the writing were really clear, simple and precise, reduced. Those were things that came to my mind, and there’s comedy and tragedy at the same time. I guess ultimately the symbolism of the character because they represented human absurdity in a different way, because most people you meet are resisting the concept of absurdity. They feel they can ultimately create a meaning that goes beyond the human condition. They don’t feel they are at the mercy of a human condition, where in Beckett the characters don’t have that attribute to them, they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are. And whatever they are is clearly revealed in an absurd way. You see in those theatre sets the people sitting there are portrayed in a certain way, where there’s a head coming out of a hole sitting on a road looking into the horizon.


The famous twins, Casie and Dresie, who were those characters and what happened to them?

They were twins who lived in the western part of the country and Dresie worked in the garden, so he had more dirt on his shirt. I was with my children at the time and they were bored, so they wanted to go into town to get some ice cream or something, so I drove around the village for a bit and I saw Dresie in the garden and he had an intensity to him. It was really sunny like it is normally in South Africa. The mother was sitting there and I said to her is it alright if I photograph your son, she was so happy she said go do it. I remember putting him against the wall, bending over and suddenly on the left side a shadow was coming towards me and there was Casie. I took this picture and I didn’t have any expectation and it’s not my favorite picture, but it is my most famous picture. It’s a little bit frustrating because every time I have an exhibition twenty years later they ask if they could use the twins picture as the poster. I think twenty years have gone by and they still only want to use the twins! I went and saw them at one point in time, even on the walls of their rooms they have all these newspaper clippings of themselves and I gave them photographs, which would go on the wall. They seem to like the idea and were proud of the publicity. I was accused of things, but the people they accused me of exploiting were so happy that it happened, so it’s funny.


You gave them something they would never have otherwise had.

I made them famous and there’s nothing wrong with the way they look, what’s wrong with anything about them? They look a little different, so what, who cares.


It’s the difference that shocks people.

It shocks people because they have a primitive look to them and it resonates with them. They have an essence to them that the primitive brain responds to in some way, for some reason. If part of the brain didn’t respond to them in that type of way, the picture wouldn’t have achieved what it achieved, it’s clear. It’s archetypal.


That’s the essence of the uncanny isn’t it? The strange, but familiar.

Yeah, nobody has used that word before and you hit it right on the dot.


With Platteland you start encountering peoples’ pets, then animals begin to show up in Outland, Shadow Chamber and take over in Asylum of the Birds and other projects. But I suppose there is this direct association all the time, that human beings are simply animals at the end of the day.

This is an important thing, that I always tell people. I think I always learn more about human behavior from animals than anything else. It’s always been an interesting topic of mine where humanity starts, and where animality begins and vice versa. Also the relationship between humanity, and not only where the personalities cross over, but what the fundamental relationship between humanity and the animal world is. It’s not always a very good one.


There are two images in Platteland where you have got the man and the maid, and I know you never like your work to be seen as a commentary on politics, but it’s hard, when talking about relationships between things, that there’s this image followed by a picture of someone with their pet. There’s this kind of subtext going on beyond the frame. How one race of people are treated almost like pets by the other.

This is a way of looking at it. So you know the pictures as I’ve said have multiple meanings and I always commonly state although more as time has gone on, if you can actually explain the picture by using words, with a more appropriate word other than ‘enigma’ then it’s probably a bad picture.  You see in the Man and Maid picture on the right hand side, what makes that picture in so many ways is the pin-up girl on the right hand side. It’s twisting the relationship between the white man and the black woman sitting on the left. Even if the picture was not taken during the Apartheid time in South Africa, the meaning of the picture would be clear.

But the story of that guy, so you are an aware, he was the son of the mayor of the town, and during that time you weren’t allowed to have sex with a black woman or any black person was allowed to live with a white person. So they didn’t know what to do with this guy who kept breaking this law, since his father was the mayor they moved him to the outside of the town a little bit, but he kept having affairs with these maids and this black woman. So they kept moving him out more and more and that was the last place I took that picture when he was further out and I don’t know what happened to him after that.


Another picture that is quite striking from Platteland is the boy with the guns. Apart from the twisted irony of the child carrying weapons, there is the appearance of the wall drawings.

See, the drawings on the wall were very important. I didn’t obviously do them. That was how the room was. This is a very, very important point, and crucial to my career, that the drawings came later; I mostly cared about photographing people’s houses where mostly children were allowed to draw on the walls of the house. So I photographed the boy with these drawings in the back and that’s sort of the process of how it started. It started in the houses of the countryside with the drawings all over the place and that’s how the drawings happened.


It certainly seems like a jump-off point for you.

It was the jump-off point. In the early 70s I had an intense period of painting for four or five months, so I always had an interest in painting and a bit of training, but it started to come back through the walls I photographed in these places, that’s how it all started. I kept extrapolating from that, extrapolating, extrapolating, extrapolating and eventually it became a style more than just a chance.


They are usually the best of devices that come along. As with the wire, something that’s already there, but it finds you, rather than you finding it.

You’re absolutely right. It wasn’t just a contrived idea. It was rooted in reality, and that was an important part to me; people just think that what’s there is something put there to make it work. It has to be rooted in the picture, rooted in the reality and have a deeper meaning to it. I tell people to go draw on the wall if you want, do what you want, so what, you have your drawing, now what? It’s just like you have to be able to interact with all sorts of content and form to create a reality in this, it took me thirty years of nonstop thinking, obsession, passion to get there.

This was the whole creative state of isolation until two things happened. In 1994 when Platteland became published and became a very famous book, I ended up with a lot of problems in South Africa. I was arrested a lot, had death threats, it was an unpleasant time for me. Nobody liked the book for what it stood for. It upset the status quo here on the left and the right. But for the first time, I got a pat on the back for my photography, people started noticing me, I had a show in the Royal Festival Hall in London and Southbank did a documentary on me. Then I scratched my head and thought maybe I should take this a little more seriously, so that was an important point and then I started the Outland project in 1995.

There was a huge difference between Outland and Platteland, the first thing was beginning in 1994 I never went back to the countryside to take pictures again. Since, 1994 everything has more or less been around Johannesburg. So I was working much more on a regular basis, and then beginning around 1997 I started seeing myself as an artist photographer, working in a theatrical way with the subjects so they sort of acted out, I acted out, told them what to do and they would do things spontaneous. It was never a straight line, but I started to see myself more interactive in the process. Then when Outland came out it became this famous book, won awards, and started to sell a lot of pictures and then that was it. Then I started to see this more as a career rather than a hobby. Before 2000, I had no idea about the market, or what was going on in the rest of the world, even though I should say that because as a young man I had real roots in photography, I understood the history of photography, so I wasn’t uneducated about photography. I was super-educated, super-aware about the history of photography, I knew all the great photographers in the 60s, you know I met Kertész, I met Cartier-Bresson, and the books were all over the house. Then when I got here the whole process was done in an isolating way. It was good in some ways.


The characters in Outland and everything it is, seems to be tied up in one Beckett quote, “We are all born mad, some remain so”. It’s one of those things you have often stated, about facing our own fears and facing the shadows and trying to understand things from a different point of view, the darker side of life, where each thing reflects the other.

Yeah, you are absolutely right, but even when you think of these concepts they become riddled with conceptual holes. I recently made a video called Theatre of the Mind. You know, I thought about it and everything is mind; that is the truth: everything is mind. So when we talk about the dark holes and the shadows with the same brain cells that are sitting enjoying a pizza, they are also the same that contemplate the dark side. It’s all about the brain, all about the mind, what is the mind? We don’t even have a clue. It’s all an illusion about the dark side. The dark side is a concept invented by the mind like any other concept. So it’s just something to ponder, because ultimately everything is just mind, I’m not the first one to figure this out, much smarter people have done so. This last video brought home a lot of things for me about the enigma of everything and I recently said in an interview, if your pictures could be on the same plane as that enigma, that’s the goal, that’s where the picture becomes good. The picture has the same enigma, of the enigma what is the mind. What is death, one of those concepts you can’t really realise, that has this enigmatic quality to it. Then you are probably saying something in the work.


It’s an indefinable truth.

Yes, indefinable truth, you’re right, you’re absolutely right. You can’t just go out and do that, that’s what people don’t understand, there’s no formula. So you say I want to create an indefinable truth, go ahead and do it. In the art field they take some dumb picture and define it through an essay why it’s an indefinable truth, but the work doesn’t reveal that.


There’s something you often mention too that came to mind recently when I was throwing out a lot of my own work, and it was the process of how I was going to do this, and asked the question can I repeat this? Everything I thought I could repeat I destroyed.

That’s the difference with so-called staged photography. When I’m asked if a picture is staged, if I can repeat the picture again, its staged, which probably means it’s a bad picture because people can’t believe in the reality of the picture, that my fingers are too much in the picture, they don’t believe in the reality of the event. In photography, those pictures seem not to have that much impact.


Yet when you work with still life, and it’s something that you’ve been doing increasingly, building those sets and working with those objects, it’s very difficult to communicate with an inanimate object isn’t it?

Very difficult; I wasn’t capable of creating life out of it or within the bounds of the still life, until I was 52 or 53 years old. I didn’t have that capability and you’re one hundred per cent right about what you are saying, it looks easy, but in photography it is really difficult. Painting has a whole history of still life with fruit on a table or whatever, that’s just representation, but in photography it’s difficult to create an explosive reality out of that.


To bring across that idea of mystery with an object, we might all have been completely familiar with. How do you do that?

It’s very complicated. And the drawing is important here. The issue with the background is important. Photography is content orientated and what’s in the foreground, what’s focused on is what people put all their attention to, but that’s only the Ying. I’ve always said most of my pictures start with the background, people forget about that, so the background is just a mush-mosh of mess. So, the drawing on the wall could be the first step rather than the piece of fruit on the table.


You see that quite clearly when Shadow Chamber emerged. It’s really the staging isn’t it?

There are two periods in Shadow Chamber, the first period was a period of portraiture and drawing, so you’ll see a lot of still faces in the picture, but drawing has come into the picture probably around 2000 right about the end of that one. So you see from 2002 to 2003 there’s portraiture and drawing, and then beginning in about 2003 the portraiture falls away and never came back.


Is it never coming back again or it is on hold?

First of all, you never know the future, so secondly I’m involved in a project now that has a fair amount of portraiture. Well if you take a picture of a bird or a rat that’s portraiture too, you know? I never thought of it this way, but there are plenty of bird faces, the bird faces are different from people faces because people look at other people, they draw conclusions about those people; but when you look at any animal face, you immediately sense you can’t comprehend the real meaning about what those pictures are about. You don’t think in an animal’s mind, so animals always have that enigma.


Getting into the mind of other people, how did your collaboration with Die Antwoord come about?

I knew Die Antwoord since about 2005. The most important part of making I Fink U Freeky in terms of my career is I realised the power of videos and started making videos with my projects and I think this played an interesting role in my career. The videos helped expand my understanding of what my aesthetic is about. I probably would have never made the other videos, if it hadn’t been for that. I wasn’t that interested in videos. I didn’t think I could make them. That’s why that experience was important to me other than millions of people who are now familiar with my work. It has about 82 million hits, so people will be interested to know who is this guy, what does he do, and I would like to see more of his work. It’s an important part of my development in terms of getting the work out there.


You really have become a multidimensional artist then?

Yes, but that’s just good because there are some things you can’t achieve in photography and there are some things you can achieve in video, so it’s like you can’t make a cake out of salt, you have to use something else. Just find other ways of expanding my vision and nowadays it’s almost crucial. It’s just a matter if you get meaning out of what you’re doing and if it is stimulating and that’s great. If there are certain art fields I don’t get anything out of and I can’t do properly, I shouldn’t do them.