One of the most provocative and controversial photographic artists of the 21st century, Roger Ballen’s photographs span forty years. His extreme and disturbing works portray the diversity and absurdity of the poor and mentally unstable on the fringes of South African society. His works, often balancing on the edge of fiction and reality, confront and challenge viewers as Ballen explores the deeper recesses of his own psychological state. Sixth Finger spoke with the artist in an in-depth interview that explores the motifs and influences behind his own transformation of reality.
Text: Tatiana Makrinova
Your work as a geologist brought you into the countryside where you started taking pictures. How do you remember the first experience of getting to those rural places in order to photograph?
I first came so South Africa in 1974, and even though I traveled a lot during that time, I felt something really special towards those places. I wasn’t in the mode of documenting them, and it was only when I came back to South Africa to do my studies in 1982 that I started to think about it. At the time I decided that I didn’t like the 35 mm camera anymore and bought a Rolleiflex 6x6. That changed my perception towards the process of documenting and played a very big role in my interest in these towns, which were full of unique textures that couldn’t be captured with a large format camera. There was an interesting relationship between technology and my aesthetic at the time.
Can you describe the feeling of entering the environment of abandoned ruins in South Africa for the first time? Did it scare you in any way?
This risk is a part of taking pictures. You develop consciousness as you create and start to feel more emotive towards what you’re doing. I always feel a deep underlying passion for discovering and unravelling the nature of the subject, and this is how I felt about those places. At the time there was something enigmatic that I wanted to capture. However, that was just a beginning, you can’t pre-determine a photograph, it happens as you’re there. The best photograph feels like there is something that happens as a result of you being involved with it. It’s a process of unravelling the reality of the place, transforming it and creating the vision of your own mind through the camera.
You’ve captured a lot of people during your career. What compels you to photograph someone more than once, and how would you describe your relationship with your subjects?
I feel that there is something about those people that clicks in my mind, and there are practical reasons too. The places I work in are complicated, violent and difficult, so if I didn’t get along with people, there is no way I could work there. I have a long continuous relationship with a lot of my subjects, and most of my best friends have been in my photographs.
Would you say your subjects inspire you or give you ideas? Or do you prefer to keep the process totally under your control?
Unlike painting or writing, with photography you are dependent on the physical world. However, the subject doesn’t guarantee you a good picture. Unfortunately, people don’t really understand that they could be in the same place as me but they will never take the same shot. Everyone believes that one can never create exactly the same artwork as Picasso or Rembrandt. But nobody seems to recognise this rule in photography, wrongly assuming that it’s all about pointing the camera and pushing the button. My pictures take thousands of steps usually, even the simpler ones, so nobody can repeat them. For me, it is a transformation of so-called reality that ultimately creates a Roger Ballen photograph. It’s just my own transformation of reality, nothing more.
Do you think that people treat your pictures as political or objectifying? Or would you rather say that they are on the edge of documentary and fiction?
One has to view my career over the years, as the pictures keep transforming themselves and the later work is seen as less 'documentary' than work I did 20 years ago. So I think the work has the edge between what people see as real and unreal. Most of my photos have an enigmatic quality to them because they’re fundamentally psychological. So I would consider some of the projects like 'Outland' to have a political connotation. I’ve always seen the images being fundamentally psychological and I think that’s why a book like 'Outland' is very important now as it made a statement about the human condition. I subconsciously recognise the essence of these pictures that goes beyond the political and cultural circumstances they were taken in.
What reaction should a successful picture evoke?
The best pictures are those that leave you speechless and need no explanations. So if I did understand what my pictures were about, they would have no use for me.
Thinking of photography as a mirror, are you trying to reflect society or yourself in it?
I wouldn’t say society, I would say - “Look, I am part of human society, I’m part of South African society, male society.” but ultimately I think that pictures are trying to make comments or mirror the deeper level of the human subconscious. That’s definitely my goal. And I think the pictures may reflect my opinion on levels about the relationship between man and nature and man and animals and man and consumerism, all these things - political, cultural connotations. And the relationship between man and animals in particular is fundamental, psychological and evolutionary.
I guess all of your pictures are ultimately psychological, they offer something to everyone and it’s impossible to be left untouched.
You’re actually right, because my pictures have an archetypical aspect to them, so they are able to enter people's minds wherever they are. It’s not so easy to create this kind of image. But some pictures have the ability to get this response and stay in people’s mind longer than others. It’s always hard to explain why this is true. In any good artist's career there would be pictures that stick with the public more than the rest. It’s hard to explain the reason for it, it’s just the way it is and it happens with every aspect of society.
In a previous interview you mentioned that you don’t need to seek inspiration, as it comes from inside of you. Has it always been like that or has it changed with experience over the years?
For the first part of my career, I was more of a documentary photographer. There was a significant attachment between me and the outside world, which gave me the creative impulse. Nowadays, inspiration comes to me from the process of creating strong pictures out of nothing; it comes as a result of my own mind. The process of creating images for me is like a woman having a baby. It’s quite inspiring and mysterious. That’s what keeps me going.
You talk about your photographs as a psychological and existential journey. What has that journey given you?
I think one of the nicest things about photography is that it enables an opportunity to create a diary and follow trough it. I often tell everyone that I’m extremely lucky to have this interest because most people of my age got a big fat stomach and spend their time thinking about going on boats and eating all day and getting fatter and fatter. I’m glad to have this passion all these years, which is really giving me strength and curiosity, so it’s a great blessing.