My interview with Roger Ballen

Roger Ballen on inspiration, the common cold and Die Antwoord

With the republication of Dorps I had the opportunity to sit down with Roger Ballen and ask him a few questions.

Bedroom door, Bethanie, 1983 TP

I have heard this urban legend about how you got started in the industry. You took your first body of work and persistently went from gallery to gallery, introducing yourself and your work?

I was already 47years old when I did Platteland. It became a well-known book in ’94, ’95, here and abroad, so I thought there might be scope for me to show my work outside of South Africa. I got such a mixed reception here, a violent reception, that it wasn’t much fun to show here.

I went to Cologne, which was the centre of European photography in the 90’s, and get a hold of some sort of photography magazine. I remember looking at the list of galleries and trying to call some of them up from the Cologne railway station. That’s how it all started.

In those days it was before email, before websites, so you actually had to meet people, you couldn’t interact in any other way. It is a misnomer to think that you can develop relationships only through email. Face to face contact is the only thing that ever works anyway. Nine times out of ten.

Dorps is a collection of photographs dealing with small town life. Why photograph South African small towns?

I was very fortunate at the time. I was able to do my photography as I travelled around the country looking for minerals. I was living here, doing the geology, so there was no point in trying to do photography somewhere else.

If you had done your geology work in another country…

You walk, you look left, instead of looking right and that’s the end of your life you know. It is impossible to judge.

Bedroom of railway worker, De Aar, 1984 TP

Why republish Dorps?

The publisher approached me and I was happy to republish Dorps because it did well the first time. It was by far my most popular book in South Africa. It was a book that a lot of people could grasp. My later work is quite complex. You really have to have an arts or visual background to cope with it in some way.

I’ve always thought Dorps was my most important project. The body of work contains documentary pictures, but also pictures that step outside the boundaries of documentary photography and become more art. It was the first time I began to differentiate in my own mind between something being documentary, factual and more aesthetic.

At the time I was influenced by Walker Evans and started working with a 6×6. I became interested in things outside of just people, in textures, in forms, interiors and it was quite a discovery for myself. I found the dorps quite fascinating. There was something aesthetically interesting about them that made me want to continue with the project.

Dorps is not a book that I felt has outdated itself. It was important in my development so I’ve always had almost a nostalgia for the project.

And the first edition was sold out?

It was. The price of the first edition has actually gotten quite high. I’ve seen it sell for $3000.00 to $4000.00 abroad, in South Africa for R10 000 to R15000 in some cases, and in other cases for a few thousand rands. It rarely sells for below R2500.00.

You did not use the names of your subjects in Dorps. You describe them as woman, man, couple. Yet  you started using very specific names afterwards – in Platteland and Outland. Did your relationship with your subjects change?

It’s an interesting question. I tend to do the titles when I choose the pictures for the book. I get into a way of doing things so there is a consistency in titles. I can’t actually remember why I didn’t put down the names of people. I don’t actually have an answer for it, why I changed it, why it was the way it was. I have zero memory of why I did it that way.

Front door, Hopetown, 1983 TP

Why use, Protea Books, a South African publisher?

They have the rights to distribute the book in South Africa. If some other publisher wants to publish the book outside of South Africa I can discuss that with them.

But I think the book is really meant for a South African audience. There is something particularly South African about the pictures.

This is an age old question that all artists deal with. You create dark, sometimes disturbing, sometimes comical images. How much do your subjects know about your intent? Is it relevant at all?

I don’t know what my intent is. I don’t start with intent. I don’t start with any ideas. I can’t describe my pictures in any definitive words. My pictures have a lot of opposites in them. They’re quite complex. How do you describe most things around you? How do you describe these birds? (Roger points to two Ringneck Doves.) Maybe if you’re a poet you can come up with some metaphor.

People in the 21st century, probably most of the 20th century, are too obsessed with trying to define things with words. I guess maybe it is all we have as human beings, but I think at the end of the day we have to let our senses and our emotions define things for us or accept that they are already defining reality for us more than actually words are. I think it is sometimes better to just let the pictures come inside you and find a place in your own consciousness.

The best photographs are purely visual. If you can define it with words it is probably not a good photograph.

That brings me to my next question. I have always thought a photograph, painting or drawing should have enough merit and be arresting on its own – with no further explanation necessary. There is (successful) art out there however, that makes no apparent sense, or has little ‘artistic merit’. You have to read the essay accompanying it for it to have any value.

I think there is something to be said for strong visual statements that are coherent, exist on many levels, pierce into one’s consciousness, stay there, transform, that have an instantaneous reception in the mind. That is what most of the history of art is about.

I can close my eyes, take a picture of anything around me, write something about it and add a meaning to it. What’s the point after a while? To me it is a form of art that people, who can’t take coherent pictures, use to make pictures. People who can’t understand photography language, invent their own language.

I see so much of this, all over the place, that I am really quite cynical about it. Although I certainly don’t want to say point blank that none of this has merit. There are particular artists who do things in a conceptual way that has a lot of merit. There are exceptions but the rule is not the exception.


Old man, Ottoshoop, 1983 P27

If you look at that image, (I point at a Ballen photograph on the wall), it is striking, and you don’t have to read anything about it.

The best work is in your mind before you can open your mouth. It is like a virus. A cold virus. All of a sudden you do something wrong and you get a chill. Uh-oh there is a scratchy throat. Or you get a headache. It got in. It’s in you. It got in somehow and now it is transforming your cells in some way for some time.

To me that is the best art. It just gets inside you before you can know it. It’s so fast. It really is fast. The synapses work at the speed of sound. That is 600miles per second. That is how fast it moves in your mind. Light moves at 186000 miles per second. I always tell people to take up a flashlight and shine it up at night. If it did not get dispersed it would bounce off the moon in a second and a half. That is how fast it is. So you think about the universe, about things in the sky that are a billion light-years away, it is inconceivable.

Especially for a non-scientific mind. 

It is enough for even a scientific mind. Can scientific minds work like the conceptual artists we’re talking about? They think they make comments which sound like they know what they’re talking about, like they explain the beginning of the universe. Can anyone talk about the beginning of the universe? You can’t talk about it. It is not possible. It is not a concept that has any value actually.

A lot of artists have ‘day jobs’ which sometimes inspire their art. Has geology, apart from enabling you to travel, inspired your art in any way?

I don’t think it is a matter of inspiration. I think it is a matter of focus, concentration, hard work, application, discipline, dedication and finding the right balance in your life.

Inspiration actually means nothing to me anymore. What I am doing is beyond inspiration. Inspiration won’t carry me very far. Wow, look at that flower. Wow, look at that, look at this. It is instantaneous. I have to be carried year after year, month after month, week after week, continually creating, continually trying to effect the work, trying to develop the pictures, continually trying to get the pictures out there. It is a very big job in its own way.  It is a very, very singular job.

It is not like running other businesses where you have all these crutches around you in a way. You’re basically stuck, every time you create a picture, with a blank canvas, a blank sheet of paper. It is not like it has an infrastructure out there. In the mining business you go out there and there’s a mine already producing materials. You go, Maybe I should have used this chemical or that chemical? You change a little bit of it, but it’s already operating all the time, making money, doing what it is supposed to be doing.

Every day I start with a blank wall basically. You finish a picture, now what’s the next one? Each one is an individual creation. Where does it come from? You have to depend on your imagination, on your mind to create these things. Where did that come from? (Roger points to the same photograph on the wall.) Who created that place? Whose space is it? Is it his space, is it my space is it somebody else’s space? Then there is the photographic self which is a matter of the instantaneous, some sort of space. How did you conceive of that? How did it happen? How did you catch it? How did you integrate it? It’s all about the way I take pictures. If anybody else was there they would never in a million years take the same picture – for better for worse.

It is a very complicated, difficult process. It is also very creative, self satisfying, all these things also. One should never underestimate how difficult it is to create strong photographs.

Inspiration is maybe the thing that gets you going. If you’re a mountain climber or creating art, it’s the last 5 to 10%, to finish the thing, to polish the things until it is a viable product, an integrated, organic product. It is the finishing touches. Meticulous execution makes the difference. A good piece of art should be refined. You see so much inferior type of art being promoted as good art. This is also what makes it very confusing.

Wall above bed, Dordrecht, 1984 TP

I sometimes walk into a gallery and see a beautiful image, but horribly printed and framed in a poor manner.

In photography people don’t understand all the visual aspects, the aesthetics. Ultimately you have to depend on yourself. Over the years you become multidimensional. In photography one of the biggest deficits in almost every photograph you see is the frame. People don’t want to spend the money on the frame. If you see good paintings in the world the frames are really part of the art. Framing is done for each picture. It extends the photograph, the painting. I don’t think there is one photographer that I have seen over the years that makes a frame for each photograph. There’s already a deficit in that. I am part of that. It is a cost issue, a time issue and marketing issue. It is one of the things that demean photography versus other art forms. Photography did not sell for many years because it was considered something new. It was too easily reproducible, an issue not solved by editions. The fact that all the frames looked the same reinforced the idea that the pictures could be easily reproduced.

If you walk into a gallery you can easily recognize a Miro painting, or a Dali painting. You don’t have to read the label. How would one recognize a Roger Ballen photograph?

My pictures have a black humour to them. I think it is the type of forms I use. The way I compose the pictures. The forms are very crystal clear. My pictures are very clear, very formally strong. But there’s a lot of chaos in the pictures, a lot of sense of breakdown, a lack of order. Plus there are a lot of different levels of visual duality taking place within this black humour or comic tragedy. Or an aesthetic of opposing forces.

It is difficult to describe the exact thing that defines my pictures over somebody else’s. It is like saying there is two individuals and what is the thing that defines them? Maybe one is wearing a red shirt, the other a blue shirt, but how is the essence of one person different from the essence of the other? How is one bird different from the other bird? (The Ringneck Doves feature again.) It is hard to put a word to the essence.

It is not a good answer.

It goes back to your first questions. It is really difficult when dealing with visual elements to define what you’re doing only in terms of words. It is two different worlds really.

You can start by saying whether you work in black & white or colour. But how would you define the colour red? You can’t come up with any words. What is red? Red is fire. Red can be a beautiful flower. It can be blood. All these things have mixed metaphors to them and you can’t get to a point where you can put your finger on it.

As I said earlier, if your work is on that level then you’ve actually gotten fairly far, to the point where you can’t actually grasp it with words. Then we get into this pseudo-intellectual argument where students say they can’t describe their work in words. That is usually because there is nothing to describe.  I am saying that with a total lack of arrogance. (Roger grins.)

This is a quote from your website. My purpose in taking photographs over the past forty years has ultimately been about defining myself. It has been fundamentally a psychological and existential journey. What does your work say about your psychological journey?

Hopefully my journey has been able to define for me, and the people interested in the work, what we may refer to as the interior world.  Boyhood was for me personally a journey to find my childhood, a psychological journey into my past. In the 70’s, in my twenties, I was focused on that.

I think the questions I ask myself on these projects tend to be metaphors for my own state of mind, my passage through time, my sense of self, my wanting to define myself, trying to define myself in terms of time in various ways and experiences. That is what these projects have been about.

Outland might have been a question to myself.  Is chaos is prevalent or not? Is chaos a prevalent force or is order? Which is stronger? I grapple with these kinds of questions. They tend to be existential questions and the purpose of the work is really existential. It is not to make me a diary. If it was I wouldn’t be making these types of images. I would be taking pictures of Mickey Mouse and Disneyland, or the Kruger Park. Certainly they wouldn’t have any lasting quality.

Wall, labourer’s cottage, Carnarvon, 1984 TP

Is there an aspect about Dorps that you would like to send into the public realm?

There are two fundamental ways in which I took the Dorps pictures.

One, it is a documentation of a particular cultural, historical, economic place in the world, the South African dorp. So it is a way of looking at South African history, looking at South African culture, so there is an act of documentation in the work.

From that point of view there is a value to these pictures, because if you go to these places now, they certainly have changed. The fact that you have a cell phone in your hand changes them. When I worked on Dorps and Platteland there was no B&B in all these places. There would be one crummy hotel. The routine you had in that hotel affected you, it was a part of those places. You go to these B&B’s now and the room smells of perfume candles, they make you a Tai meal and there are fancy soaps in the shower. It is out of place but becomes part of that place. The whole sensibility of these dorps have changed, buildings have been torn down. So I think I preserved a part of cultural history.

The second aspect is what metaphors do the pictures illicit in your own mind as the viewer? Good works of art, important works of art in their own way, they will illicit some sort of personal metaphors.  Some of these works, or all the works put together, go beyond defining a cultural place, but rather define a sense of psychological place, which has always been a goal of my pictures. Maybe this does not come across as strongly as in my later work, but there is an act of that in these pictures. In a way it was about the passage of time, about things getting old and falling apart. Being marginalized, being isolated, being a marginal part of things. Part of the human condition is being marginalized by forces outside of yourself every day. Just getting old is being marginalized. These are metaphors that can probably be found in some of these pictures.

What is your link to Die Antwoord?

They were here for about two hours yesterday. (Roger grins.) I don’t really have a link to them. They have used some of my images in their presentation. They’ve said a few times that my work has been crucial in their development and made them understand another level of reality in all sorts of ways. So that is really my relationship with them.

The buzz on the Internet is that you directed their video, ‘Wat pomp’?

No, I wasn’t directly involved in directing a video. I took a few pictures and they used my images in their video. I didn’t direct the video.

People have asked me this many times. I don’t look at it from the point of view of whether I like their music, or don’t like their music. It is good that my vision, if you want to use those words, finds a way of being transformed by other artists, through other artists and enters people’s consciousness. A twenty year old might not be interested in Boarding House, or even know about the book, or know anything about my images, but through groups like Die Antwoord they get introduced to my work whether they know it or not. I think it is ultimately a good thing.

Die Antwoord has certainly created a buzz.  If you watch their videos on Youtube, a whole new generation is discussing your work.

In the last five years I have really sensed such a transformation of people’s attitude towards my work here. It is night and day between how people perceive me here now versus five, six, seven years ago when people wanted to marginalize me.

I think it is because young people really appreciate my work. They’re not linked to this Apartheid issue and the white black issue. They don’t have all these guilt feelings, defensiveness, that was the reaction to the pictures in Platteland and Outland, that somehow turned the images into a political statement. I’ve always said they were psychological. The media turned it into political statements and the white population was so confused about its own identity that they couldn’t handle it. They were too psychologically blocked to know that the more defensive they get about my work the less they were in touch with their own beings.

Young people don’t have any of that. They were babies when Apartheid happened. They are part of a global generation interested in things beyond what is going on in South Africa. That has played a role. The young people are ultimately dominating the culture you see in the magazines and newspapers. People who interview you are normally between twenty and thirty. Older people normally drop out of this business. It is very interesting to me. I have shows all over the world and now the ambassador invites me to lunch and that sort of stuff. Ten years ago they wouldn’t even go near me. That is quite a change. (Roger grins.)

I’ve had a big show at the National Gallery in Cape Town for the last five months and the response have only been good. It has not created a negative buzz, but a different buzz. And I am quite pleased with that because it wasn’t very satisfying. It certainly wasn’t very pleasant being criticized all the time for things that really weren’t part of those pictures.

It is very gratifying that this whole mess I was placed in has now been resolved and that people are starting to see the work in a different light.

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