Roger Ballen: Raw & Real | Interview

It would be no exaggeration to name Roger Ballen as one of the most important and influential photographic artists of the 21st century. Indeed, with a career spanning over four decades, Roger could be considered perhaps the defining artistic photographer of his generation. This is not to say that his work has reached a social media crescendo, or played a part in any trending lists-of-the-day. To attain the status he has achieved has required a lifetime developing a style and body of works, which has redefined the interrelationship between the artist, the subject, and the audience.

Roger has works featured in the permanent exhibitions of many of the world’s leading museums and galleries, including the Biblioteque Nationale, Paris; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate Britain, London; State Museum of Russia, Moscow; National Gallery, Cape Town; and Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart.

I interviewed Roger to prepare for his editorial in issue 007 of beautiful.bizarre (available here) and was privileged to have a long conversation about his background, influences, and future plans.

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“To journey through the works of Roger Ballen is to take a take a deeply personal trip into the psychology of the artist, to see the world as Roger Ballen does. Through this he hopes to help the viewer come to terms with their own identity and create a better relationship with the world as it is. His work has often been described as dark or confrontational but Roger dismisses this as simplistic, for him the light comes from the dark and to understand the wholeness of life one has to accept this to come to terms with your own identity.” ~ beautiful.bizarre Issue 007

Roger, thank you for your time. Can I ask who were your early inspirations and who inspires you now?

My mother worked in Magnum, and she also started one of the first photographic galleries in the United States. She was very close to André Kertész and was the first person to sell his photographs in the US. From him I think I began to understand the art of photography rather than the documentary aspects of photography. He was certainly an artist, and he saw the world aesthetically, abstractly, and uniquely. At the same time there were other inspirations such as Cartier-Bresson, who’s pictures I admired and who captured a decisive moment, which I always looked at as the most important single technique in photography. Also Elliott Erwitt, who had captured something of humor in his photography, which you see in my images even to this day – possibly not humor, but I would certainly say absurdity in my photographs. Other early influences would be Walker Evans and Paul Strand, who taught me about composition. I guess those were the biggest inspirations.

Now I don’t really have any inspirations in photography, I guess I don’t really work with inspiration any more. I think I work with heart, with passion, with hard work, with discipline. I think what probably inspires me the most, because that’s what I’m most involved with, is my own pictures. That I’ve been able to create something out of nothing, and the pictures have extended my vision beyond what I thought was possible. I think at the end of the day my own work probably inspires me the most. You know I’m obviously inspired by the clouds, the sky, the trees, the flowers, but on a more practical, a more artistic level being my own inspiration is the best answer I could give.

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Given the background of your mother’s work did you always feel that you were destined to become a photographic artist?

An interesting question which I often ponder. I’ve always been passionate about photography since I was 15 or 16 years old, so there was a passion to do the work and this has continued all my life. On the other hand when I was young my mother said to me a number of times “do photography as a hobby as a love, don’t do this as a profession”. I understood that, so I didn’t really have any interest in commercial photography then, nor do I have any interest now and I decided that (commercial photography) wasn’t really something for me, photography was just an art form for myself. So I became a geologist, I got a doctorate degree in geology in my early 30’s but I always continued my photography. I think in a way I was always totally committed to photography all my life, so I was destined to continue with this. On the other hand I think I was very fortunate that I found a career that I could do the work in, as I have been my own boss my whole life and have been successful in my other profession, which has me allowed me to continue with my photography until it has been self-supporting.

In a way, I was fortunate that I was able to create the right balance, because if I could not have maintained that balance I could not have become a professional photographer because, like anything else, it is something that takes a lot of time, energy and money to do.

I can’t recall seeing any color photography attributed to you.

No, I don’t do any color photography. I’m not really that keen on it, and don’t feel that it is something I want to do. My aesthetic is from black and white photography. I’m sure I could take decent color pictures but I feel that my work belongs in black and white. I like the simplicity, I like the abstraction, I like the pretext of black and white. It doesn’t pretend to be a reflection of reality, it exists in a sensibility, an abstraction of reality, whereas color tells you what things are when they’re not that way really. It can be a distraction that takes you away from the core, the composition and the meaning behind it.

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What drives you to create?

Fundamentally, I’m a psychologically based photographer. I’ve always been that way, so the purpose of my work is fundamentally to comes to terms with Roger Ballen, and to better understand the world that Roger Ballen exists in. And hopefully through the creating of these photographs I will help other people come to terms with their own identity and have a better relationship with the world. Fundamentally, it’s a psychological process.

Roger Ballen: Dresie and Casie, Twins, Western Transval, 1993roger ballen_beautifulbizarre_031

How would you personally describe the style of art you create?

It’s psychological photography; it’s photography that deals with the psychological aesthetic. The work is also extremely formalistic, this is also an important aspect. If you look at the work I think you will see it is extremely organic, it doesn’t have any compositional errors. Everything in the photograph is there for a reason and it integrates with everything else in a harmonious way. So while the pictures may speak of chaos the formal elements of the picture are inherently very harmonious.

There is definitely humor in much or your work, but it is humor with an edge, a darkness…

It could be called a dark humor, and a lot of people see the work as dark, but it’s probably because they are unable to come to terms with their own identity. Life is life, and if they want to call parts of their own existence dark then that is their own view. I know life is hard, life is difficult, but one just has to accept the wholeness of life. For me it’s not an issue trying to separate light from dark, you know when they call it dark they are just reflecting their inability to deal with aspects of their internal being. That’s probably why they call it dark, but as I have said “the light comes from the dark” and in dealing with that shadow self gives you your greatest sense of being, you greatest sense of identity, if you do come in contact with those aspects of yourself.

I don’t think the work is inherently dark. For example the night is dark – but does that mean it is bad or evil? Or is it just the night? I have always said that if people come to terms with their own identity you would have the biggest depression in history.

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The confrontational nature of your work often elicits a strong response – both negative and positive. How much do your works reflect your own emotions when you create them?

My best photographs don’t have any words – I never try to define my pictures in words. The best photographs are visual, not verbal in nature so it’s not possible for me to understand them with words. If I can do that it means the pictures are not a challenge to me, that they don’t lead me to a place I haven’t been before. I’m not really interested in defining my pictures with words, the most successful of my pictures are multidimensional in meaning and often have opposing meanings, both happy and sad, disturbing and peaceful, complex and simple. When things have opposite natures it is very hard to come up with correct words, I don’t try to have and words for my pictures before I take them and my best pictures will not have any words after.

Since I am working in art my works do reflect my emotions, my consciousness, my state of being. At the same time they reflect something of the place I am working in, because photography is about the physical world as much as the mental world. Unlike painting and literature you have to deal with the physical world in front of you, the photograph is created by the light bouncing off a physical object. If anyone else went to the same place and time we could be there a million years and they would still not take the same pictures as me – the picture is about my sensibilities, my aesthetics. So the picture is a reflection of my emotions but on the other hand if I take a picture of a subject that person has their own identity, so I can’t say that it’s only about my emotions as that person has something in themselves, their own emotions to reflect back to the camera.

The flower is the flower – taking a picture of the flower, it may be beautiful but the flower still has its own identity, so I’m transforming things but from the physical world.

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What do you hope or aim for your audience to absorb from your art?

I would hope that the pictures help people help to come into better contact with their inner being, their inner selves, their repressed self, to expand their own consciousness of themselves and the world around them. You can see what the problems are with this world. You just turn on the TV and in five minutes see most of the problems, most of it caused by people not being grounded in themselves and working out of pleasure principle, or working out of evasion – all of the things we know about and we are all part of. I’m not saying that I am a perfect human being either, life is complicated and it’s hard to understand one’s own behaviour. We’re all in a way part of the same system, some people will get away from it a little further, other people don’t. I would just hope that it (my work) would help people become a little more resolved and a little bit more self-conscious of their own identity and their effect on others – I guess that’s all you can hope for and it’s hard to measure even when it happens.

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When you first started travelling with your work as a geologist did you envision settling in South Africa?

I first traveled to South Africa in 1974. I traveled extensively in those years, from Istanbul to New Guinea and then hitch-hiking from Cairo to Cape town, but I certainly didn’t have any intent to stay, until I met my future wife there. When I finally got back to America in ’77 and did my doctorate degree in Geology I got a job in South Africa. I had a good experience my first time in there and thought it would be interesting to go back – together with the fact that my wife was from there and that some interesting opportunities came up – I had a hope but there was no particular intention about going back there.

How has living in South Africa and working with those who would often be seen to be on the fringes of society influenced your work? Do you feel it is their story you are telling or your own?

Well I have been working on this level for over 30 years, it’s like going back to Beckett or Ionesco or many of the people in literature who work with people on the fringe. Those people are in a way a metaphor for many things, the reason I work with these people I really can’t tell you. I recently looked at my first movie that I did in 1972 and it looks like it somehow or other parallels something in Beckett. It’s about outsiders, so I guess it’s been in my blood a long time. What that hopefully means to me and what it ultimately means to other people, well I don’t really know – but why do people find Beckett interesting? In a way people can identify with the marginal because I feel marginalized. That’s the issue, we are all marginalized by time.

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Are you trying to elicit a response about how people would live, how they would behave, how they would react if they were in that position?

No, what I am saying is that they are in that position. You think you’re not in the position but you are in the position, you are exactly in the position. You think because someone else is sitting there on the street begging, you think that just because you can go away in a car or do this and do that that you are apart. You’re not. You are also subject to the same forces that the person in the street is subject to. Anything can happen at any moment and there are endless ways you can be subject to the forces of time and of fate. It’s easy to say – it’s that person, I’m better, we’re more comfortable, we’re more secure – in some fantasised way, but ultimately we’re not. When you wake up in the morning, well you know what you can wake up in the morning with? You can wake up in the morning with the same thing as anybody sitting in the street tomorrow and you can end up in the same place, on the same day. It’s as simple as that.

You get in the car and you think everything is fine – and then someone does something in front of you. This is the issue, they are a symbol. I think that was the metaphor, the people I work with, in a way I identify with them because they are out there and the forces, they’re aware of those forces in a much more direct way. I’m in a much more privileged position but I feel an empathy with them because I can get in touch with these same things in many ways. I feel that they are metaphoric for me, and I can identify with their position in all ways. I don’t necessarily see that I’m that separate.

Ultimately taking pictures is no different than if I was a writer, or doing what I was doing as a writer or a painter. You need to separate their identities. But at the same time I’m a transformer. That’s basically what I am; I’m a transformer of reality and the reality I create is Roger Ballen’s reality through the photography. That’s all I’m doing. There’s no such thing as reality that’s self-abstracted, so what I am doing is capturing Roger Ballen’s reality through a camera. That’s it, nothing more. If you met the same person the reality you would create is different.

You can’t measure it (your reality) anyway, I can’t imagine your experience now with me, how could I measure it, it can’t be measured. How do you put it to words? You think the words are objective but the words full of subjectivity and inaccuracies and double meanings. Ultimately underneath it there’s just chaos.

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While the title photographer is appropriate for the earlier years of your career, you now have diversified your works to the point that title seems limiting. How would you describe yourself as an artist at this stage of your career?

The core of my work has always come from B&W film photography but the work has extended into other fields. For example in MONA (Hobart, Australia) I made a number of installations. I have extended into installations, into sculpture, to installation rooms, to video, so I see myself as a multidimensional artist. But the core aesthetic comes from my black and white photography. I am still extremely dedicated to doing black and white photography most days of the week and through black and white photography came these other media. I continually evolve and am about to produce another video, for the revised Outland book in March 2015 (Phaidon Press), with the addition of 50 unpublished pictures to that series and the video will accompany that. I am trying to do videos accompanying my art books, and when I do museum exhibitions I am also doing installations as part of the process – when I have time to do that.

I would say that I am a multimedia artist with the core being black and white film photography.

When you collaborate with others, for example your work with Die Antwoord, how much are you influenced by the people you collaborate with?

I’m not influenced by anybody, so I just do my work and I do it to the best of my ability. I try to be creative with what I do and I don’t really get involved with a situation where people are telling me to do this or that because I’m not a commercial photographer. The day that I start doing this is the day that I quit.

There’s no point in doing it then, it’s better to earn a living in geology rather than take pictures of things I’m not interested in. So I don’t get influenced by the people I collaborate with, I just do my job, I just take the pictures in the way I have to take them. Obviously the physical locality has its own reality and the people have their own reality – the pictures I take of a Miss Universe are going to be very different are going to be very different in nature in many aspects from the people I work with on a regular basis because they look different and they reveal themselves in a different way. As an artist I would hope to find things in those people that connect my work with everything else I do, so there would be a link otherwise I wouldn’t be interested in taking the picture, I wouldn’t accept the picture as something I would want to show.

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So, if you had the opportunity to photograph a Miss Universe would you accept it, and if you would under what conditions?

Only on my own terms. You want me to take a picture of Miss Universe? Tell Miss Universe to meet me at this place and that’s it – and then I’ll figure out to do with Miss Universe. There’s a series I did with Selma Blair, she was very good, she really identified with what I was doing so it was a good harmonious relationship. I transformed her in many ways to link my photography to her, transformed her so when you look at those pictures they’re still look like a Roger Ballen, even though the visual qualities of her might be slightly different than the people I normally work with. That’s one I the few times I have taken a picture of a celebrity or someone like that.

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Is there anyone you would jump at collaborating with if given the opportunity?

No. I really… no. Sometimes it’s more interesting collaborating with someone I find on the street, much more interesting than someone that’s won ten Oscars. Sometimes I’d rather collaborate with a rat than a person, I’m not interested in labels. Anyway if I take the pictures I want to strip the labels.

Someone other than a celebrity?

No, even an artist, I don’t have anyone. If you’re going to work with somebody you have to get to know them, you have to feel comfortable with them, you have to get on the same level, you have to feel there’s a synergistic energy. You can’t say that, just because you see somebody or read about somebody doesn’t mean that you’re going to get along with them. It’s like looking at Hollywood and thinking you’re going to fall in love with this woman from the movies, but when you meet her you don’t feel anything about her.

Your foundation aims at increasing the exposure of photographic art in South Africa and inspiring new artists. Are you starting to see the fruits of this?

This is a long, long process. It’s like saying how do you eradicate poverty in Africa, this is an endless life process. Hopefully I will make some small inroads, hopefully I’ll help certain people improve their lives in various ways. That’s what it’s about, I’m one human being at age 64 trying to do these things and yes I hope it has an effect on people, I hope my work has an effect on people – I think It does. Well that’s all I can do, I’m not thinking I’m going to change the world, I’m making my own contribution in the best way I can ant that’s all I can do.

I’m not interested in trying to get publicity, it’s a process of giving back and part of the process of living with yourself. I didn’t do this for publicity, I did this as part of living in Africa and giving back to the people and the place in some way. Just as taking the pictures is a multiple process of giving back to the places, to people, to the society you live in and also reflecting on your own short identity on the planet. Things are not just happening on one level, I always make the comment when somebody says “Hi Roger, how are you”, you normally would just say “fine” but when you think about it it’s the wrong word. You’ve either got a headache or you’re worried about something or you have to get somewhere or there’s something bothering you or there’s something that’s in front of you… It’s just saying one word about yourself “fine”, but fine isn’t how you are, it’s just a way of smoothing over things.

But when you turn your head about a bit, say “well, how do I really feel?”, well you just run out of words, actually, you run out of words. You don’t know what to say any more, ultimately you can’t say anything – and when you can’t say anything any more, like in Buddhism you may have reached a certain important point in your self-consciousness.

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What are your current projects?

I’m doing the Outland book, I’m working on a very interesting project with Asger Carlsen. He and I started with some pictures for Vice magazine we did a year and a half ago, and they have been so successful we decided to do a book together on these images.

I am also continually working on two series, one of which is unofficially called “apparition”. They are almost like drawings – they are drawings in the back of my photographs. I have worked on this project for about eight years and I am hoping to next year to make a book out of this and it really will have some very interesting photographs.

If you look at my Facebook page you can see that someone has made skateboards out of these drawings. They’re really interesting, I think they are amazing. These are all black and white photographs I’ve worked on – I took part of these photographs and this guy put theses drawings on skateboards.


Directed by Roger Ballen & NINJA
Director of Photography Melle Van Essen
Edited by Jannie Hondekom @ Left

About Author

I am a co-founder and the Technical Director of beautiful.bizarre


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