For several decades, Roger Ballen and his camera have been out and about in the slums of South Africa. Instead of documenting their evolution or the local social issues, however, he has been on the lookout for characters and bizarre still life scenes, which he subsequently stages into a sort of photography of the absurd, sometimes in combination with his drawings. Ten years ago, these photographs also became a seminal influence on the phenomenal music project Die Antwoord, who initially derived their original visual style from his photographs, before eventually becoming their subject. Ballen even directed a music video for Die Antwoord, I Fink U Freeky, which has had over 65 million views to date on ouTube. Not bad for a gentleman of sixty-five. The present interview with Roger Ballen was done in February 2015, when he visited Prague for his retrospective exhibition at the Czech Center for Photography at the Kafka House.
Is it your first time in Prague?
No, I was here in 1968, shortly after the Russian invasion. I was 18 years old.
Did you take any pictures?
I did. At that age I liked photography and was very passionate about it. And I began thinking seriously about being a photographer. I’ve been doing good pictures, I’d say since around 1965. I am 65 now; I’ve been doing this for 50 years now.
You were born in the USA, but you live in South Africa. Why?
It’s not an easy place to live. You are right, it’s a politically complicated country. In 1981 I finished my Ph.D. in Mineral Economics – South Africa is a good place to work with minerals and mining. I found interesting dynamics there between the First and Third World. There was a period in South Africa’s history when a revolution was going on. People felt frightened and scared of the future. I photographed white people living on the edge and this was a shock to many people in South Africa, and a shock to people outside of South Africa. It’s quite an interesting place to be in. I have received death threats and been arrested several times. I ended up with my only friend – my dog Leroy.
Did you study photography?
No. I never took one course. Black-and-white photography is very difficult. This is the reason why you don’t see it any more these days. There is no room for mistakes in black and white photography. If you make one little mistake, it looks awful. It is a very abstract format. Most people were doing black-and-white in the 1960s and 1970s, so I grew up with it. I don’t like color photography, but I do like color painting.
Some of your photos look like paintings.
Because of the drawings and other elements, my photographs have become very recognizable. I think it adds another level of meaning to the picture. It gives more complexity to the photograph.
Your pictures inspired Die Antwoord. How did that happen?
They told me they saw my books in 2005 or 2006 and stopped what they were doing for a year and reinvented themselves using Roger Ballen as a model. We kept on talking and then they started doing videos with some of my drawings and my aesthetic. Some of their videos went viral on the Internet so Die Antwoord became famous by integrating my aesthetic with their music.
I would say that without Die Antwoord I would not know you. Is this something you hear often?
I do hear that. It introduced my work to millions of people who would not normally see it. The music world is ten thousand times bigger than the world of art photography. Two weeks ago I collaborated with the fashion company Comme des Garçons. They took some of my pictures and put them on their clothes. It’s a way to get my imagery into people’s heads.
You also directed Die Antwoord’s I Fink U Freeky video. How did you as a photographer cope with a new role?
It was an interesting experience. It added a new dimension to my vocabulary. Then I did another video called Asylum of the Birds, which is out now. I realized that making a video is a way of showing my work to people who would not otherwise come into museums. They don’t even go into bookstores now. It’s another era. This is what I learned from Die Antwoord. They became famous because of the Internet and their videos, not because of the songs. If there were no Internet, they would not be able to pay for a cup of coffee. It does not mean I can make successful videos now. It’s a lottery. But if Lady Gaga makes a video it will probably have more clicks than if some man in the street makes a better video. The present culture is driven by celebrities – why?
How would you define your focus as a photographer?
Now I am more fascinated by the archetypal enigmatic places of the mind. I am a psychological photographer. Even when I look 30 years back, my pictures have always been psychological statements. As time goes on, the pictures get to be much more about meditation, about places of the mind and meditating on the human condition. The more I look back on the work, the more I see it has a strong connection to something like the Theatre of the Absurd. People think they can control their lives. They think they can control nature. But the fundamental thing is that chaos is the dominant force. You don’t know what is going to happen in five minutes. You don’t know anything about what is going on in your body. You have NO idea. You look in the mirror: “Oh that’s me”. I guess it’s me but it’s not. It’s just the physics of the mirror. So this Theatre of the Absurd is trying to pretend there’s a state of order in this world and lets you play some sort of game where you have some sense of capability when you actually don’t. These things are quite interesting.
There are strange people appearing in your photos and videos. Who are they?
In 1982 I moved to Johannesburg, where I have been living ever since. The first project in South Africa was called Dorps, which means small town. For me, this project was the most important of all. Because if you see the photo Front Door, Hopetown, one of the biggest diamonds in history, the most expensive diamond came from this place – Hopetown. There were a lot of diamonds, but also a lot of despair. One day I knocked at this door. The man opened the door and said: “Yes, Mister, what do you want?” I answered: “My name is Roger and I’m doing photography.” I got inside and then it started. I found motives, symbols, metaphors that I’ve been working with for next thirty years. At first I used a 35mm camera and then I started to use square format. So, I found the aesthetic in the houses and flats where these people live. With some of the people I worked for years. The people I work with have no interest in art. Not one has ever been to a gallery or museum. They don’t have any desire to be artists. They do not have any relationship to art. It’s purely art brut, children’s art, insane art, criminal art, outsider art. I find them in the suburbs, which are very violent places. It is like working in a prison, working in a place with people who have escaped from the police. There are people who have nowhere to stay, women who have run away from their husbands, people who come from Somalia or DR Congo. It’s a mixture of people who are just surviving. In these places you get a good idea about the human condition. You really start to understand humanity very well because you see the basic instincts of the people. These places are very complex and very brutal.
Why did you decide to go this way?
I don’t have any intentions, I don’t think about words when working. The pictures have to be purely visual; they have to go right into your head without any words. I don’t like to analyze the pictures. There’s no formula for me. When you look at my pictures you are looking at transformed reality; at Roger Ballen’s reality. I always say no one can take pictures like me. It has taken me fifty years to get here. It’s very complicated aesthetically to be able to take pictures like this. It takes many years to be able to take reality that’s out there and transform it in a clear, concise, meaningful way. If the pictures have any meaning, they can exist outside of time. They have to have something universal, they have to be transformed in this way, otherwise they become just a part of documentary history. I often hear people say: “Mr. Ballen, your pictures scare me,” “Mr. Ballen, these photos are dark,” or “Mr. Ballen, it looks funny, but it’s not funny at all,” etc.
And what I always say is: the light comes from the dark.
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