Interview with Roger Ballen

In the 90ties your photographs were more focussed on portraiture than today. Is it regardless still important for you to work in South Africa or could you realize these images everywhere?

The change from being a so called documentary photographer to that of an artist was a gradual and on-going process that occurred over a period of more than 25 years. Upon completion of my book Platteland in 1994 which in some way documented an aspect of the ‘poor white society’ in South Africa I began to interact with my subjects to create scenes that were both documentary and aesthetic at the same time culminating in the book Outland in 2000.

During the first few years of producing the next book Shadow Chamber my work continued in that vein; sometime in 2003 there was a drastic shift in the type of photographs I started to take. Not only did the people disappear but objects, animals and drawings came to the forefront.

The emphasis for the photographs seemed to be more focused on documenting my own interior rather than cultural aspects of South Africa. I am of the firm belief that I can now photograph anywhere in the world and produce photographs that are quite similar in essence to the ones that I am producing now in South Africa.

It is obvious that your recent images are staged. Could you describe the working process?
Are you photographing images you have had precisely in your mind before or do you react in a more spontaneously way on the surrounding?

It is almost impossible for me to explain with any objectivity how my creative process works. I believe that there are literally thousands and thousands of subconscious and conscious decisions that assist in the construction and culmination of one of my photographs.

The process of taking a photograph is never the same and I work step by step in an interactive process in the environment around me. This process always takes into account my internal sensibility as well as my long experience in working with the photographic process, in other words I am an artist and a scientist at the same time. It is not clear to me what a staged photograph ultimately means other than that the subjects were aware of the photographer or one manipulated the environment around them.

There are elements in my photographs that one could classify as staged but there are others that occur spontaneously as I take the photograph. It is quite an interesting point for me to note that I have never taken two great photographs of the same thing which comments not only on the nature of photography and time but on the fact that something spontaneously happens from moment to moment.

Most contemporary photographers who are successful in the art world work in color. Your work is here a very impressive exception. Why is it important for you to use black and white photography?

I grew up in the years where black and white images completely dominated photography and over the fifty years of involvement in this media I have developed an aesthetic sensibility that is synonymous with this format.

In other words, one cannot separate the meaning of my images from the fact that they are in black and white. I believe my work is ultimately very minimalistic in the means by which I work with elements of form; and the nature of black and white being what it is suits this approach. In a deep sense, as I will be the last generation to have grown up in a black and white dominated world, I feel a special responsibility to perpetuate this art form.

I remember our first meeting 1997 at Paris Photo. Since then you have been very successful with many exhibitions in museums and galleries. Important museums and collectors bought your prints. How did you experience the art world?

To be honest I find the art world to be very complex and difficult to understand. Art, unlike the field of geology which I have worked in for over thirty years, is very subjective and difficult to quantify. There have been endless occasions where I have read articles on a photographer’s work which in my experience bears no relationship to the image itself.

It is very baffling for me to find photographs with basic compositional mistakes hanging in the most important museums. Ultimately, I think part of the problem in the art world today lies in the fact that many of those now involved in the art world have not developed a profound understanding of aesthetics.

Is this something an artist nowadays has to accept? In other words: Do you have to play the game when you want to make your living from your photographs in the art world?

I have lived in South Africa for most of my working career as a photographer; a country that is isolated from the main stream art world. As a result, for most of the years I have been involved in this business I have not really participated in trying to understand the ‘true nature of this game.’ I have always profoundly believed that art should be a spiritual activity.

As far as I am concerned, it is impossible to predict the trends and movements of the art market and those artists who try to ‘outsmart’ ultimately prejudice the integrity of their own work. I have been fortunate to have another profession; and consequently making a living from photography was never an issue.

On your website you listed the impressive number of 14 galleries all over the world, which sell your work. Isn’t it complicated to coordinate all these dealers?

Over the years, I have been involved in a number of international businesses related to my profession as a geologist and quickly came to the conclusion that the most successful dealers or agents were those who specialized in their home territory. On numerous occasions, I found that those individuals who entered into territories outside their regions were usually ineffective and ‘overstretched’ their capabilities.

Most importantly, I like to work with professional, well organized people who are not obsessed with the marketing of my work for the next show and following such an event seem to disappear.

How did your work continue after Shadow Chamber? Can you tell us something about your plans for the future?

The last photograph in Shadow Chamber was taken in September 2004; and since then I believe that I have made significant strides in my photography. Over this time, I have hardly taken a photograph that incorporates the human face; and have concentrated in integrating aspects of painting and sculpture into my images.

Eliminating the direct human presence in my images has allowed other aspects of my work to come to the forefront. It gives me a significant amount of satisfaction to hear from many viewers that the recent images have crossed a visual boundary that they have not entered previously. I am hoping to publish my next book at the end of 2008 or early 2009.

Your recent images seem at first glance less disturbing compared with photographs from Outland or Shadow Chamber. But after a closer view one can find a similar temper, which sometimes makes me worry about you. Some of your images are like perfect visualizations of nightmares…

I am very pleased to hear from people that they find my photographs disturbing. Such a comment usually means that the images have had an impact on the viewer’s psychological make-up.

For me, one of the most important aspects of art is to change human perception and if the individual is not affected by the work his sensibility is unlikely to change. I try not to distinguish between what is commonly described as ‘light or dark.’ I see these two aspects of the human condition as being part of a greater whole.

It is clear to me without ‘the dark’ there would not be ‘the light’ and vice versa. To be perfectly honest, I think my photographs are as much about comedy as tragedy. You might describe many of the images as incorporating what is generally referred to as ‘dark humour.’

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