Roger Ballen – Lines and Marks of the Psyche

by Peggy Sue Amison

Roger Ballen has been getting a lot of attention lately for his numerous exhibitions in many different countries. He is about to launch a new body of work, “Asylum of the Birds”, which takes his photography in a whole new direction. Peggy Sue Amison spoke with Roger recently about the launch of this new project and the changes in his practice over the years.

PSA: Your latest work is ‘Asylum of the Birds’. Can you talk a bit about it?

RB: Asylum has two main meanings in the English language; the first is a place where insanity prevails and the second describes a place of refuge. In some ways those are very opposing meanings. In ‘Asylum of the Birds’, the asylum is place where animals and people live together away from the outside world. It’s a very claustrophobic, surreal and strange place yet, at the same time, what’s going on in this place is abnormal – it comes from deeper levels of the subconscious, but I don’t equate those deeper levels with insanity.

PSA: Over the years you’ve gone from collaborating with you subjects to create photographic portraits, to now in ‘Asylum of the Birds’ working more in a way that seems to directly reflect your own psyche. Your focus seems more on making portraits of the animals, your own mark making and through this, revealing your own psyche. How did this change come about?

RB: Well you know it wasn’t something that started with this most recent body of work, it’s been an evolution to get here. What you see now is in a mature state and that took 20 – 30 years of little steps. I have an exhibition of my photographs at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington D.C. at the moment called, ‘Lines Marks and Drawings. Through the Lens of Roger Ballen’, this exhibition traces the development of how I got to where I am right now and it’s taken over 40 years.

The change really began to manifest around 2003, when I stopped making portraits of human beings in traditional ways and replaced it with more portraits of animals. People only refer to people as subjects in my work, but the animals are as much subjects as the people. One of the important things I have found in my photography is that if you have human faces in pictures, that’s where the eye of the viewer goes first and the viewer equates themselves to the faces they see. If an audience doesn’t have a human face to focus on, the picture as a whole becomes a lot more prevalent.

I really felt I had said all that I wanted to say in this way by 2003 and I began to move in this other direction; using drawing and painting, more animals and the pictures became more complex in their own way. I think that’s when I really I started to enter my own territory as an artist. If you look at my earlier work such as, Platteland, or Outland for instance, you will probably see influences from Diane Arbus to Ralph Eugene Meatyard. When you look at my work now, there really isn’t anything else like it and I feel I’ve found my own space, which is ultimately a space of my own inner being.

One also has to be careful about this in photography – people view photography as a reality that they could have come across, as an outer reality and not so much as an inner reality. This perception is much different in painting. If you make a surrealist painting, people don’t make the same assumptions, they just see it as part of the artist’s imagination – when they see a photograph they feel there is something real about that place.

PSA: You’ve mentioned before, this idea of authenticity in photography. Can you talk about the importance of this and how a sense of authenticity might reveal itself differently in the new work?

RB: When an audience looks at a photograph – they should feel that the moment existed in time, that it’s authentic. In my new work, the moment is equally authentic, but in a different way. Its not reality, but people still respond to it. The pictures are more a reality of their own inner mind, which somehow or another strikes a reality that they have buried or come across.

PSA: Do you think the mark making speaks to your audience as a different kind of visual language subconsciously than what they are accustomed to seeing in photography?

RB: Yes.

PSA: Some people are challenged by your images; those who may have very different definitions of what photography is and so they don’t like, or agree with your work. Yet, even though they disagree, or don’t understand it on one level, on another level it sticks with them in a very deep way. Obviously, they are being touched by your work. Do you think they react this way because they are interacting with your photographs in new ways?

RB: You hit a very important point there – which I came across when I made Platteland and Outland. The more the audience disliked those pictures, or talked about my work, or showed hostile sentiment to me, the deeper the work got inside them. Its almost like a piece of sand that gets inside an oyster- they are just trying to find a way to get it out of their system – my images have buried themselves inside their system and they don’t know what to do, the pictures bring up repression and hit a mark.

PSA: They continue to process it even though they don’t want to process it?

RB: Exactly.

PSA: Going back to your mark making and its language, both formally in your compositions and in terms of your development as an artist. The shift is interesting because, I don’t think you considered yourself initially as a photographer, or as an artist in the earlier part of your career, would that be correct?

RB: I didn’t consider myself, well I was sort of a photographer, it wasn’t a profession, but I didn’t consider myself an artist. That was for certain.

PSA: But you grew up in a very artistic atmosphere; your mother worked for Magnum and had a gallery, didn’t she?

RB: Yes, of course, but in those days no photographer would dare call themselves an artist – they were photographers, or serious photographers, but not artists.

PSA: And that went on for a long time though, didn’t it? Personally, I don’t remember photographers calling themselves ‘artists’ per se up until around the 1980’s.

RB: No, its started in the mid 90’s with big colour photographs – artists started to make big colour photographs and sell them into the art market, not as photographs, but as art pieces.

PSA: And when did you start to call yourself an artist?

RB: I have a very good answer for this, because it was very clear in my mind when this happened. It was about 1997 during Outland. Outland was very different from Platteland, becausePlatteland was traditional portraiture. I was placing people in their homes in a way that maybe Diane Arbus might have placed them in and during the making of Outland, I started to interact with the people in a very theatrical and absurd way.

In 1997 you would have to fill out a form when you entered into South Africa and on it you had to enter your ‘profession’. For many years I would write ‘Businessman’ because it was the easiest thing to say and I didn’t want to get into any trouble and I was, in fact, a Businessman/Geologist. Then for a while I would write Businessman/Photographer, then there was a point in 1997 when I wrote, and I will never forget it, I wrote Photographer/Artist. That’s when I started to see myself more than just as a traditional photographer.

PSA: In the early bodies of work there were marks on the walls and in the backgrounds, were those marks existing, or did you work with the subjects on their creation?

RB: No, I wasn’t actively involved in making the marks, lines and drawings until later. It was only through interacting in those places and putting subjects next to the lines, marks and drawings that they made in their own homes that I began to catch on to the fact that this was an interesting idea and became curious as to how I could expand the meaning in my work through drawing and line making, so this occurred through photographing them in their own rooms. I didn’t tell them to make the lines and the marks, I just came across them in these houses that I was visiting and this became of interest to me and put the idea into my head – it took years before I got actively involved in either asking them to make more drawings or for me to add them.

PSA: I know in your work you’re very much in control of the composition as much as you can be, but when did you take more control over the drawing?

RB: Well, I always took control over that. I’m obsessively formalistic, so even if the drawings were all over the wall, I would take control, because that was an element of the picture that had to be integrated with the next. I only started to tell people to draw, or started to expand what I saw in different places in 2003. That’s when I began to actively get involved. I would see that a drawing was nice on one side, but it needed something on the other, so I’d ask the person who was in the picture if they would draw something; a bird, or a face that looked like the one on the other side. Or I would draw something on the other side too, looking to see what would work with the rest of what was already there.

What’s important in my work, in regards to the rest of the history of photography is – and I’m not saying I know everything about this history of photography – but when you look at Brassai, for example, and you look at the history of what people did with the type of drawings that I photograph or work with now, is that most of them stopped at the pure documentation of those drawings. Brassai photographed graffiti and Aaron Siskind photographed graffiti but for me, the graffiti that is on the wall, or that I create, is just the first step to a larger photograph. In my pictures the drawing – sometimes on the wall, sometimes on the people, sometimes on the objects – are all integrated with other elements in the photograph, so the complexity of my work I feel, is much greater and is more fine art than traditional documentation in photography.

PSA: How much preparation do you take in making your work now?

RB: I never think about pictures before I get there, it doesn’t help, because I can’t predict how all the elements will come together, so I never have ideas before I go to shoot. And each picture starts in a different way – sometimes it starts with a drawing on the wall and I build things around it, sometimes it starts with the subject saying, “Look what I’m doing!” It just never comes the same way, so I can’t really generalize. Sometimes it starts with a construction or something actually happens in a place that I conceptualize and then I begin to add to it with drawing, or sculpture, or installation making, or other things to contribute to the meaning of what already exists.

Like yesterday, I worked on a picture and the last thing that came into the picture was the drawings. I had to conceptualize the composition with the people first and then added the drawing later. Maybe for the photograph I made before that, the drawing was already there and then I had to add something around it to try to integrate it.

It really never comes the same way – its always the same issues; you always have to use your imagination to make these steps there’s not just one step or ten steps there are actually thousands and thousands of steps just like in a painting, how there are thousands of marks. From the time you walk in until the time you put the final picture together there are so many steps.

PSA: I feel that you are composing more as a painter than a photographer.

RB: Yes, but its very important to see that the picture is finalized through photography. Its like a decisive moment that is completed through the momentary and that’s where my works remain photographic. I think if you take away the momentary, than the pictures do not have the same power.

PSA: Now you’re starting to include installations in some of your museum exhibitions – can you talk a little bit about that and how that came about?

RB: Well, I think it started out about 3 or 4 years ago when I had a show at Het Domein in Sittard in Holland. I was speaking to the curator in London, I remember we were talking about the show and I said, “Look, I never did this before, but I think it would be really an interesting idea for me if I came to the museum and would find things in Sittard and create an installation.” He thought it was a great idea and they had an extra room where I could do it, so I did. The installation expanded the meaning of what I do on many levels. It’s creative and I enjoy going around the place and finding things. Its sort of boring coming all the way from South Africa and only giving a talk – I don’t like to get too involved in hanging, its ok, but its not really that creative a process for me and I was interested in expanding what I do.

Since then, I’ve done about seven or eight of these installations. I’ll be making a big one in the MONA, Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart in Tasmania at the end of November. I’m quite excited about that, because they have put a lot of effort into it making the space with me and it’s a very interesting museum. MONA is really one of the most unique museums in the world I think and they are doing amazing things there.

These installations give people a more three-dimensional sense of what I do and I think it creates another reality behind the pictures. The pictures are two-dimensional, but the installations allow the audience to enter a space that has some similarity in it and that adds more depth to the experience.

PSA: You consider yourself to be one of the only photographers working solely in black and white – why have you chosen that palette?

RB: I don’t really like colour! Colour to me is like fake. It pretends to be the way my mind sees and feels, but its actually photographic colour, so it has this illusion that mimics brain colour but its photographic colour, so for me there is always this cognitive dissidence that it’s pretending its one thing when its another, so photographic colour doesn’t have the same impact on me. In painting it’s all about the imagination, so colour doesn’t pretend to be anymore than that in painting.

Black and white is minimalistic, which is like my work and its abstract, which is like my work, and its something I grew up with. I can’t separate what I do from black and white. Its part of what I’ve been involved with all these years and I don’t have any incentive to change. I mean, its not like there are 10 different avenues, as in sculpture where you can go from marble, to granite, to steel, to foam etc. In photography, its colour and black and white and that’s about it. I don’t like one and I love the other one, it fits with what I do and I keep expanding it and as long as I can keep expanding it, then I’ll stick with it because that’s important. I’m really far down the road and its interesting to be far down the road and to keep going to places that haven’t been entered by myself or others in all sorts of ways, so I really don’t want to go back to the middle of the road. I’ve been on a long journey and I like where I’ve gotten to now and I think there is still room to go further, there is no question in my mind about this.

I think about the work I will be completing over the next couple of years: there’s a project I’ve been working on which you can see in the book “Lines, Marks and Drawings”. It is a whole project I’ve completed over the last seven or eight years, and I could make the book tomorrow. Those pictures are like drawing in many ways with black and white.

PSA: You’ve gotten a lot of attention recently with, “I Fink U Freeky” the Die Antwoord music video. Will you continue to work in video?

RB: The Die Antwoord video is a music video with my work. With ‘Asylum of the Birds’, I just worked on a video – it’s not fully edited yet, but I think it’s going to be very powerful. It’s a 10 minute piece that mimics walking into the space depicted in ‘Asylum of the Birds’ and interacts with the people and the animals in that space. I think we got some good footage and I’m quite excited about this new video, I should finish by the end of the year. I don’t think I’ll ever be a video maker, but I like to use video here and there that somehow links the media with still photography.

PSA: Do you think these videos may become part of your exhibitions, as well? Will they accompany the installations and still images?

RB: I think so – I’m not really that motivated to make videos that don’t have anything to do with the still imagery.

PSA: Will you make more music videos?

RB: No, I’m not really involved in young people’s music. I don’t know if I’ll ever end up making another one.

PSA: Did the experience of working with Die Antword push you in another direction, in terms of your own work, not that you’re going to make more music videos but that you are now working with video in your practice?

RB: I saw the power of video, I mean the thing is, I don’ think I’ll ever get 40 million hits on a video again. I’ll be lucky if I get 40,000 hits, but it really showed me what’s out there and how the thirst for that type of information is much more widespread than for fine art photography. Video provides a great means of getting your artistic aesthetic out there, because the market is much greater. Its like comparing sport to museum openings; when Manchester United plays you have 80,000 people in the stadium and 8 million glued to televisions, when there is a museum opening, you’ll be lucky if you have 400 people there. The performance aspect is what makes the difference, the spectacle of it.

PSA: When I look through your work I experience your development as an artist. Do you feel photographers are developing themselves over time in the present atmosphere of digital photography and the Internet, etc.?

RB: When I grew up there were a few serious people working in the business of photography and the rest were really amateurs. Now there is such an abundance of images out there. There is really nothing else in the world that has so much surplus. You have to wade through a huge amount of images to find something of value – this is the result of the Internet and digital imagery.

You need to have life experience to be a good artist. Unless you’re an absolute genius at age 20 something, you won’t have that much to say, that’s the first thing and then secondly, you still have to develop an aesthetic over time that is unique to you, otherwise you’re just repeating what’s already been said. You are what you are, and you do what you do, and you evolve – some people evolve in interesting directions, most fall on their face.

The mind is like an immune system – if it sees the same thing more then once, it usually has no effect. Its like a virus inside of you – the viruses that make you sick are the ones that you haven’t dealt with before and it’s the same thing in photography, or art, it has to be something different, something that can get into deeper parts of people’s minds/their psyche and how do you do this? I don’t really know. There’s very little work that I see that gets to that level today. There is a lot of work that pretends it’s there, but there is very little which actually achieves it. I still really like the work from the 1930’s that was my favorite period in photography. There was simplicity and complexity at the same time.

I’ve taught workshops at colleges and its absolute insanity – a lot of the students don’t understand basic composition after studying photography for five years. Photography is too easy to do, that’s the difficulty. If you talk about making sculpture in stone – you might find in any country 10 artists who are making interesting work. Today everyone has a camera and this is the problem it’s complicated to make great photographs, its very complicated.

When you look at my pictures its very important to understand that they work because I understand photography. Its taken me 50 years to get to this point, 50 years of making images to be able to integrate drawing, photography and installation making. Someone who has been involved in photography for 6 months and buys an iPad, or a camera and thinks that they can achieve the same level of practice, well that’s impossible. You need to build the foundation first.

PSA: The subjects that you photographed in your early works you found through your profession as a geologist. Do you still collaborate with these same people?

RB: I’ve known some of these people for over 30 years, but that doesn’t mean I still necessarily collaborate with them. – They live in different places. Dorps and Platteland were made in 1982 – 1994 and taken in the South African countryside. Since 1994 I haven’t taken pictures in the South African countryside. So I don’t collaborate with those people, because I’m not working in those places anymore.

Presently I’m working in Johannesburg in a few different places for different projects. For instance, Shadow Chamber was made in the Shadow Chamber Building, its an old mine building with different rooms in it. Boarding House was made in an old warehouse building. Asylum of the Birds is in another place where I interacted with people. These places become my studio in a way, but its full of non artists who have no idea of what art means, its like Art Brut, the people could be mental patients, they could be prisoners, they could be homeless, they could be people with no money, they could people with no where else to go, people who like where they live, its just a mixture of people, they’re street people.

PSA: How to you find these places?

RB: People tell me about them – some of them I got to know about when I was working on other projects, so I went over and got to know people, but it takes a long, long, long time to develop the trust and the relationships with the people. You can’t just go in and start taking pictures. It can be treacherous if you’re not careful. There are a lot of people that are needy and not necessarily stable, so you have to take things a step at a time and get along with everybody from the most violent, to those who can’t get out of bed, you have to be able to deal with all people on all different levels and keep them calm and relaxed, otherwise you might not come out of the place.

PSA: Are you working in these places alone?

RB: No, I have an assistant.

PSA: And you’re still using flash a lot?

RB: I use flash in all my pictures, except later in Asylum of the Birds, we’re using a much bigger flash there is a lot more details. Up to 2007 – 2008 I used just a strobe attached to the camera, sometime around 2008 I started using bigger flash units because there was a lot more detail I needed to get in the drawings, it was technically the right way to go.

PSA: Have you ever had a problem with the flash? You say that some of your subjects can be unstable, has the flash ever caused any problems?

RB: You don’t pick up the camera when there is a lot of tension already – you have to get people relaxed and enjoying the situation. It has to mean something to them in one way or another; whether they like the attention, or if they know that after the picture there will be an exchange. I always try to help the people with money or food or other things.

PSA: Your way of working seems more like a conversation between you and the people you work with, rather than being the traditional idea of model and photographer.

RB: It’s like a theatre of the absurd with me being the director and sometimes they direct themselves. I will have a show at Fotografiska in Stockholm in March 2014 called, “Roger Ballen: Theatre of the Absurd” curated by Ellen K. Willis and Anette Skuggedal from PUG, the pop-up gallery in Oslo, focusing on my pictures of the absurd. It’s an important show for me, because people have never considered my work as absurdist. They have thought of my subjects as poor people, crazy people, strange, surreal, depressing or gloomy. They describe my work as depressing or gloomy because my photographs make them deal with a side they’ve repressed. I feel that the pictures that are the deepest, the ones that get there in the most effective ways are the most liberating. Often it’s more about fear of themselves, but that’s it, that’s the world we’re living in today. People can’t deal with their own psyches.


“Asylum of the Birds” will be Published by Thames & Hudson in Spring 2014.
Roger Ballern has numerous exhibitions coming up all over the world but some to note are:

  • Atlas Sztuki – Lodz, Poland
  • Festival de la Luz – Buenos Aires
  • Fotografiska – Stockholm, Sweden
  • Kunst und Kulterzentrum – Achen, Germany
  • Moscow Multimedia Center – Moscow, Russia
  • Musée Nicéphore Niépce Chalon-sur-Saône – France
  • Museum of Contemporary Art – Rome
  • Museu Oscar Niemeyter – Brazil
  • Museum Dr. Guislain – Gent, Belgium
  • MONA, Hobart Australia (on now until April 2014)

More information can be found here: http://www.rogerballen.com/exhibitions

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