“I go with a silent mind and leave with a silent mind,” says photographer Roger Ballen, attempting to distil the philosophy of his approach to making pictures. “You find a lot of people in photography trying to avoid (Henri Cartier-Bresson’s) concept of the decisive moment, but I always say that it’s the most important concept in photography. It’s the apex moment, the ultimate moment – whatever you want to call it, when things come together in such a way that there’s an authenticity to the meaning you’re trying to portray. There’s no point trying to predict that because by its very nature it’s the unpredictable and it happens fast.”
Through the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, Ballen spent time documenting marginalized people on the fringes of South African society. While this was not a completely new direction for him, the years nevertheless saw a subtle but incredibly important change begin to occur in his work. Ballen’s often disturbing photographs began to evolve from a kind of documentary to a kind of theatre, from fact to almost fiction.
A new and expanded edition of Outland, the book that resulted from this epic artistic journey is published later this month so we sat Roger Ballen down and asked him to pick a number of defining images from it and to share with us the experiences of the characters in them – many of whom he is still in regular contact with. Today’s photograph is Woman, man and dog which he took in 1995. Sadly, as Roger informed us, the woman is no longer alive. We don’t have high hopes for the dog, either.
“I think this photograph brings up an important point. You know, one of the most important things about photography is capturing the moment. The moment is really unpredictable in any real way. The best pictures tell you an important, profound thing and that is that time can’t be repeated – that no matter what happens, the past is the past and there’s no going back. So, in a way, there’s something profound about catching the moment in photography. It really tells you something about the nature of reality itself. And I think that’s one of reasons I picked a photo like this, that really catches a moment.
“You can see that moment very clearly in this photograph with the open mouth and white teeth of the woman, then there’s this shadow next to the woman and the dog. It’s interesting, people ask how these pictures occur. They’re very fluid. Things are coming in and out of the periphery of your eyes in all sorts of ways and you’re trying to figure how to compose these moving parts.
“I think the dog was running around the house or barking or doing something they were unhappy about at the time, so the man picked the dog up. And I was watching the woman and watching the dog and I’m not exactly sure but I think she started to talk to the dog and I took the picture. It happened at bullet speed – the next time I pushed the button it was a different picture again. So I think this picture, in its own way, symbolizes the importance of the moment in photography.”