Zoning In. An interview with Roger Ballen.

by Robert Enright

Robert Enright: You’ve talked about being inundated by photographs as a child because your mother was an editor at Magnum.

Roger Ballen: There were all these pictures on the wall that had been given to us by various photographers, or which my mother bought. I ended up assimilating all sorts of pictures and by the time I went out to seriously take photographs, which was around the age of 18, I had some subconscious idea of the level I was aiming for. Because the Magnum photographers were at their height in those days, that was a serious level. There were photographs by David Seymour, Cartier-Bresson, Bruce Davidson and Elliot Erwitt, the whole range of well-known Magnum photographers. There was also Kertész. At the end of the day, I think Kertész had the most influence on me. I always felt his pictures got into the zone of artist and I actually started to identify that territory subconsciously. The pictures weren’t documentary. The formal qualities of the work outweighed the content.

RE: Do you think there was something inevitable about your taking pictures?

RB: It’s a good question. It raises the issue of fate. I’ve been studying mythology and whether your fate is ordained. I remember my first camera, which I got for my high school graduation, and when I started to take pictures it gave me a real sense of meaning and accomplishment. It was a feeling that I never got from anything else that I did and it separated me from the crowd. I have always been psychologically and existentially orientated, so in a way it was like a poet’s pen. It was a way of getting into myself.

RE: Was there a sense of romance attached to the notion of photography?

RB: I’ve never been a romantic. I think the Boyhood project, which dates to when I did this overland trip from Cairo to Cape Town, and from Istanbul to New Guinea between 1973 and 1977, was a romantic period in which I was trying to find my childhood. But I don’t think the psyche is full of romance. It’s a pretty brutal place and I don’t mean that in a negative way. It can be very revealing, but what you see isn’t necessarily romantic.

RE: You have said that a shadow runs through your work. Is that because a shadow runs through mankind, or is that a more particular estimation of your own sensibility?

RB: There is one photograph in Boarding House called Pathos (2005) [p. 186], and if you look at that photograph you feel the pain we all feel. Maybe the shadow is the deep pain. I never can judge. I have enough trouble figuring out what goes on in my own head, let alone trying to figure out what goes on in the heads of the six billion other people in the world! I’m reluctant to make generalizations but I would say the human race influences the shadows and the shadows tend to outweigh the sunshine.

RE: W. B. Yeats tells us that to get at the core of things, we must “lie down where all the ladders start, in that foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.” It occurs to me that some of your work has been rag-and-bone shopping?

RB: But what you find there deep down in the core is the orebody, the treasure. It’s not necessarily the bones. It can be the neutron part of the black hole where all sorts of compacted energy exists. You can’t objectify consciousness but, in a Jungian way and from a metaphoric point of view, if there is a core, that’s where it is.

RE: It’s a metaphor that makes sense, given your background. Over the last forty years you have been mining the world in one way or another.

RB: You’re right. I’ve been in a lot of underground mines and I always say that photography is like going down into the mineshaft. Each day I hope to go the next level down. But it’s one thing to get down; it’s another thing to bring to the surface what you find there.

RE: You said the years that you travelled the world after your mother’s death were the basis for everything that came later. What did you mean by that?

RB: I think my mother’s death really shaped me. I grew up in a sterilized suburban American environment and, even in the 1960s and the 1970s, we were rebelling against that antiseptic, plastic America. You didn’t have any relationship to death, and death is the most important thing in life. I had never confronted it and suddenly it was in front of me, which gave me a lot to chew on and swallow. I guess I’ve been chewing on it ever since. I would say that the period from 1982 to 1986, when I worked on the Dorpsproject, was the most important of my photographic career. It’s when I established myself. Because of the harsh sunlight in South Africa I couldn’t take any pictures outside, so physically and metaphorically I went inside.

RE: Did you know when you were doing Dorps that it was some kind of epiphany? Did it come to you suddenly or was there a gradual recognition that things were shifting when you began to work in those towns?

RB: It’s hard for me to know. There were times, with certain pictures, that I got across some sort of river and staked out my territory. I may have gotten pushed back to the other side, but at least I knew what it looked like. So with Dorps and parts of Boyhood, there were pictures that just happened to have a deeper and a more aesthetic meaning. I haven’t thought about the word epiphany in a long time, but Joyce’sDubliners was very meaningful for me when I was 17 and put certain things into place. Somehow or other it got pushed onto my photographs. For me, the decisive moment was the epiphany.

RE: Were you ever committed to being a documentarian?

RB: No. My orientation has always been myself, and so any documentation was about the existential relationship between one side of myself and the next. It was part of a larger investigation into understanding my own passage through time. What you see is me mining my own metaphors for my own existence. I think the reason why the better pictures have a timelessness about them is that they actually root themselves in the human psyche, rather than in the historical circumstances that caused them.

RE: Are they psychic mirrors? It’s as if they were self-portraits seen in a mirror?

RB: They have to be self-portraits. You can’t get away from that. But they are only pieces of the portrait, part of a puzzle that I’m a long way from completing.

RE: Is that what you mean when you say you don’t have to worry about what’s outside because everything you need is already inside? So what you find in the world is a correlative of what is already inside your own psyche?

RB: Yes. I’m transforming the visual world photographically, just trying to pierce the veil through to the inside. I have to be able to unmask a cultural veil to say something about my relationship to what is inside me and about my relationship to mankind. That gives me an epiphany. It nurtures me and gets me into an inspired state. My goal has always been to make more fundamental statements that, hopefully, have a universal life. That’s what separates good art from art that isn’t so interesting. It isn’t what a lot of contemporary art does.

RE: You talk about collaborating with your subjects.

RB: These things are all collaborations. Most of the drawings in the photographs are by the people I worked with, people who live on the margins of society. They are like the people who interested Dubuffet: the insane, the criminal, people who are suicidal, who have no money, people who have come from Congo and don’t know what to do with themselves. The drawings are integrated with other forms and aspects to create the pictures, and that is why they are complex and hard to decipher. A lot of the meanings in the pictures contradict themselves.

RE: Let me ask you about composition in your photographs. In an image like Squawk(2005), two sets of stick figures get joined together, and there are faces drawn inside what look like water stains on a wall. They mimic one another and that sense of mimicry is reflected in the feet of the two figures whose heads lie outside the frame. Finally, the chalk bird in the sky on the wall mimics the actual bird in the composition. I assume that none of this is accidental, which is to say, it is all orchestrated?

RB: That’s where photography takes off. You can’t get away from the fact that photography is about the instant. Photography tells you that time is not repeatable. If these pictures describe what consciousness believes is not repeatable, then they have more impact. I can’t tell the duck to open its mouth. These figures were moving in all sorts of ways. They orchestrated a moment and I transformed that moment. So it’s about seeing and about depicting when these forces come together. There’s no luck in it. The thing is, it’s not seeing one thing, but five hundred, or tens of thousands of little pieces. To create meaning, the conscious and the subconscious mind have to balance one thing off against the other. So it is made up of all these little parts, like cells in the human body, and they have to work hard towards coherence. The thicker, the denser, the more unified, the more coherent, and the more organic it is, the more ambiguous it is.

RE: The duck’s mouth being open goes back to Cartier-Bresson’s notion of the decisive moment. In the same way, Exhaustion (2006) [p. 188] has the fortunate accident of the open mouth and the foot above it.

RB: The most important thing in Exhaustion is the white tooth that ties in with the ears and the toes and with one or two other things in the picture. But there are thousands of little steps before you get to the point where the white tooth comes out. The mouth might open and you know that you’ve entered another zone. You have to be able to see that zone, because the mouth might close again.

RE: What is the empty boot doing there? The foot we see in the picture is too big for the boot.

RB: The boot’s there because, like everything else, it’s there. If you look anywhere in life, you see these things. What is a flower doing in a subway station? But these things make sense only if they’re formally integrated into the picture. It’s not so much a matter of content; it’s also a matter of form. I am first and foremost a formalist. I always say that the form comes before the meaning. Before I think about the picture; before I think about pushing the button, I have to feel that the thing is an organic whole, that the forms integrate in some crucial way. So if that boot is integrated, then the issue is: what does it mean?

RE: You seem to resist saying what the work means. Is that because its meaning is inherent in the viewer’s apprehension, so it’s my job rather than yours to determine the meaning of the piece?

RB: You’re talking about mirrors and the question you want answered is, “Who are you?” You’re trying to get to that core essence, and unless you’re a poet or a philosopher, there are no words for it. It’s up to you to figure out.

RE: When I look at an image like Living Room Scene (1999) [p. 189], even my perceptual compass is out of whack. I can’t tell if the woman is holding a doll or an actual baby. Your images can have a bewildering and compelling confusion about them.

RB: I take that as a major compliment. Confusion is a crucial metaphor for the human condition. We try to find a purpose in confusion but fundamentally it is just confusion. When I took that picture it didn’t occur to me whether it was a baby or a doll. It just seemed that the parts were coming together and my job was to transform that heightened energy.

RE: Let’s take your famous 1993 image of the twin brothers Dresie and Casie. You must have known when you took that picture that you had something quite remarkable?

RB: I thought they were quite remarkable, but I didn’t know whether the image captured that. The camera has its own mind, its own stomach and digestive system, and it’s not the digestive system of the human mind. It’s some sort of mechanical device that transforms light, fits it into a twodimensional image and doesn’t necessarily reflect the state of mind you’re in when you’re in the situation. I always say that the camera doesn’t have ears. People can tell me stories for the next million years and it doesn’t help me one percent with the photograph, because the photograph doesn’t have anything to do with words. I’m still stuck with visual relationships and my job is to organize them. That’s point number one. There is a moment in the photograph when you really have to leave it up to the film. The other important thing to recognize is that these moments last one five-hundredth of a second. With Outland (2001), I set the average speed of the shutter at 500 and I got eighty pictures. So the reality is that whole book was produced faster than you can blink. Each time you push the button, it’s another reality. It’s important to understand that. My long experience has taught me that when you feel too much like you’ve got it, usually you don’t. The picture is too logical. You want something to jump into a zone that you couldn’t have predicted, nor could anyone else. I can sometimes see those things happen, but whether they get manifested on the film is another story. I really do believe that when I’ve been too confident, I’ve rarely been given the reward of a good picture.

RE: If you reject the logical, does that mean your search is for the irrational?

RB: Well, if it’s rational it doesn’t do anything to the mind. That’s the trouble with most art; the mind has already seen those things. So much contemporary photography doesn’t have any effect on anyone. That’s why I believe Cartier-Bresson’s is the most important concept in the history of photography. Because it is that moment when something unpredictable happens, when the mind doesn’t have a defense mechanism that it can jump inside. You’ve got to trick the mind, like a smart virus.

RE: I wonder about the relationship that exists between the young black boy and the older white man in Tommy, Samson and a Mask (2000) [p. 262], or between the man and the maid in Northern Cape (1991), or between the Security Guard and [his]Girlfriend (1997) [p. 191]. I automatically imagine something perverse. Is that because the security guard is holding a truncheon, or because I’m assuming a sexual relationship between the maid and the man?

RB: In the earlier work, these relationships were probably more obvious. For example, the man was the son of the mayor and his father kept pushing him further and further out of town because he was having sex with the maid and that wasn’t allowed in South Africa. In that case, the picture is more documentary because there is a story. The picture with the security guard and the girl on the bed is more ambiguous. Why are they there and what is he doing? Is he really a security guard? It becomes confusing. Is he acting, is it something I told him to do? I might have, but his glasses add to the picture, and the girlfriend sat there because she thought I was taking a picture of the boyfriend. These things are all interwoven, which is why I say it’s about creating visual coherence from chaos.

RE: But the beauty of your composition and the integrated sense of the parts mitigate the chaos in the circumstances surrounding the image.

RB: You raise a very interesting point. Somebody said my pictures are diamonds but they are diamonds with charcoal and carbon inside. What’s going on in the interior of that world is breakdown and chaos, but there is affection on the formal side. You constantly have to deal with these contradictions. They cause ambiguity, which is an important part of my art.

RE: Why was the reaction so critical when Platteland (1994) was published?

RB: There were two reasons for the furor. One, the white government was in a very tenuous state at the time. It had promoted an image of itself as a good, strong manager that the blacks couldn’t live without. In the rest of the world, however, the media characterized the whites running this country as little efficient Nazis. Then I come along and portray these white people who hadn’t been given a voice by the whites or by anyone else. So the book opened up a wound, because the poor whites played an important role in South African history. From a cultural and political point of view, it was a difficult book. The timing was critical and if I were to do it now, there wouldn’t be a peep. The second thing is this: the pictures have a deeper meaning; they say something about human frailty, about our inability to control chaos, and about emotional breakdown. There’s something in these people’s eyes, their stance and the way they look that we feel in ourselves. The pictures pierced the veil and people don’t like these things to come near them. So a whole defence mechanism comes out and you blame it on somebody else. I was the target, probably because I’m an American. I was threatened, and it’s only been in the last five to seven years that the tide has changed, which has been gratifying.

RE: Access is ninety-five percent of the battle for a lot of documentary photography; once you’re there, you can get material.

RB: I think you have to have a sixth sense if you’re going to photograph people. You have to be able to make people relax or feel something about you, one way or another. If people don’t want you in their home, you better get out, especially the type of people I’ve been working with. I work on the fringes of society, where most people wouldn’t want to be. You’re not in stable conditions. It’s like being in a cage with a lion; you take it slow and are quiet and the lion has to respect you; but you also have to respect the lion.

RE: How do you react to the accusation that you were taking more than you were giving to the people you were photographing?

RB: I can look people in the eye and say this has been a two-way street. I have to live with myself at the end of the day. When people look at one of my photographs, they don’t have one tenth of an idea about what went into it. The more the picture has affected them psychologically, the more they scream exploitation. I pry open the wound and it starts to leak pus. I don’t know what more to say. But I would certainly say that ninety percent of the people in those pictures are proud they are in my books, and they would be even more proud to see their pictures hanging in a museum or gallery.

RE: Could you explain your interest in hidden figures? So many things are just not visible.

RB: It’s a good question and the answer is: I don’t know. One of the things that led me to that point is that the people were so strong that viewers couldn’t tear themselves away from their faces. The face was the thing that defined my pictures. I felt there were so many important formal qualities to the work, so many other aspects of meaning that were being overlooked.

RE: You have an image from 2007 called Intertwined [p. 192], and it occurs to me that the way you want your body of work to connect is through intertwining.

RB: You’re absolutely right. I’ve been following this ball of string as it unravels. It goes back to this issue of the core. There’s always a fingerprint in the work. Sometimes the changes that occur are subtle, sometimes they are revolutionary, but there’s always an underlying essence in an artist’s work.

RE: Have you been able to figure out what that essential quality is in your work?

RB: I think it’s this endless, existential brooding. I’m not neurotic, I’m quite accomplished and well-organized. In many ways, I’m calm and methodical. But in a deep place I’m trying to find ways of defining things. I’m 60 now and I’m in good health and I try to keep myself fit, but 60 is not 20 and my mind knows this. You can’t fool the mind and mine is brooding. I’m trying to figure out how all this happened, and what it’s all about. I always go back to these same questions and photography is the best way I’ve come up with to try to deal with these issues. It takes me further than anything else I do.

RE: Do you know more now than when you started, or has the work continued to open up questions; and is that recognition what compels you to keep going?

RB: That’s a very difficult question. I tell people that when I was a young man I had all the answers. Then during Outland (1995–2000) and Shadow Chamber (2000–2004) I had a lot of questions. Now I don’t have any answers or questions.

Article courtesy of Mois de la Photo and Robert Enright

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