Roger Ballen

On April 3rd I attended Roger Ballen’s presentation for London Independent Photography’s Janet Hall Memorial Lecture.  Ballen’s work can be quite challenging as can be seen in this example, possibly his most well known image.

Image 1: Dresie and Casie, Twins, Western Transvaal, 1993

Ballen describes his work as ‘about memory and consciousness’ and he seeks out ‘enigmatic qualities and motifs’. He is quite a challenging speaker and suggested to the audience that most people do not get the ‘point’ of this image which in his mind is that  viewers ‘know’  that they are ultimately related to these people, that is what horrifies them rather than the subjects within the image.
BJP described him as:
 “doggedly searching for a photography that can expand beyond the individual elements it depicts to provide something much more abstract and introspective that approaches the gut of the human condition.” [Davies, 2012].
Ballen claims that his attention is initially often caught by small details.  For example, he stated that the curl of wire caught his eye before the policeman in image 2 below.

Image 2: Sergeant F de Bruin, Department of Prisons Employee, Orange Free State, 1992

Understandably, I think, this type of work tended to be classified as ‘documentary’, although that was not Ballen’s intent and it has taken him some time to move forward from that interpretation. In the late 1990s Ballen decided not to travel but to concentrate on Johannesburg, in his own words, he “began to think of himself as more of an artist”.  He explains further:
“I’m very much a formalist and like linking aspects of pictures – form driven not content driven.
His most recent work is more conceptual.  As his work progressed, people featured less and less and rats, birds, drawings and paintings began to appear in work that is much more surreal and disturbing, more imaginary than documentary.  He explains the disappearance of people from his images as follows:
“I’ve found that no matter how hard you try, when people look at a photograph, the first thing they go after is the face.  That’s where the meaning is centralised.  If you can pull the face out, then all other aspects of the image tend to play a greater role.  They have a more interactive relationship.  I want to say they can breath; they have their own breath.  “

Image 3: Onlookers 2010 from the Asylum series

Ballen observed that “the best pictures I take, I have no understanding of. …..What you’re seeing here is ‘Roger World’.”  He views himself as coming from a generation who learnt photography on the street and not through conceptual learning at universities.
So, what did I learn from the hour or so I spent with Roger Ballen?  On reflection, I think I learnt more about him than his work.  He has a complex and controversial view of the world and is quite combative.  His work has changed significantly over the years and, without getting into any side debates, is clearly more art than photography, in my opinion.  However, Ballen’s intensity and clarity are both characteristics that I would do well to emulate to some degree as indeed is his ability to progress and move forwards.  For example, his recent video for the group Die Antwoord, ‘I fink you freeky’  has generated nearly six million hits on YouTube at the time of writing, see

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